If you weren’t able to attend our wonderfully lively chat with this month’s interviewee, Amy Clough of Clough’D 9 Cookies, then you’re in luck because we’re going way beyond that chat here . . . with one exception, that is. Today, we won’t have the added bene of having Amy’s husband Mike, aka @The Cookie Widower, with us, as we did on the chat. Though, maybe if we cross our fingers or, better yet, express-mail him some cookies, he’ll surprise us by interjecting here when questions turn to the design and build-out of Amy’s bakery!
For background on Amy, I encourage you to read the complete chat transcript and Amy’s bio here, but, in a nutshell, Amy lives in Preston, Maryland, USA with Mike and her two kids, and has been decorating cookies since fall 2011. In 2013, when Amy’s cookie business started to take off, she gave up her full-time job as a science teacher to dedicate herself to her cookie craft. That same year, Mike designed and oversaw the construction of Amy’s at-home bakery, pictured below, which is fully compliant with Maryland’s food service facility laws. Amy also taught at CookieCon 2017, where her presentation focused on accessible, yet eye-catching cookie texturing techniques, such as fabric, hammered, and sponged effects. (BTW, to see what Amy means by "hammered", scroll on down to her bunny cookie, pictured toward the end of this post.)
JMU: Hi, Amy! It’s great to have you back with us today. Thanks for taking the time to answer more of my questions! Let’s jump right in and pick up with some topics that we started in your chat, beginning first with your cookie business.
Pricing is the perennial problem for all cookiers, as our work is so labor-intensive and customers sometimes don’t appreciate this fact. Judging from Mike’s “Just Cookies” post to your blog, it looks like you haven’t been immune from pricing pushback either. Can you tell us how your cookies are priced, and how you went about setting those prices to ensure profitability? And what do you say to customers when they nickel-and-dime you or question the price of your work?
AC: When pricing my cookies, I needed to consider cookie prices regionally and on Etsy. I also looked at comparable product prices (i.e., cupcakes) found locally. I had to factor in my local economy (small, rural town) in which my product is unique. Right now, my cookie prices are at least $10 more per dozen than where I started. Because I am experiencing high cookie demand, I know that I need to start the re-pricing process again. Fortunately, I rarely have pushback regarding cookie prices. If I do have complaints regarding the price, I encourage the individual to look on Etsy to compare.
JMU: When I had my shop eons ago, one of my biggest issues was managing variable and seasonal demand for my work, which often involved staffing up and down. It always seemed to be feast or famine for me. Have you experienced the same vicissitudes in your business, and how do you handle them? Or is your volume pretty steady? And, as a corollary question: what’s your average cookie volume per week?
AC: I have found that I do not have any slow time during the year. Every month, there is at least one holiday or event that is “cookie-worthy”. With that said, I probably turn away as many orders as I accept. Because I don’t work as quickly as other cookiers and my cookies tend to be detailed, I usually take on no more than 12 to 15 dozen per week. Due to the laws within my county, I cannot hire an employee to help me. (I am under a “home occupation” statute where I can be the only worker.) Truthfully, I am not sure if I would want someone baking or decorating with me, as I am so particular in how I want things. An extra set of hands would be helpful in packaging, but I seem to manage.
JMU: It's sounds like you've worked out the ideal workload for you! When you decided to expand your cookie business in 2013, can you tell us why you decided to build an at-home bakery rather than rent or buy space elsewhere? What factors went into making this decision? (Pssst, everyone: there are more pictures of the inside of Amy's kitchen below.)
AC: The first reason why Mike and I decided to build our own commercial kitchen was because Maryland’s cottage law at the time was restrictive. Sales could only be made at farmers' markets and public events, with no online sales or shipping. If the cookies were made in a licensed commercial kitchen, I could sell anywhere or at any time I wished and ship cookies throughout the United States. We chose to build the kitchen on our property because it would allow me to work from home whenever I wanted. I wouldn’t have to juggle my time around others using the same commercial space, and I would still be available to my family. Plus, we knew that I would outright own the space within a relatively short time frame, and not have to pay rent forever. If I give up the cookie gig, the kitchen space can be turned into a great man cave or office for Mike. (He shouldn’t get his hopes up, though .)
