There’s never a dull moment on the CookieCon interview circuit! With a little under two months ‘til the big event and still three instructors to interview, I’m kicking into high gear with Q&A. On August 8, we live-chatted with Dotty of Sugar Dot Cookies, and on September 12, Bridget from Bake at 350 will be joining us to share more cookie wisdom. (Check out those chat rooms here, and here.)
Of course, if you were buzzing about the chat rooms as recently as June 27, you’ll know we just completed a great live chat with the multi-faceted Susan Carberry, chief sugar artist and owner of The Cake Cottage in Murrieta, California, USA. Today, I’m continuing where we left off with Susan, diving deep into some of her chat topics that really piqued my interest - namely diversification, remaining relevant, and teaching in an increasingly competitive and global community. And if this all sounds a wee bit too serious, no worries – we’re going to keep it light with glimpses into Susan’s whimsical (and Food Network award-winning) 3-D cookie art!
JMU: Hi, Susan! Welcome back to Cookie Connection! For the benefit of those who weren’t with us on June 27, I’m going to briefly recap your business history before jumping into new questions, and then open the floor to you to make any corrections!
As I understand things, you took your first cake decorating class about 12 years ago, and within a year of that class, you were teaching your own! Early on, you also competed in a Food Network Top Five challenge, where one of your 3-D cookie cake toppers garnered top prize, and two other TLC Ultimate Cake Offs, where you placed first and second. Today, The Cake Cottage operates primarily as a brick-and-mortar and online cake, candy, and cookie supply store. However, you also teach cake, cupcake, and cookie decorating classes; design and sell your own line of copper cookie cutters; and offer 20 flavors of gourmet cupcakes at the store.
Phew! That’s A LOT! What did I miss? And roughly how much time, on average each week, is dedicated to each of your primary business activities?
SC: Well, no week is average . . . LOL. If I'm at home and not off teaching somewhere else, then the majority of my time is spent at the shop, baking and icing cupcakes daily, bookkeeping, ordering, helping customers, and teaching two to three nights/days per week.
JMU: Did you at one time sell decorated cookies in your store? If so, why do you no longer sell them? And why are your edible product sales focused on cupcakes? In other words, why have you evolved into teaching and selling cutters and other cookie decorating supplies as opposed to the cookies themselves? [EDITOR'S NOTE: BTW, all of the cute creatures pictured in this post are examples of Susan's 3-D cookie work.]
SC: I have never sold decorated cookies in my shop, but I did do cookies years ago when working for someone else. Time is the major factor. It takes quite a bit more time to bake and decorate cookies rather than cupcakes. I don't have to be in the shop to take cupcake orders, as my staff is quite capable of handling that part of the daily routine. And cookies don't sell as well as cupcakes on a daily basis.
JMU: How many others do you employ in your business, either full- or part-time, and how do you all share this varied workload? Why have you structured your business this way?
SC: I believe that you shouldn't put all of your eggs in one basket. Therefore, I have multiple layers to my business. If one area slows down, then other areas hopefully pick up the slack. I have one main assistant on staff and two part-timers. My family also helps out tremendously. My staff bakes, decorates cupcakes, packages supplies, handles customers, and performs any other daily activities required in shop. I handle the rest with the help of my brother, mother, and father at times.
JMU: Well, based on the diversity of what you do, it’s pretty clear you practice what you preach! Why are you such an ardent believer in diversification? And do you believe it’s possible to have a successful business (meaning a profit-generating one from which one can make a reasonable living) that is focused solely on custom-decorated cookies? Why or why not?
SC: If you have an in-home cottage-licensed business or have a storefront in a heavily populated area, then I would say, yes, it's possible to have a profitable custom cookie-only business. But in most cases, I would say no. Where I am located, retail rental space is too expensive, and my area doesn't have enough walk-in business for that. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there doing it [selling only custom cookies], but it doesn't seem like the best option for me.
JMU: You mentioned in your June chat that you’ve always preferred teaching and creating, as opposed to production, but that you make cupcakes because they help to pay the bills. What is it about cupcakes that makes them a bigger breadwinner for you than custom cakes or decorated cookies? I would think that one of your amazingly detailed cakes (like your garden-themed cake pictured with you, below) or 3-D cookies could command an attractive premium with the right clientele. Is your market just not willing to bear the prices needed to make these specialty items profitable, or is there another reason for your cupcake fancy?
SC: I made cakes for eight years. Yes, cakes make money, especially wedding cakes. But you also have no life. You work really long hours at the end of each week and miss out on events with family and friends. You are chained to the shop. You also have to deal with people's high expectations and low budgets a lot of the time.
Teaching is different. People are in class to have fun and learn, which is much different than dealing with someone ordering a cake. Plus, I have been lucky enough to travel all over the country, and even internationally, to teach.
People love cupcakes and they are easy and fast to do. And we can still be creative with flavors.
JMU: Since you just touched on the subjects of budgets and negotiating price . . . let’s get into pricing a little more deeply. How to price custom, labor-intensive decorated cookies and other sweets seems to be the perennial question – not just here on Cookie Connection, but in almost every forum I’ve visited. In your twelve years in the business, what are the three most important things you’ve learned about how to price profitably?
- Be sure you know your ingredient costs and do a yearly update of your pricing. Ask yourself, how much is your time worth? Most people do not take their time into consideration. Know your self-worth.
- Do not compare your prices and goods to other competitors who are not on the same level, such as discount grocery stores. They do not use the same ingredients, etc.
