I don’t know about you, but I’ve enjoyed coming to this site more than ever this month. There’s something about the color palette of the banner and backdrop that just sings “snowy winter”, and the sleeping fawn is beyond-words adorable. When put all together, these cookies make me want to do nothing but snuggle up in a warm blanket and soak up the site. Thank you to our January site artist and subject of this Cookier Close-up, Susan Crane, aka @SusieQCookies, for contributing these delights!
As you may know from reading Susan’s earlier intro on the site and/or her member profile, she harks from Albia, Iowa, USA. Susan has been a professional artist for over 30 years, but first fell in love with cookie decorating in 2012 when reading Hy-Vee Seasons magazine, one of her region’s largest grocery store periodicals. However, it wasn’t until 2016, when her husband urged her to decorate cookies for his workplace’s anniversary, that she first got immersed in the cookie art world. While researching ideas for that project, she stumbled upon my YouTube channel and then later this site. One thing led to another, and she ultimately launched her cottage cookie business, Susie Q Cookies, in 2016.
Today, Susan sells cookies out of her home and at farmers' markets, which, for her, is perfect. She would prefer to keep her cookie venture small and simple. From time to time, Susan also hosts "cookie days" with her friends and their kids, but she's not officially teaching yet, as she still feels like she's learning.
So, let’s see what else we can find out about Susan, shall we?
JMU: Hi, Susan! First, thank you for taking the time for this interview. I’d like to start 30 years ago (!) by asking: what kind of professional artist were you? How did you get started down that path? And why are you no longer practicing that form of art?
SC: I became hooked on art in the fourth grade when I won my first red ribbon in the school art show. Growing up, I always saw myself as an artist, and my family encouraged it. I sold my work for the first time in my senior year of high school, and continued to sell over the years, ultimately earning an associate degree in commercial art. Eventually, my focus turned to portraiture in 2002, which led to many commissions, including murals. You can view my work at threecranes.blogspot.com.
JMU: Wow, I really love your watercolors! Do you find that any skills from your earlier days as a professional artist translate into your cookie designs, or help you with cookie decorating in any way? If so, which ones, and how?
SC: I've actually found that all of my years of experience help. So many things are second nature to me that I don't even think about them - from the basics of color mixing all the way to painting on cookies. I think my past experiences helped me to get a quick grasp of all the cookie decorating tutorials that I watched.
JMU: You mentioned that you were first drawn to cookies when perusing Hy-Vee Seasons magazine. What did you see there, and what, in particular, drew you to cookies versus some other form of edible art, like cakes or cupcakes?
SC: It was the Holiday 2012 edition. It was full of various types of cookies. At first, I was drawn to the snowman on the cover. But it was made of macaroons, and I had no desire to do them. But then I came to cutout cookies. I had never done them before, and they just sounded fun. Then, I thought, I'll make the snowman on the cover out of rolled sugar cookie dough. FUN! All of my friends' kids loved them. From then on, I made snowmen and snowflakes from time to time.
JMU: After you made cookies for your husband’s office party, how long was it before you officially launched Susie Q Cookies? What moment in time, event, or memory marks the official launch of your business to you, and why?
SC: It was that very week. The first thing I did was research if Iowa had cottage industry laws and how difficult it would be to start my own cookie business. Iowa made it easy. Then with the encouragement from my husband Keith, my sister, my dad, and my closest friends, I thought I just might get a couple of orders now and again. By the way, the cookies below are the same ones I sent with Keith to work in August of 2016, and which landed me my first order the following month. They’re the cookies I'd been making since that first try after seeing Season's magazine.
JMU: I love that you’re sharing all of this history and your early photos! And thanks to family for being there when you really need them, right?! But, in all seriousness, launching a home-based food business can be challenging given the many regulatory hurdles in some areas. What do Iowa cottage food laws require in order to start a home-based cookie business? Did you have to retrofit your kitchen in any way to comply with those laws? What about Department of Health inspections? Do they occur, and, if so, how often and what do they entail?
SC: Here is an excerpt from the Iowa State University Extension brochure entitled Starting a Home-Based Food Business in Iowa, under the subheading Exceptions to Home Food Establishment License Requirement: "Residences which prepare or distribute honey, shell eggs, or nonhazardous baked goods are not required to be licensed as home food establishments."
I didn't have to do anything to my kitchen. However, I do have to label my product with my name, my address, and an ingredient list. And I can't sell outside the state.
An aside: The photo below shows my workspace in my kitchen. Keith bought me that cabinet at Hobby Lobby for all of my cookie cutters. Cool story about the baking rack . . . Keith was getting his hair cut when the stylist said that his neighbor had two of them sitting on her curb waiting to be sold. I got both for $40 each! They were like new, only dusty! How awesome was that?!
JMU: Awesome, indeed! I love all of the character in your kitchen too, like the tile floor, oversized wall clock, and hutch with cubbies! And, yeah, you weren’t kidding when you said Iowa made it easy! Here in Missouri, when I started my business nearly 20 years ago (!), home-based food businesses were not allowed in my area, at all, period. The rationale was that the Department of Health couldn't do surprise inspections as easily in the home environment as they can in freestanding shops.
So setting up shop wasn’t a huge challenge for you, but were there any other big challenges associated with launching your home-based business, and, if so, how did you overcome them?
SC: Yes - how to get enough exposure. The first thing I did was start a blog. I uploaded pictures and information about my business. Then I used my art background and created business cards. I took those and all the cookies I was making for the photos on the blog and left them with the businesses around town. The two things that really helped were starting a Facebook page and selling at the Albia farmers’ market.
