If there’s ever a triple-threat (or quadruple- or quintuple-threat) in the cookie world, it’s Ginny McCormick-Levack, owner of Creative Cookier and subject of this month’s Close-up. She does it all – she decorates, manufactures and sells products, runs a large Facebook cookie group, organizes all types of cookie events, and even invents! Earlier this year, her latest product innovation, Stencil Genie (pictured below), hit the cookie scene, revolutionizing methods for airbrushing. And her first large-scale cookie event sets sail (literally) on January 22, 2015 with five instructors (one of them is lucky me!) playing to a sold-out crowd aboard a cookie cruise!
In this Close-up, we’ll explore Ginny’s creative process (and juggling act) and also get a rare in-depth view into her 3-D cookie cutter operation. Hang onto your hats!
The magical Stencil Genie; a frame to secure stencils at last!
JMU: Hi, Ginny – it’s so great to have you with us! You do so many cookie things that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’m going to revert to my default, which is back at the beginning!
You mentioned to me that, prior to cookies, you owned and operated a floral and event design business with your husband Doug. How long ago – and for how long – did you do that? What did it entail? And what prompted you to close that business and launch into cookies?
GML: Thank you so much for asking me to do this Close-up. I feel so lucky to have been able to create such an amazing career in the cookie community, and I am excited to share my journey with everyone. My husband Doug and I opened our floral design and event business in 2001, just days before the September 11 attacks. The change in the economy that took place after 9/11 resulted in people cutting back drastically on extravagant purchases like floral arrangements, and we spent three years struggling to keep the storefront open before we decided to close the retail part of the business and focus on weddings and special events. While this end of the business was quite successful, the long hours on weekends and holidays took so much time away from our family that we felt we were missing out on an important part of our lives. After about 10 years in the industry, we made the decision to begin closing down that end of the business as well. Since Doug had worked full time at Texas Instruments, before and during the time we had the business, he was happy to have his free time back, but I found myself becoming quite depressed, going from one craft project to the next trying to find a new creative outlet.
JMU: Your reasons for leaving the event business really resonate with me. I closed my bakery mostly because the weekend work routine became too draining for me . . . so what was your initial foray into cookies? Did you leap straight into decorating? or product sales? or perhaps it was cookie events, given your past events experience? How did you settle on your first approach to the cookie world?
GML: My first peek into the world of cookies was when my sister-in-law Karla began decorating cookies as a hobby. About three years ago, she was going to be at my house for the holidays, and I asked her to bring some cookies and show us how to decorate them. Looking back at that request now, and knowing just what it takes to “show people how to decorate”, I realize what a gift that actually was. She made it look so easy, and those first cookies got me hooked. When the next Valentine's Day rolled around, my daughter and I hosted a cookie decorating party, and I had such a great time that I found myself baking cookies and pastries for friends and family. I felt like baking was the perfect creative outlet for me. Shortly after that, I began teaching other beginners the basics of cookie decorating, and when the Texas Cottage Food Law passed, I began to sell my pastries and cookies. From there, my cookie business began growing in leaps and bounds, but not in the way most cookiers grow their businesses.
Instead of just baking and teaching classes, I had a desire to have a “cookie event”, but I wasn’t sure just what that event should be. One day, in a passing conversation with a friend who had just returned from a scrapbooking retreat on a cruise ship, I had my light bulb-moment. There were all sorts of crafters and hobbyists who had events on cruises, and I thought, “Why not take cookie classes to sea?“ I began to research just what it would take to make that happen. It took months of research and planning before I took the leap of faith and began working with Vacations to Go and Carnival Cruise Lines to create the first-ever Cookie Cruise.
Cookie Cruise 2015 logo.
JMU: What portion of your work week is typically allotted to each of the various cookie activities that you do; i.e., how many hours do you work on event design/planning versus cookie decorating versus making cutters, etc.? Do you have a favorite activity among all of these? If so, why?
GML: I am a bona fide workaholic, so I spend more hours working on my various cookie activities than I probably should. My schedule varies greatly from week to week, depending on just what I have on the calendar. Right now, my cookie decorating for the public-time is very limited, but I love sitting down with a group of cookiers and sharing tips and techniques, so I would say that is my favorite activity.
