Her cake-decorating skills were soon in demand among parents of other children while she was attending the University of Southern Mississippi, but she and her husband eventually left the state, and the busy life of a wife raising three girls with a full-time job soon took over.
After leaving Hattiesburg, the couple lived in Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta and Oxford, and Graham worked as a medical transcriptionist. Finally, around 2002, the family settled back into Hattiesburg life.
Slowly, she contacted her old friends and began making cakes for them and new friends she’d made.
“Cakes started overtaking our house,” she said. “Our dining room was full of cake stuff, and I said, ‘It’s time to open a business.’”
She was still working 40-plus hours as a transcriptionist and doing cakes in her spare time when she opened the “little bitty shop” on Old Highway 24.
Within a year, Tara’s Cakes outgrew that location and moved two doors down.
“By that time, I’d given up all the transcription work and just did cakes.”
But leaving her day job didn’t translate into less hours for Graham. It’s not unusual for her to work more than 70 hours between Wednesday and Saturday at the 5317 Old Highway 11, Suite 1, shop.
That time is spent fulfilling orders for the many custom birthday and wedding cakes the business specializes in. Graham will literally assemble and decorate cakes all night long as other cakes continue to bake.
“During that time, I will work all night until the sun comes up,” she said. “I’ve gone two nights straight without leaving the cake shop — and I do have three little girls.”
After seeing her 13-, 11-, and 7-year-olds onto the school bus, Graham heads to the shop, where wedding cake consultations — which can result in Graham custom designing a cake to match the bride’s gown or wedding plans — take up much of Tuesday and Wednesday.
To help ease the load and meet demand, Graham has hired two decorators, Beth Robinson and Melissa Franzen, and has made other changes.
“I have tried to cut back on the amount of cakes I do, and we’ve tried to limit pick-ups to Thursday, Friday and Saturday so we can recuperate on the weekend,” she said.
The success of Tara’s Cakes has been shown in more ways than one. The shop was named this summer in Mississippi Magazine’s Best of Mississippi as one of the state’s best bakeries and was chosen by People magazine as the state’s best wedding cake. Her creations were also shown during an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.”
Graham was bewildered at the call from People.
“I thought it was a prank,” she said. “I don’t know how they found me — except maybe through my web site.”
Those achievements have been made through long, hard hours and trial and error, Graham said, as she’s a self-taught decorator. She also pushes herself to create bigger and better cakes. For example, to create the three-dimensional cakes popular now, she acquired a new set of tools.
“My daddy said he felt really funny getting me power tools for Christmas,” she said, but in Graham’s hands, the tools resulted in three-dimensional, edible Mickey and Minnie Mouse cakes and a Mississippi State University bulldog.
“It was hard, but I’d love to do it again,” she said.
And Graham has seen her share of near-cake disasters, which is why there’s always a “back-up” cake baked and ready-to-decorate.
“I was delivering a wedding cake and someone pulled out in front of me so I had to stop really fast – I actually heard the cake flipping over,” she said. “I called everybody in to help, and we pulled it all in more than enough time.”