Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Event attendees look at locally made cakes before they are judged by Duff Goldman, television's "Ace of Cakes," at the Formal Affair bridal fair on Sunday. The event at the Chattanooga Convention Center was sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Casey Powell found more than an education while attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
When a boy asked her out for a cup of coffee, she found love. When he introduced her to his brother's future fiancee, she found a best friend. And when that boy took her out in the fields of his family's farm, hunting with metal detectors for a "lost set of keys," she found a soon-to-be husband.
"He had put the ring in the grass and told me, 'Look over there,'" Powell said. "He was creative."
Sunday afternoon, Powell and her future sister-in-law, Stephanie French, were on a different kind of hunt, ditching the metal detectors for food and flower samples at the Formal Affair bridal show sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"It definitely helps you get ideas," said Powell, who just started planning her Dec. 8 wedding.
The two were among a crowd of more than 2,000 brides-to-be, their trusted assistants and even a few future grooms filling the Chattanooga Convention Center as they walked through about 130 vendor booths.
Vendors were on their feet all day, most talking with throngs of excited wedding planners from the event's start to end.
Duff Goldman, the man behind the elaborate cakes on Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," offered advice to brides-to-be and aspiring bakers.
Brides: "Don't freak out. At the end of the day it's a party, you're married and then you get to go on vacation. If the cake falls over, just laugh."
Bakers: "The biggest thing is you have to believe in what you're doing. You have to make sure that you are providing the absolute best that you can."
"I'm already getting hoarse," said Sonya Reagor, owner of Chattanooga Cupcakes, as she passed out tiny cupcakes to eager passers-by. She'd baked and frosted about 1,350 cupcakes for the event, but most were gone before the expo was half over.
Reagor said whether it's cupcakes, tuxedos or DJs, the key to standing out in a sea of similar vendors is offering something no one else has.
"Our samples are something unusual," she said. "People seem very interested that you have something different."
It seemed no vendor learned that lesson better than Toni Repko, owner of local Sweet Angel Cakes. The creative design and tasty flavor of one of her cakes allowed her to beat out competing bakeries and claim first place in the premiere Chattanooga Cake Ace competition.
Repko and her team spent nearly two months designing, sculpting and baking their tasty tribute to the Scenic City. She could hardly contain her excitement as her young daughter danced around chanting, "Mama got first place."
Chattanooga's top cake creator is proud of her title but said she's far from finished learning about cakes.
"All of us cake people were hanging out," she said. "Just by talking to them, I learned some techniques."
That seems to be the strategy for great pastry chefs.
Duff Goldman, the man behind the elaborate cakes in Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," was on hand to judge the works of edible art.
He said one of the best parts of being a judge is discovering innovative techniques that he can apply to his own works.
"The thing I love about a cake contest like this here in Chattanooga ... I love seeing the fact that I might have had something to do with the fact that somebody might have put a light or a motor in their cake."
Goldman said his biggest hope is that cake makers he inspires change baking from an individual to a family activity.
"All of a sudden, Timmy's having an awesome birthday, Timmy's mom is going wacky with the cake and Timmy's dad is helping decorate it," he said. "If that's the legacy I'm left, cool. That's about as good as it gets."