At long last, we’re catching up in depth with our wonderful July 2023 site artist Lori Todhunter, aka @Cookies on Cambridge, whose striking site art is in the first photo below. (Aside: I always love finding out the real names behind cookies names, don’t you?! They seem so much more personal to me.)
As we learned in Lori’s earlier forum introduction, she lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA with her husband and has loved baking for many years. Lori is a stay-at-home mom of three boys, who has always had a passion for art and found that decorating cookies provided the perfect outlet to express her creativity. She is a self-taught cookier, known as the “cookie lady” around town. In 2015, her hobby expanded into a successful small business called Cookies on Cambridge. Lori has since retired, but still finds time to make cookies for fun and enjoys seeing her creations inspire other artists.
As I also noted in the forum intro, I've long admired Lori’s clean, precise style and picture-perfect icing. You’ll immediately know Lori’s cookies when you see them, because the colors are typically bold and the piping is always flawless (the above photo is a case in point). That being said, I’m eager to pick Lori’s brain about icing for pristine results, and to learn more about her journey to her business and then on to retirement.
So let’s get to it, shall we?
JMU: Hi, Lori! It’s wonderful to have you here. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me and to share your experiences with our community. I want to start back at the very beginning, so my first question is: Can you tell us when and for what occasion you decorated your first cookies (and possibly share a picture of them too!)? Also, what or who got you interested in cookie decorating?
LT: Hi, Julia! Thank you for the opportunity to share my cookie journey! In the fall of 2014, I tried my hand at cookie decorating for an Oklahoma State University tailgate party to kick off the football season (see the photo below). Just friends and family, so no pressure to get them perfect, but they were a big hit! I always found royal icing artistry interesting, so I thought I’d give it a try for fun.
JMU: I love to see people's cookie progression, so I thank you for sharing this early photo. Your cookies are leagues better than my first ones! Thankfully, I began decorating long before the era of cellphone and digital cameras (LOL!), and so I have no photos of my starter cookies!
You mentioned in your forum intro that cookies turned out to be the “perfect outlet” for expressing your creativity. What is it about them that makes them so perfect for you?
LT: I’ve always loved baking, and it’s something that I found I could get right. (I loathe cooking but baking is fun – ha ha!) In the years I spent as a stay-at-home mom, I would paint and do other creative projects. But when I decorated my first cookie, I fell in love with the whole process. The fact that you can create art on a cookie was really fun for me, as well as relaxing. If I messed up, I’d just scrape off the icing and start over; plus the cookies were a great snack for my family!
JMU: You also mentioned that you are a self-taught decorator . . . so how did you acquire your picture-perfect icing skills? Were there any blogs, books, or other resources you leaned on early in your cookie journey? If so, which ones did you find especially useful, and why?
LT: Practice, practice, and more practice! I really learned a lot from so many members of the cookie community. Sweet Sugarbelle was one of my go-to blogs, as I found her directions easy to follow and execute. I also found Cookie Connection to be a wonderful source of information and instruction!
JMU: Thanks for the plug! (And, no, I didn’t pay Lori to say that! LOL.) Now, if you don’t mind divulging your secrets 😊, what are your tips for getting flawless flooded cookie surfaces? What type of icing do you use? How, if at all, do you prep it for flooding? And how do you outline and flood, and then dry the icing?
LT: I find that using two different consistencies, one for outlining and another for flooding, helps get a nice even finish. I tried the one-consistency method, and it just doesn’t work for me. I use meringue powder-based royal icing, a 10- to 12-second flood, and a toothpaste consistency to outline. I flood while the outline is still wet so the icings blend together easily. To dry my cookies, I put them in front of a fan to speed the process along. Also, a little corn syrup helps give the finished icing a slight sheen, which I love.
JMU: I’m a two-step outlining-and-flooding girl myself! (Phew! At least I got that part right! LOL!)
Why did you decide to take the leap from being a hobbyist decorator to a business owner in 2015? What were some of the biggest hurdles to opening your business, and how did you overcome them?
LT: After that first football game, I decided to test the waters to see if there was an interest in decorated cookies in my community. It’s a small college town so I wasn’t too optimistic, but wanted to give it a try. I made some holiday samples (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas) and was pleasantly surprised. Word of mouth works, and, in January 2015, I decided to go all in. I would say that the biggest hurdle for me was working in a small town and trying to convince people that custom cookies were worth a little more than your average grocery store-cookies.