One of Ginny's cookie gatherings; cookiers working with the Stencil Genie.
JMU: Next, what I’ve been dying to know: how on earth do you juggle all of these things? I know your husband Doug helps out with the technical aspects of your 3-D cookie cutter printing business, but do you have any other help? Or strategies for effectively juggling?
GML: Growing up, I always needed a plan for family outings and activities, and my mother would say that I should be an activities director on a cruise ship (ironic, right?). Even to this day, I am a planner. But even a planner needs help, and I am lucky to have an amazing support network to keep the Creative Cookier running smoothly. Doug is an important part of the business, and my step mom keeps our books, while my dad and my mother-in-law pack boxes, make post office runs, and help out a lot. I also have a great gal who takes care of household things and fabulous friends who pitch in with the big events.
JMU: And onto that mystical world of 3-D cookie cutter printing! It all looks so high-tech from the few images of your operation that I’ve seen (below). It’s truly a black box to me, and the name “printing” surely must be an oxymoron. After all, I don’t see anything “printed” in the cutters that come out of your machines!
So how big is the average printer, and what does it look like? Can you briefly explain in laymen’s terms how it works? For instance, what inputs are needed? How long does it take to make a single cutter? How many cutters can one machine produce in a day? Does a cutter need further processing once it comes out of the machine, or does it exit in a ready-to-ship state?
GML: I am not sure what tech geek came up with the name "3-D printer", but it really isn’t the best name for these machines. Some people are under the impression that you put in a picture and out comes a usable cutter much like your home printer you use every day. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Uh, yeah, that's what I kinda sorta thought!] While that may someday be the case, right now that is just not where 3-D printing is in the cookie cutter world!
Our printers are about the size of your home microwave oven and look like nothing I can really explain, so I will include a photo!
Ginny's 3-D Printers.
These machines take information off of a memory card loaded up with the specifications to create the object desired. The best way I can explain it is to say that large spools of plastic that look like thick fishing line feed into the machine through long tubes that direct the plastic through a heating element to bring it to a fluid state; then the plastic is pushed out through a tiny nozzle. The nozzle maneuvers over a glass plate, spewing out the hot plastic in a web-like stream that builds up layers upon layers of plastic in the shape of the item requested. Just think of the nozzle on the end of a glue gun with a never-ending glue stick.
The process is actually quite slower than most of us would think. While a small simple 1-inch round cutter may only take about 20 minutes to print, just one of our 3 1/2-inch Lucy Letters with its arcs and curves can take up to two hours to print - and it takes three hours to print the components to make just one Stencil Genie! That’s why it takes nine of these machines working almost day and night to keep up with our customers' requests!
Most cutters coming off the machine require a little clean up to remove the fine threads of plastic that sometimes remain where the project begins and ends.
JMU: Wow! Fascinating! Visiting your 3-D printing operation would make such a cool cookie field trip. If it can't been done in person, I'd love to set up a virtual one with you here on Cookie Connection one day. Maybe a Google Hangout? Anyway, another thing to add to the myriad projects on your plate . . .
I can’t imagine that just anyone can jump into the 3-D cutter printing business, right? How did you get started down this path? Are the machines super expensive? Do they require specialized technical expertise to maintain? Basically, what’s required to run a successful 3-D cutter business?
GML: I would have never tried to do this without the technical expertise of my husband. Doug has worked with specialized equipment for his entire career, and he is familiar and comfortable with working on and maintaining these machines. A person without this experience may find that his/her machines need to be sent in for repairs and service that is routinely needed when using them in production mode. While the cost of these machines is slowly coming down, you can expect to pay anywhere from one to three thousand dollars for a machine capable of production work for a small business. In addition to the machine maintenance knowledge, you must also have a good working understanding of 3-D computer-assisted design software.
JMU: Where in the world do you house these machines? If in your home, how do you keep them (and your business) from overwhelming your personal life? I ask, because I’ve always had more “life balance” challenges when I’ve worked out of the house. It’s just been tougher for me to draw a clear line between work and home, and the start and end of my work day. Plus, my husband finds all of my accumulating cookie stuff (and talk) a bit much at times. I’m wondering if the same is true for you.
GML: When we moved to our new house, Doug built a small cookier studio (picture below) for me, just steps away from our back door, and that is now the home for the printers. It is nice to have them in a separate building so that we don’t have to listen to what I call “the little monsters chattering” as they run.