JMU: Interesting. What’s the single greatest success you’ve had (or the biggest milestone you’ve reached) with your business since you launched in 2016? Why was this event so significant to you?
SC: There have been several milestones, but I think the one that was the most significant was the wedding reception order I had this January. I have had cookie orders for three other wedding receptions. But, they were more of an accompaniment to the table. This one featured my product - specifically 12 dozen cookies (with monograms, pictured below) and 8 dozen cupcakes. To be trusted to make all of the desserts for a wedding reception has got to be one of the highest compliments you can receive.
JMU: I agree, and they look great! You said you’d like to keep your cookie venture “small and simple”. Why is this? And, can you give us a sense of what you mean by “small” and “simple”? For instance, how many cookie orders (and cookies) do you produce per week? How are they typically styled?
SC: I need to keep my business at a level that I can handle myself. I want to keep it in my home. I love working out of my home. I block out some weeks for myself and take no orders at all. Other times, I've done as many as 20 dozen cookies. I've learned what I can handle, and that makes me happy.
JMU: Well, you’re lucky to have found the right balance for you and to be content with that decision. When I had my bakery, I always struggled with knowing when to say “no” and gauging how much work I could take on without killing myself or my employees. It always seemed to be feast or famine, and the uneven workload was hard to manage. Now, for the perennial question: What’s your average cookie price, and how did you arrive at it? Do customers ever give you any pushback on price, and, if so, how do you contend with that?
SC: With a few exceptions, I start at $25 per dozen. Size and complexity of the cookies increase the price. I have sold cookies for $36 per dozen.
I arrived at my base price over time. When I began, I lost count of how many people told me that I wasn't charging enough. I've only gotten mild pushback twice. Neither time bothered me, because I was so busy with people who thought my cookies were worth it.
JMU: Phew – good for you! I could never sell my cookies for $3 a piece, as I just didn’t decorate fast enough to justify all my time in them! Based on your experience, what top three tips would you give to cookiers who want to start their own home-based cookie businesses?
SC: First, always check what the laws are for your area. Second, use your closest friends and family as taste-testers to get your product just right, but don't expect them to be your customer base. You need the public’s point of view too. And remember, there's a reason why free samples are given away at the grocery store; they work! Taking free samples to your local banks, hairdressers, utility companies, hospitals, etc. (the places are endless) is your best public relations move when starting. You don't have to do a lot for very long to make a big impact.
JMU: Great tips! Let’s talk about farmers’ markets for a bit, since you also do those. How many do you do each year, and when does the market season start and end in Iowa?
SC: So far, I've only participated in the Albia farmers' market. It runs from June to September for us. There are larger farmers' markets in Iowa, like in Des Moines, that have fall and winter indoor markets.
JMU: Does this market require you to jump through any other special hoops in order to sell your home-baked goods there? Do you have to package and label your cookies in a particular way, for instance? Or do anything else differently than you would for a normal “home” order?
SC: The only thing I have to add is that I am not subject to state inspection or licensure.
JMU: Do you elect to design, package, and/or price your cookies for the market any differently than for your usual “home” orders? If so, what do you do differently, and why?
SC: I do. I found I sell more large cookies if they are packaged in singles, and small cookies packaged in sets of four. But, I had a problem with the heat. The icing, which was completely set, would start to soften in the heat and stick to the bags. What a mess! So, I bought paper plates, and with a quick origami-style fold, turned them into pint-size boxes that sit upright in the bags, keeping the icing away from the bags. You can see those boxes and some of my farmers’ market signage below.
JMU: Ingenious! Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say! A similar question to one I asked earlier, but now for farmers’ markets . . . what top three tips would you give to cookiers who want to sell their cookies at farmers’ markets?
SC: Start small, and build up as you learn what the market-goers are looking for. Keep track of what sells and what doesn’t, and build on that. Always bring a new item, but don't forget the ones people become used to seeing.
JMU: Again, very useful tips! Thanks! Which business, home-based orders or farmers’ market sales, is more profitable for you? And which one, if any, do you prefer doing and why?
SC: For our area – small-town southern Iowa – they’re about equal. I enjoyed the farmers’ market, but I'm glad it only lasts for a short time. It's a lot more work and stress than orders out of the home.
JMU: Before I ask my last question, I just have to know how you made the adorable fawn for our site banner! Can you give us a mini-tutorial, including how you shaped and iced it?
SC: I sure can. First, check out Julia's tutorials (yes, yours) about how to shape a topiary or a baby rattle. That's where I got the idea for the fawn body. I then looked up a photo of a sleeping fawn. Using the wet-on-wet technique, I poured the tan icing first and then immediately dotted the fawn's back with white icing, using my needle to drag the tan icing through the white. Once that icing was dry, I piped on the head using the same wet-on-wet technique for white details. Then, I finished with the leg and a tail. The overhead view, below, shows these details more clearly.
JMU: So wonderful! Thanks for sharing those details! And, last, a slight twist on my usual parting question . . . if you could be doing anything three years from now, what would it be – and it doesn’t have to be cookie-related, unless you want it to be!
SC: I want a vacation!
JMU: Well, that has got to be one of the most candid (and reasonable) answers I’ve ever gotten to my parting question! LOL. Thanks again for chatting with us. I learned a lot, and I wish you continued happiness with your cookie business!
All cookie and photo credits: Susan Crane
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!