- It's okay not to get the order if the customer isn't willing to pay for it.
JMU: Great advice! What tools, if any, do you use for determining cupcake product costs and setting prices? Would you recommend them, or any others, to those setting up cookie shops or full-line bakeries?
SC: I don't actually have a particular program. Wish I did. I do it the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. LOL.
JMU: In your twelve years in business, I suspect you’ve witnessed a number of changes in the bakery/bakery supply industry, especially with the advent of Food Network and other mainstream media paying more (and more) attention to food and sugar art. What have been the biggest changes you’ve experienced, and how, if at all, have you adapted your business to deal with these changes?
SC: When I first opened seven years ago, the Food Network challenge shows were fairly new and just catching the eye of the general public. So I was lucky to get on that upward wave, so to speak. Now things have leveled out, as the market is flooded with big box stores carrying more cake supplies, and there are more shows and in-person and online classes. So as a small brick-and-mortar retailer, I am putting more effort into the cupcake/cake side of the business to accommodate these changes.
JMU: If I accurately read between the lines of our chat, it also sounds as if your teaching business has changed over the years. You’ve traveled to teach in-person classes throughout the USA and in other countries, including Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong; you’ve made forays into both pay-to-view and free video courses; and you also regularly conduct classes in your Murrieta shop.
Are any of these types of teaching opportunities more/less abundant, or growing more/less rapidly, than they were in the past? Which of these teaching endeavors is the most lucrative right now? What industry or other factors explain these trends and differences between these teaching opportunities?
SC: There has definitely been a decline [in opportunities] for most teachers in this business. There is more competition, and fewer people are attending live classes and cake shows. Numbers are down across the country. Several shows and classes have been canceled due to low attendance and enrollment. I've decided to just choose my events more carefully. If a show invites too many instructors versus attendees, then I politely decline the invitation. The most lucrative events are always the ones where there are fewer teachers.
JMU: Before we continue down the teaching path, just a quick question or two about your Food Network and TLC experiences. I couldn’t resist, because these types of experiences are what so many of us aspire to do. Plus, right now, there's a rash of casting calls for holiday baking competitions on various major networks. (More info about those casting calls here, and here.)
How did you get cast for the Food Network/TLC competitions, and, apart from sheer talent, to what do you attribute your wins? What tips would you give to Cookie Connection members for presenting well in casting calls and prepping to win in competition?
SC: My employee at the time sent a note to a casting director without me knowing . . . LOL. I then received a call and went for an interview and was cast from there. After you have been on a show once, you receive calls for almost every new show out there. Advice: Be very lively in your interview and think outside the box. Casting directors don't like "boring". Once you are chosen, be sure to practice with your team. Allow more time than you think it will take you. You have to take into account that they [the show hosts] will be asking you questions as you are working.
JMU: I just love your winning 3-D beehive cookie from the Food Network competition (pictured above, upper right). Can you give our readers a two- to three-sentence tutorial about how you made it?
SC: Oh, that show was on many, many moons ago (10 to 12 years ago, to be more exact) when shaping cookie dough was highly unusual. The beehive is a pretty basic cookie compared to many of my others since then that involve more than one cookie piece.
But, I used the Wilton mini-doll pan for the mold. I actually covered the outside of the pan with aluminum foil, as it was not a non-stick pan. I then rolled out my sugar cookie dough, placed it over the foil, and trimmed the dough at the base to leave a little extra space for it to spread. Then, I baked, cooled, and decorated it . . .
The majority of my 3-D cookies, including the beehive, are covered and decorated with rolled fondant, as it conforms very nicely to shaped cookies. Besides that, it is also my favorite medium. I have also used modeling chocolate, coating chocolate, and royal icing. But my favorite designs are always done with fondant.
JMU: Thanks for the 3-D decorating tips! OK, back to teaching – at CookieCon! How do you expect your CookieCon teaching experience to be similar to or different than your many other teaching experiences, and how are you preparing to address any differences?
SC: Well, as far as my upbeat high-energy teaching style, that will be the same! I'm really looking forward to CookieCon, as it's an entirely different group of people for me. Most are not familiar with me or what I do. I loved the atmosphere of the last CookieCon, so I'm sure it will be a great experience.
JMU: What are you most (and least) looking forward to about CookieCon?
SC: I'm really looking forward to meeting new people. There isn't one thing that I'm not looking forward to. I'm also looking forward to the mystery cookie challenge. It may have been my favorite part of last year's show! I hope they are doing it again. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, indeed, they are!]
JMU: And, finally, a parting question, never before asked in any of my interviews. Over the years, you’ve done a lot of evolving and adapting to stay relevant and prosperous in the baking/baking supply industry. I wish I had but a small fraction of your flexibility! What do you predict will be the next biggest change in the baking/baking supply industry, and how do you think you’ll adapt to handle it?
SC: Well, that's the million-dollar question now, isn't it?! I've always been aware that you need to keep changing your class content to stay ahead. If you come up with a great idea, there will always be people right behind you teaching it also. So I'll keep moving forward with creative ideas and keep thinking outside the box. I love what I do, so that's the best incentive ever. As far as the next big trend, I'm really not sure, but I'd love to be the one that starts it. LOL.
JMU: Well, given your creativity, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if you did! Have a wonderful CookieCon, and thanks again for sharing your business insights and cookie expertise here on Cookie Connection!
All cookies and photos by Susan Carberry.
Interested in learning more about Susan? I bet you are! Please check out her site and Facebook page, and be sure to say hi at CookieCon.
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!