Ginny's cookier studio aka 3-D printer house.
JMU: One last cutter question: how do you come up with new and original designs? I see you sometimes collaborate with cookie designers. Is this something you do routinely to generate new ideas, or is it more the exception rather than the rule?
GML: I see cookie cutter ideas and inspiration everywhere. I find myself scrutinizing fabric swatches, flipping through magazines, and eyeing everyday items, antiques, and architecture with the thought in mind that maybe there is a cutter design hiding in there. I have also found many cookiers with amazing cutter ideas bouncing around in their heads, and I have been lucky enough to work with some of them to bring those cutters to life for them and other cookiers! I would say those collaborations now make up the bulk of the cutters we are producing.
JMU: You seem to have no shortage of cool ideas. Just take Stencil Genie as an example! [EDITOR'S NOTE: For those of you not familiar with the product, it’s basically a stencil stabilizing frame that makes stenciling a lot less hit or miss. I encourage you to see it in action in the video below! Ginny also has four or five other videos on her YouTube channel that show it being used with royal icing and in other ways.]
So some more questions about innovation . . . How did you go about developing this truly out-of-the-box new product? Did you systematically “survey” the market to identify unmet needs, or was it more of a gut feeling kind of thing? Was there a formal testing and evaluation process before you brought it to market?
GML: I had a love-hate relationship with stenciling. I would order countless stencils and then never use them because I had such a hard time getting a clean image. I tried all of the ideas and contraptions out there: embroidery hoops, magnets being stacked and re-stacked on cookie sheets, and even something made out of popsicle sticks that ended up a dirty, uncleanable mess.
One day in my frustration, I decided I needed to come up with a solution, and I went over all the good and bad things about the previous ideas, drew up the first Stencil Genie design, and took it to Doug to create on our printers.
The first time I used it, I knew I had hit on something. But I wasn’t sure others would share my enthusiasm, so I showed it to a friend and confidante I could trust who was also a cookier. Her response was that I had come up with something that would revolutionize stenciling and that I needed to start offering them to others ASAP. However, ASAP took a little longer than I had expected because I knew that, IF it caught on, I needed to have a patent on it.
So began the tedious task of first applying for a patent-pending status and then the arduous and pricey journey to receive a patent. During this time, I was also testing the Genie with cookiers I knew, again with the same response my friend had given me. On August 23 of this year, patent pending in hand and the patent process well underway, I listed the first Stencil Genie on my site. I told Doug not to make too many because I might only sell 30 or so, and I didn’t want him to waste time on the printers! That same day, my friend Tammy Colitti created a very short video, using the Genie I had given her, and posted it on a social network group for cookiers. Within minutes of her posting the video, my life in the cookie world changed forever.
The video went viral and was being shared on cookier pages across the web. Within a couple of hours, I had sold several Stencil Genies and, by that evening, the orders were coming in so fast that my shopping cart software couldn't handle them all. Doug had to take a week off work just for us to keep up with the orders. Family members and friends came, brought groceries, and helped pack boxes as my living room transformed into a shipping area, and Doug and I slept in 90-minute spurts so we could keep the printers running 24 hours a day to fulfill all of the orders. I was so nervous as we started shipping them, thinking to myself, “What if all of these people hate them and I have invested all of this time and money for nothing?” But then, almost as soon as customers got them in the mail, I started getting emails and messages saying just how much they loved the Genie!
Today, just a few short months later, the Genie is still growing in popularity with new users posting videos and testimonials almost daily to Instagram, Facebook, blogs, and more. Our sales continue to grow.
Stencil Genie parts; the stencil is secured between two magnetic pink frames.
JMU: Such a wonderful story of innovation! I am very happy for you - and grateful that there are people out there like you who are willing to take financial and other risks to benefit the greater cookie good! I believe that taking chances is what really advances collective growth and learning.
Cookie Cruise in January is an innovation in its own right, too. Sure, there have been other big cookie events, but I can’t think of a single one on a boat. Prepping for an event on land is hard enough, so why did you opt to take yours to sea?
GML: I have never been one to be deterred by the fact that something may not be doable simply because it has not been done. I was determined to do whatever it took to make this event a reality.
