Jill Phillips has been running one business quite successfully for decades. Last October, a twist of fate left her in charge of a second larger company as well.
Phillips has owned Jill’s Cake Creations since 1979, located since 1998 on Bouquet Canyon Road.
When proponents of creating the city that became Santa Clarita were raising money back in the mid-’80s, Phillips crafted an oak-tree shaped cake for a fundraiser.
When Magic Johnson celebrated his 33rd birthday at Magic Mountain in 1992, she created a large cake iced in Lakers purple for the occasion. The project was top secret, but her son who worked at the amusement park caught wind of who was coming.
“Do you know who that’s for?” he asked. She did, and told him he wasn’t supposed to.
The cake was so large she decided the candles looked too small, out of scale. So she improvised, melting candles together. What she didn’t know, and learned that August afternoon, is that’s how to make a homemade version of candles that will resist even an NBA standout’s efforts to blow them out. Once Johnson had taken the ceremonial first slice, Phillips quietly snuffed the candles.
The cake appears, candles ablaze, onscreen for a few seconds in “The Announcement,” a 2012 documentary marking the 20th anniversary of Johnson telling the world he was HIV positive.
Over the years, Phillips has made thousands of cakes, yet never considered herself a chef. “I’m a decorator,” she said. “I started with cakes so I would have something to decorate.”
Though it wasn’t as lucrative as some people thought, she enjoyed it. “In the good old days, the cake business supported my three boys and me,” Phillips said. “I like working with my brides,” helping them through one part of the wedding planning process.
In 2005, Phillips married Russ Cox, years after their lives had drifted apart, then back together. He owned Comfort Control Corp., a heating and air conditioning company on Constellation Road. He wooed her by being patient and helpful, offering to help deliver cakes on the weekends.
They built a life together, blended family style, with seven children and ten grandchildren.
Then, after a long bout with cancer, Cox died last October. His business partner, George Pershan, runs the company day-to-day. Pershan “has the same values as Russ, and worked with him for fifteen years,” she said. But Cox owned the company, which means that Phillips owns it now.
Jill’s Cake Creations has five employees and revenues of about $300,000 a year. Comfort Control has 26 employees with revenue of more than $1 million.
They’re very different businesses, but some lessons cross over. “I was interviewing someone for a job at Comfort Control, and asked if they would be nervous delivering a large cake.” The right answer is they should be, and be willing to admit it.
Along with dropping the company’s key product, another occupational hazard is rear-end collisions. “We drive slow, and not everybody around here does.”
Over the years, the cake business has changed. Taste in frosting swings between buttercream and fondant, which is more dough-like, and is rolled and applied. Gluten-free cakes now exist.
Competition has grown, especially since AB 1616, the California Homemade Food Act, also known as the cottage industry bill, became law in 2013. It allows homemade food producers to sell to consumers, so “anybody who watches the cooking shows and has an oven can go into business,” Phillips said. “Of course, they’re usually not paying worker’s comp, or rent.”
Phillips would like to hand off some her administrative work so she can spend more time with her grandchildren, who range in age from 21 to five. She is intent on honoring her husband’s memory by doing right by his company.
In the meantime, the cake business continues to have its fun parts. Phillips served as cake consultant earlier this year on an ABC pilot, “Losing It.” Natalie Morales, familiar to viewers of “Santa Clarita Diet” as police officer Anne Garcia, plays the owner of a cake shop at the other end of the success spectrum from Jill’s. The fictional store goes bankrupt, and Morales’ character has to work from home. Phillips made sure the set reflected cake-baking reality.