Hayward cake sensation and “Food Network” winner opens first bakery

When most high school freshmen were playing Fortnite with their friends, Hayward native and Mexican-American baker Max Soto was running a thriving custom cake business. His first creation: A square red velvet cake with pink and purple buttercream for a couple’s 10th anniversary. The 14-year-old got to know them and modeled the dessert after their wedding cake.

“They’re still my customers,” says Soto, now 22. “They liked seeing a young entrepreneur doing his thing.”

But the road to pastry stardom wasn’t always sweet.

“I faced a lot of stigma when I was younger,” he says. “In school, I was told this was a job for a female, and that I should become a doctor or lawyer. That hurt a lot. But I never let it deter me.”

You might say he showed them. In 2020, at the age of 19, Soto became the youngest contestant ever to win a “Food Network” competition when he took top prize for a four-foot architectural masterpiece on “Big Time Bake.” Now, he’s just opened a brick and mortar bakery, Max’s Cakes, in downtown Hayward, selling his cookies, cupcakes, cake pops and classic layer cakes.

At age 22, Max Soto is the youngest person to win a Food Network competition and the youngest business owner — he owns Max’s Cakes — in the city of Hayward. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

At the ribbon cutting, the city honored Soto for being the youngest homegrown entrepreneur and business owner downtown Hayward has ever had.

“Being able to open in my hometown and break these boundaries and stigmas has really been the cherry on top,” Soto says.

Located inside a former ice cream shop at 1007 B St., Max’s Cakes is polished yet distinctively old-timey. The interior is decked out in hardwood floors with black accents, including a monochromatic chandelier dripping with whisks. There’s a giant picture frame for selfies, historic photos of downtown Hayward and an overall family vibe, from the party-hatted baby pictures of Soto eating cake to the gaggle of Soto relatives working the cash register.

In the pastry case, snickerdoodle and chocolate chip cookies are displayed alongside horchata cheesecake, cinnamon-scented cafe de olla cupcakes, massive brownies and brick-sized slices of coconut cream, speckled confetti, luscious lemon and burnt almond layer cakes.

“We wanted to create an old-fashioned bakery with classic recipes and feel-good food,” he says.

The “we” is his family, including mom, Monica, and dad, Mario, who co-own Max’s Cakes and have always encouraged their son. Soto announced he wanted to be a professional baker when he was 9 years old. He started taking those custom orders at 14 and grew his skills, eventually mastering everything from a two-tier vanilla “Encanto” cake with strawberry filling to cakes replicating objects, like Air Jordans, a Louis Vuitton bag and a 1964 Chevy Impala.

HAYWARD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 12: Salted caramel cake, left, brownie, hummingbird spice cake, Mexican Hot Chocolate cake, and pineapple upside-down bunt cake at Max's Cakes on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in Hayward, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Salted Caramel Cake, left, a brownie, Hummingbird Spice Cake, Pineapple Upside Down Cake and Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake are among the sweet offerings at Max’s Cakes in Hayward, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

“Any type of material I needed, any time of night, my mom would take me to Michael’s or Target, no questions asked,” he says.

The “Food Network” win and a subsequent appearance on Hulu’s “Baker’s Dozen” in 2021 fueled the custom cake business — and a two-year waiting list. On “Big Time Bake,” the producers nicknamed Soto The Cake Gangsta for his winning Roaring ’20s-themed speakeasy cake, complete with fondant money and a life-size tommy gun made of rice cereal. He got dinged on the cupcake round, though. His barrel-topped cupcake had too much whiskey.

“I was too young to taste it, unfortunately,” he says. “But the nickname stuck.”

The day he turned down 40 orders, Soto knew he had to open a bakery. It took two years to find the right location — he was determined to stay in Hayward — and get the family trained and ready to run a bakery. Soto’s best friend, Kristy, is the general manager, and his sister, Vanessa, and cousins help out, too.

“Food is such a big thing in our culture,” he says. “That’s how we show our love and get our comfort.”

Despite his early stardom and work ethic, it’s not “dessert mogul” that Soto sees in his future. It’s teaching.

“I want to teach young people how to bake and be a resource for them, so they feel supported to pursue their dreams,” he says.

Details: Opens at 11 a.m. Wednesday-Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday-Sunday at 1007 B St., Hayward; https://maxscakesofficial.wixsite.com

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