JMU: As you mentioned in your chat, your husband Mike was the force behind the design and build-out of your at-home bakery. What’s his day job, and how on earth did you coerce him into doing that? And, on a more serious note: what was his (or your) biggest challenge in bringing that space to fruition?
AC: Mike is in sales, and has his MBA (Masters of Business Administration). In addition to making all the calls and taking the in-person meetings with the health and zoning departments and local banks, he wrote my business plan.
MC: I work in manufacturing sales in the construction industry. No coercion was necessary to build the kitchen. It was no secret that decorating cookies made Amy super happy. I, as her husband, felt a lot more comfortable with her being in her own shop 25 feet away than in town in the middle of the night by herself. The biggest challenge we faced (besides financial, the shop is/was expensive) was learning what codes and regulations applied. Our business is not cut and dry. If we were opening a restaurant, easy. A full-blown bakery, easy. But a custom kitchen? No one had cookie cutter-answers (pun intended). Additionally, it was challenging to figure out what Amy would need as far as equipment, and then how much space she would need to accommodate it. We ended up with a 16 x 16-foot building and, through some trial and error, a floor plan that is efficient and effective.
JMU: Yay - I was hoping we could entice Mike to join us! Thank you both for that team answer! Amy, what top three tips would you and Mike give to cookiers who are considering building their own cookie space?
- Figure out what you REALLY need, and what you don’t. Think of it in terms of needs versus wants. Understand what your budget is.
- Study the local and state regulations in your area. Get to know the people in your local building and health departments. We are fortunate to live in the country where the people are friendly and willing to help. So let them!
- Find a builder you trust. If it’s a kitchen like ours, a home builder will do the trick. Ours is like a tiny house, so the transition is easy. If it’s a true commercial space, and commercial zoning applies, that’s much more complicated, i.e., expensive and time-consuming.
JMU: Do you have any regrets with respect to the build-out of that space, or anything that, in retrospect, you wish you had designed or done differently, and why?
AC: I wish we made the space bigger with more storage. I didn’t factor in the space needed to store shipping supplies, so those supplies are also stored in the main house.
MC: There is no big screen TV or massage chair. Bummer.
JMU: LOL, I knew we could count on Mike for a little comic relief! But back to the serious stuff . . . What’s currently your biggest challenge in operating your cookie business, and how are you working to overcome it?
AC: My biggest challenge is trying not to overbook myself. I have quickly learned how to say NO and pass on order requests. I have learned that I don’t function well on lack of sleep, as the quality of my work decreases. In addition, juggling cookie life and family life is tough. My kids understand that my cookie work is my job, and they respect that.
MC: Amy is an artist. She loves creating and expressing. She’s not a huge fan of paperwork.
JMU: Yes, she is an artist, so it's time I get sharing more of her cookie art here - like the set above, which just screams Maryland! But, if I may, I've got one last business-y question for you two . . . Do you ever have any aspirations to transition from your at-home bakery into a space outside of the home? Why or why not? If so, what are your dreams for that space?
AC: I have zero aspirations to go into a retail space. I already feel like I don’t see my family some days, and I know that a retail space would make my home life completely fall apart (as would my sanity). I like the flexibility my little kitchen gives me.
MC: If she becomes a confection magnate, I would negotiate coming to work for her full time.
JMU: I would too - I could use the extra income! Onto some CookieCon questions! Amy, you mentioned in your chat that you hadn’t taught cookie classes before CookieCon, so how did you go about preparing for that teaching feat? And, lest anyone doubt the effort required, it truly is a feat given the large number of classes (seven or eight, right?) that instructors teach in a day, with a minimum of break time in between. Did your past job as a science teacher help you in any way? If so, how?
AC: My past life as a science teacher completely prepared me for my CookieCon classes. As a science teacher, I would teach the same general lesson four to seven times per day depending on the schedule. So the transition to teaching cookies was an easy one! I felt very much at home. I relied upon my PowerPoint skills and assembled a thorough and organized presentation.
MC: She failed to mention the amazing job I did as stencil washer, PowerPoint re-setter, and coffee-getter.