JMU: Well, your courage and drive are pretty clear from all of the new things you've taken on lately!
How will Cookie Cruise be similar to or different than other large cookie events, like CookieCon and the recent Cookie’sCool in Italy?
GML: Since CookieCon is, in my book, the Holy Grail of cookier events, I would never dare to come up with something to compete with it. My goal was to create a small, intimate event limited to only about 50 or so attendees, so that more time could be spent by each attendee learning hands-on with some of the best cookiers in the cookie community. Cookie Cruise 2015 in January will have Pam Sneed of CookieCrazie, with the assistance of Cristin Sohm of Cristin's Cookies, sharing glaze techniques as the attendees put together a one-of-a-kind cookie “quilt”. Night owls will get to spend time with the talented Monica Holbert of the Cookie Cowgirl as she teaches her techniques used to create her amazing cookies that rocked the house at CookieCon this year. And Cookie Connection's own Julia Usher will be headlining the cruise (as you know!), bringing one of her fabulous cookie box projects to life in the hands of the attendees. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I can't wait!]
For those who don’t want to go into port, they can come into the classroom for open decorating time with me and Tammy of 2T's Stencils. We will also have ongoing airbrushing demos by Shannon of Artfully Designed Creations, and one of Florida’s top interior designers, Janine Edwards, will be on hand to help out at our color station, giving tips on the upcoming color trends for 2015. It is a cruise that’s sure to be packed FULL of cookie fun and friendship!
JMU: It sure sounds like it! I'll say it again - I can't wait!
What unique challenges does the boat environment present when planning an event like yours? How have you dealt with them?
GML: The biggest challenge with this event is the logistics of getting all of the supplies on board. Once we are sea, there is no store if we run out of something, so we are trying to bring on everything but the kitchen sink. That means: 8-quart mixers, extra bowls, whisks and paddle attachments, over 100 pounds of powdered sugar, meringue powder, 1,000 cookies, and ALL of the decorating tools needed to complete the projects have to get on board in just a few short hours. Not to mention the swag bags and prizes that have been donated by some of our favorite vendors in the cookie community! It has taken countless emails, phone conversations, meetings with the on-board staff, and even a VIP tour of the ship to make sure things go smoothly.
I do anticipate that this first cruise will have a challenge or two to overcome, but I have such a great group of professionals, all dedicated to making it work, that I am comfortable in knowing we will be able to pull together, go with the flow, and have a great time.
JMU: You do a number of other “cookie retreats” and classes too, right? How often do you do them? How are they similar to or different than Cookie Cruise?
GML: I try to do cookie classes as often as my schedule will allow. In 2015, in addition to the cruise, I am pairing up with my friend Tammy of 2T's Stencils to bring Cookie Rehab Retreats to cookiers in different areas of the United States. Our first retreat will be held in a gorgeous eight-bedroom home just outside of Orlando, Florida. Nine cookiers, Tammy, and myself will spend a long weekend baking, decorating, and relaxing in this fabulous home, complete with media room, pool table, and a private pool and spa. We are still working out the details for other cities and will be announcing those as the year begins.
JMU: And my perennial last question: What’s next for you on the cookie horizon? Do you have a new innovation up your sleeve?
GML: I do have a little something up my sleeve. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Of course, I wouldn't have expected anything less!] In addition to Cookie Cruise and the Cookie Rehab Retreats, I just kicked off a Cookie Cutter Club membership. Four times a year, members will receive exclusive Creative Cookier cutters - and stencils to go with them designed by 2T's. The other eight months of the year, they will get surprise cookier packages with goodies from cookie suppliers and vendors!
We kicked off the club by limiting it to just 25 memberships, which sold out in an amazing 12 minutes! We hope to open it up to more members once we get it rolling smoothly! And I am always thinking up a new hare-brained idea, so you just never know what may come out next!
Thanks so much to all of the cookiers out there who have made this fabulous journey happen for me. I truly value each and every one of them because, without all of their support, I would never be here talking to you all today.
Peace, love, and cookies to you all!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: And on that festive note, we'll go out with a picture of one of Ginny's lovely holiday cookies . . .]
Festive cookie sleigh by Ginny.
All cookies and photos by Ginny McCormick-Levack of Creative Cookier.
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!