JMU: How did you decide to structure your business in 2015, and why? Specifically, did you operate out of your home or in rented/purchased space? What was your mix of standard to custom orders? Did you work solo, or did you also have employees?
LT: I was able to operate as a cottage business, so working from home was a blessing! I mostly worked on custom projects but halted those for the bigger holidays, especially Christmas and Valentine’s Day. I worked alone because I wanted total control over the finished product. Also, as we all know, custom cookies are a labor of love, and I just couldn’t afford to hire help. I do have to give a huge shout-out to my kids and my husband who begrudgingly folded boxes for me!
JMU: Ahh, another control freak! 😊 After 15 years of seriously doing cookies, I just (two weeks ago) hired some permanent help, and I have to say the letting-go of tasks has been really hard for me. Though I am beginning to see how freeing this change could ultimately be.
Back to you . . . What did your typical cookie week look like when you operated Cookies on Cambridge? For instance, how many orders of what average size did you do? How many hours per week did you dedicate to the business?
LT: I tried to keep my cookie production to around 10 to 15 dozen a week on average. I was able to connect with the local university and had several large orders from them for various occasions and events throughout the year. Graduation was the busiest, having the college and the high school orders coming in from Stillwater as well as the surrounding small towns. A typical day would start at 7:00 am, and I tried to have everything cleaned up by 5:30 pm. Not always easy when it was busy season!
JMU: What were the most and least gratifying parts of running Cookies on Cambridge, and why?
LT: The most gratifying part for me was when people would contact me or send me thank-you notes expressing how they loved my cookies! My favorite was from a 5-year-old girl who said she didn’t want to eat hers because they were so pretty. I was also known as the “cookie lady” in Stillwater, which was fun! I would have to say that my least gratifying part is mixing icing colors . . . I do not like to do that, LOL! I think that’s why my holiday options (like the cookies below) had a limited color palette. Sometimes simple is best!
JMU: We agree on yet another thing! I hate mixing icing colors, which is one reason I lean on airbrushing a lot (the cookie/photo requirements of my stencil contract are another!).
When did you retire from Cookies on Cambridge, and why?
LT: 2020 was a crazy year. When everything shut down and I took a break from decorating, I found that I had time to enjoy other things. I opened back up in the fall of 2020, but stopped doing custom orders, just holidays. And in 2021, I hung up my apron for good. I still miss it a little, but I love traveling and am having a blast!
JMU: I'm so glad to hear you're thriving in your post-cookies era! Just a couple more questions about your business before we move on to your retirement life . . . If there was one thing you would have done differently when running the business, what would it have been, and why?
LT: I would have to say that I would’ve learned to say “no” a little more often. I spent way too many late nights finishing up last-minute orders. It’s okay to turn down projects, and it took me a while to learn my limits.
JMU: Wise words, indeed! And, as a follow-up to my last question, what’s the one most important bit of advice you’d give to cookiers aspiring to open their own cookie businesses?
LT: Set realistic expectations and firm limits. I was never offended when people didn’t book with me, and learned it was okay to charge my worth.
JMU: More great advice! Thanks! How are you spending your time now that you’ve retired? You mentioned traveling earlier, but how do cookies factor into your retirement life, if at all?
LT: I enjoy having the free time to travel and to spend time with our grandchildren. They always ask if I have cookies, and the answer is always, “Yes, yes I do!”
JMU: I imagine your grandchildren's appetites might keep you busy enough with cookies - at least 'til they grow up! And, last but not least, my usual parting question . . . What’s next for Lori Todhunter in cookie decorating?
LT: I don’t think there is a next, but an end to a story. I loved it when I had Cookies on Cambridge and will never forget what an incredible adventure it was for me. I hope my experience will inspire future decorators to reach for the stars if that is their dream.
JMU: I am sure future decorators will find inspiration-o-plenty just by looking at your lovely cookie photographs. They’ve been such a wonderful treat to have on this site, and I certainly hope you’ll continue to post any cookie creations you make for family and friends in the coming years! Thanks for this marvelous interview as well. It was truly my pleasure to get to know you better after all this time.
On that note, I close with a photo of some of Lori's fabulous Thanksgiving cookies, which just so happen to be some of my faves.
Cookie photo credits: Lori Todhunter
One last housekeeping note: Please stay tuned! Next up is my interview with September site artist @TAMMY HOLMES. It should post in late October or early November.
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!