JMU: Gosh, I am so sorry to have missed your presentation, as I've heard so many wonderful things about it! I would have gladly helped Mike with the stencil washing just to learn the stenciling techniques you used above. What was your greatest reward in teaching at CookieCon? Conversely, what was your greatest challenge, and how did you overcome it?
AC: My greatest reward in teaching at CookieCon has been seeing the techniques I taught being used. I am so thrilled when someone tags me on social media to show what they’ve done. I love it! My greatest challenge was narrowing down my presentation. I could have easily talked another hour!
MC: Her greatest challenge was keeping me quiet during her presentation.
JMU: Tee hee! I imagine that might have been a challenge, Mike! Amy, you also mentioned in your chat that, since doing your CookieCon classes, you’re considering teaching more cookie classes. How do you envision those classes taking shape? Would you offer them out of your bakery? Or would you travel to other venues to teach? What topics would you teach and how often?
AC: I was recently invited to teach at a Cookie Rehab in Cape May, New Jersey, organized by @Creative Cookier. This was my first step-by-step cookie instructing, and it was fun! I would love to try some basic or introductory cookie classes locally. Due to insurance regulations, I cannot hold the cookie classes at my home. However, I would love to do in-home classes, where I would instruct at the client’s home with his/her guests. Think about those wine and paint parties, but with cookies! How fun would that be! Plus, the mess would be at the client’s house - not mine .
JMU: Absolutely - one must dodge cookie cleanup at whatever cost! Based on your teaching experience at CookieCon (and also your past experience as a science teacher), what top three tips would you give to cookiers who are aspiring to teach at CookieCon or elsewhere?
- Be active on social media. People need to see you and what you’re capable of creating.
- Talk to someone who holds classes regularly. Ask lots of questions to get a feel for what it’s like.
- Try to hold a small and informal cookie class with a friend or two. Make it simple, and be open to any constructive criticism they may provide.
JMU: Great tips! Thanks! So, you’re clearly a veteran who’s been around the cookie block a few times, and witnessed the cookie industry take off over the last several years. So let’s talk trends for a bit! What do you see as the biggest emerging cookie trend right now, be it related to techniques, the business of cookies, or anything else? And what do you think are the underlying drivers of this trend?
AC: I think there is an influx of people making decorated cookies overall. As much I enjoy watching cookie decorating videos, I can see how they might be misleading to the general public, by making cookie decorating seem easy. But we cookiers know the truth! As for trends, wafer paper, fondant, and cake lace seem to be gaining popularity. Since I ship cookies, I avoid these extra elements out of fear of breakage during shipment.
JMU: Yes, I agree. The hyper time-lapsed videos that are so omnipresent these days are super fun, but definitely misrepresent the time required. Even so, if they've expanded the market, then that benefits us all, I suppose! What do you like most about the cookie community? And what do you like least or most want to change about it, and why?
AC: I love how the cookie community consists of kind people, for the most part. There is a lot of sharing and helping each other. What I cannot stand is people who steal pictures and designs from others, without permission from the original artist. Many cookie artists watermark their photos, so it’s not difficult to reach out to seek permission/credit the work.
JMU: Agreed! I think proper design attribution is lacking in general, so I've made a point of trying to enforce it here on Cookie Connection. It's an imperfect process, but we're all paying more attention to it, on this site anyway! And, now, for my usual parting question: where do you see yourself in relation to cookies in the next three years? What are your cookie dreams and aspirations?
AC: I anticipate that I will still be decorating cookies in the next three years, with a few cookie classes thrown in. I would love to attend all future CookieCons, because they are such great events!
MC: In the next three years, I should be in the middle of my book tour, promoting my tome: Oh, So You’re the Cookie Lady’s Husband! It will be a hard-hitting biography about the lives of the forgotten spouses throughout the industry. I will likely be negotiating a motion picture deal, with The Rock playing me.
JMU: And what a "rock" you are in your support of Amy's business. I must admit I'm a wee bit jealous, as my husband seems to have a never-ending case of cookie-itis!
Anywho, I wish you success in hitting those goals, and I bid you BOTH a huge thank for sharing with us here! What a pleasure to get two interviews in one!
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!