Robert Lucas works for an IT company in a small college town, Statesboro, in Georgia. He's been going to the office throughout the pandemic, and then he works out. After that, his second life begins.
Lucas is a TikTok baking star with over 1.2 million followers.
"I kept (my two lives) separate," he told me recently over the phone. "A lot of people in my personal life didn't even know. I can be a little timid and shy. Online I don't mind (engaging), but in person I was like, I don't want y'all to know because I don't know how this is going to go. But I'm proud now."
And Lucas has a lot to be proud of. He is entirely self-taught with no artistic background.
"In June of 2019, I made the very first cake as just a one-time thing, for my little niece's birthday," he said. "I saw a picture of a cake that inspired me and I had no reason to bake a cake. So I used her birthday as an excuse to make it, just because I was bored."
The cake was a hit with his family — and so was his subsequent Facebook post. "I got a lot of good feedback on it when I posted it to my personal account so I figured, why not keep going with this?"
Thus began his journey as @thesweetimpact, a cake boss to rival Buddy Valastro.
"I looked at different videos online, and I taught myself from those and reading in my spare time outside of work," he said. That spare time is growing more limited by the day, as his cake creations get more elaborate and his follower count ticks up.
When asked how he has time for all of this, he said with a laugh, "I don't." After work and the gym, "whatever time I have left in the day is what I dedicate to the cakes. Those videos that I post, in reality they are made at like two in the morning."
When Lucas saw a sponsored post on TikTok about an incubator program for Black creatives, he applied immediately and got in. "They have been very helpful if you're trying to break into the industry, with things you should know about how to find your brand and improve your account," he said.
But over the course of our conversation, the main thing I was struck by was Robert's ability to figure things out as he goes along, like the time he saw a video of a Nike shoe cake and wanted to try his hand at making Jordans.
"I saw what they were doing and to go from there, I'll just use common sense," he said. "I'll look at what they did and see where I could do it a little better. I want the end product to look as good as possible."
If it wasn't obvious from his videos, he's a low-key perfectionist. Have I mentioned this guy never makes the same cake twice?
"When I post a video of a cake it's the first time I tried making it. I don't have a lot of time, and I just like to have fun," said Lucas. "I don't even sketch ahead of time; I just have the idea in my mind of what the final product will look like, maybe a design idea and a color scheme, and I go with it. I believe everyone wants to see something different each time."
That means bloopers are par for the course, but they've quickly become a signature element of his videos — unlike a lot of his fellow creators, Robert doesn't edit out his mistakes.
"I don't always make mistakes, but if I do, I'm honest about it and I make sure to leave it in. I think people like that because they feel like they can relate," he said. He also wants to set an example for other aspiring creators who now come to him for advice. "I just want them to see that you don't have to do things perfectly."
For his many fans, his mesmerizing cake videos are almost as satisfying as a slice of the real thing. It's the kind of content that sucks you in for half an hour at a time and leaves you marveling at what's possible with butter, sugar and a vivid imagination. But even he is still surprised sometimes at which videos do the best.
"With the red velvet Christmas cake, I was not sure why that one did so well because at the time there were cakes that I had done that were more advanced in technique or I thought the designs were cooler. But the design of this cake was the most 'me,' and that just resonated more."
That video earned him nearly 5 million hearts and counting. But don't think the fame is going to his head: Lucas is still the same guy he was when he was keeping a sweet secret. "When I post these things I'm scared to look at the comments," he said. "I guess that's the shy part of me; it's always nerve-wracking, because I'm proud of what I've done but you never know how people will receive it."
Lucas doesn't sell his cakes, so the closest I could get to a @thesweetimpact experience was trying to recreate one of his. I'm an enthusiastic home baker, so I picked one of his easier-looking creations and got to work, thinking, "How hard could it be?" I went for his strawberry lemonade cake, which involves a strawberry compote purée. He told me to cook down the berries with lemon juice and sugar until the mixture was spreadable but not too thick. "It's actually a very easy thing to make," he promised.
Well, I wouldn't call it "easy," but I tried to channel his can-do attitude as I baked buttermilk cake layers, pureed the strawberry compote and whipped up a tangy cream cheese frosting. I watched his video over and over as I assembled all the elements without any special equipment, and came up with a sort of sloppy pink blob that was decorated vaguely like Lucas' masterpiece. I was comforted by the fact that he says he sees a drastic difference when he looks at the first TikTok videos he made compared to what he's putting out now. Everyone's gotta start somewhere, right?
My cake was absolutely enormous, so I ran around Brooklyn and Manhattan distributing slices to friends and family, which did not help its aesthetics at all. The thing is, most people are pumped when you present them with free homemade cake, no matter what it looks like. At this point, Lucas' lucky IT co-workers expect a cake a week. The days when they didn't know about his kitchen talents are long gone.
"I think they like it," he said with a smile.