Computer Cake Decorator's Tasteful Portraits

NOW you can have your portrait done - and eat it, too. A $20,000 machine equipped with a computer and a robot arm will spray your image (in red, yellow, black, or blue food coloring; sorry, no full-color yet) onto a cake in four to 12 minutes. Cost: $3 to $8.

Ed Barth, a Kansas City real estate agent, developed the machine after his daughter told him she would have to close her bakery for lack of skilled cake decorators. Sweet Art Inc., formed three years ago, has sold the machine to 19 grocery stores and bakeries across the country.

Consumers of all ages love the photo portrait cakes, bakers say: ``Some cry, some scream, some rant and rave; they just `ooh' and `aah' over the portrait,'' says Diane Ray, store manager at Piazza Bakery in Staten Island, N.Y. One of her male customers broke down in tears when he saw the photo cake he had ordered for his elderly mother.

A videocamera scans a photo, which is then digitized and displayed on a graphics monitor. There it is sized and color-coded. At the click of a button, the photo is re-created on a pre-iced cake by the airbrush-wielding robot arm. Any image may be duplicated, and some 300 preprogrammed designs are available, in 14 colors. The arm also dispenses icing borders and such messages as ``Happy Anniversary.''

Whether the fascination will start a trend remains to be seen, but baking industry observers say the machine is much more than a novelty. Because skilled bakers and cake decorators take years to train and the labor pool is dwindling, the industry is increasingly automating. ``I would be surprised if this machine wasn't in a lot more stores in the future,'' says Marc Millstein, bakery editor at Supermarket News.

The machine still can't beat experienced cake decorators, some of whom can decorate a cake in three minutes flat. Nor can it do three-dimensional designs, though Sweet Art founder Barth is working on it.

Mr. Barth also hopes eventually to offer licensed cartoon-character images (Garfield the Cat, for instance) that could be tied in with printed party table decorations, and a computer network to send custom-decorated cakes across the country, in effect. Full-color printing is also planned.

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