Even though CookieCon is (regrettably) over for the year, we’re continuing our CookieCon 2018 Speakers Series until I interview every last one of the instructors. (By hook or by crook I will, I promise! ) This month, we welcome @Hillary Ramos, aka The Cookie Countess, who is perhaps best known for her burgeoning cookie stencil empire.
After starting out as a hobby decorator in 2011 and then turning into a cookie order-taker, Hillary began experimenting with stenciling her cookies, and quickly decided to design and sell her own stencils. Since 2013, The Cookie Countess has grown to include over 800 stencil designs. The business has also expanded into custom-made products, such as its new Precision Rolling Pin, and much-loved supplies, including cookie cutters, airbrush systems, colorings, and stencil storage solutions. In 2015, Hillary's husband Jon joined the cookie fun and became a full-time member of The Cookie Countess team. As recently as August 2018, the couple moved their business from their home and into a 5,000 square-foot office and warehouse space in Warwick, Rhode Island, USA, conveniently located just 10 minutes away.
We last spoke with Hillary in a live chat around the time of that move, and just as she was preparing for her CookieCon presentation entitled “Beyond Backgrounds” – a foray into making dynamic and original cookie designs with stencils. Today, we’ll pick up pretty much right where we left off in that chat, starting first with a glimpse into Hillary’s life in her ginormous new space, a portion of which is pictured below!
JMU: Welcome back, Hillary! I’m so happy to be chatting with you again today! Let’s kick off with you telling us a little bit more about why you expanded into your new space, what it looks like, and how it’s improved business for you!
HR: Hi, Julia! Good to be back! Our new space is amazing, and we are loving it! Between our basement and garage, we had about 2,000 square feet to work with at home. But we were busting at the seams - expanding rapidly into our personal space - and our staff was tripping over each other. So, moving out was not a hard decision, even though it was a big decision. We now have proper offices and a warehouse that have made us so much happier and more efficient! Having a full kitchen was super important to me, so that I could bake and decorate there. And soon we’ll start having classes!
JMU: How easy was it for you to find and secure this space? Did you encounter any hurdles along the way, and how did you get over them?
HR: We truly only looked at a few places before finding this one. The space and division of space were important. As well as the location - we looked within a very small radius. I feel very fortunate that we found something so perfect so quickly. We moved fast, as we wanted to get it all done in the summer - the slowest season for business. If we hadn’t found something this summer, we would have probably waited until next spring. Moving during fourth quarter just wasn’t an option. Holiday rush!
JMU: Makes sense! What tips (top three) would you give to those looking to move their cookie businesses out of their homes and into either rented or purchased commercial space? Any must-dos or watch-outs?
HR: Don’t be afraid to negotiate the terms of the lease. There are always ways to negotiate. If you are renting, be aware that, if you decide to move at the end of your lease, you can’t take the floors with you. LOL. Think carefully about what you spend money on in a building you don’t own. Don’t go all out on things like flooring and improvements that really don’t make you any more money or that stay behind if you leave. Think about the ways you want to expand your business. Don’t get a place that serves your needs just for now. Look for something that will serve you in the ways you want to grow.
JMU: Great tips! So, how do you make use of all our your newfound space? How many employees work with you now, and what do they do? And how do you spend your typical work day? For instance, how much time do you spend managing people or on admin tasks versus designing stencils or other products?
HR: Aside from my husband Jon and myself, we have five people working with us. Hannah is our web designer and manager, graphics designer, photographer, and all-around go-to artist. Aline is our operations manager - she oversees everything to do with daily packing and shipping of orders, inventory control, and warehouse management. Then we have Kathleen, Beth, and Lori who work with Aline on fulfilling orders, inventory, and packaging. They are all amazing! We could not run our business without them. My typical day varies. Answering emails, social media posts, and messages are daily tasks that take up a good amount of time. Brainstorming new product ideas is always going on in the office. Hannah, Jon, and I are always talking about ways to improve the website, email campaigns with our customers, and new customer experiences - like our recent rewards program. I go on spurts of decorating - I’ll be heavy into decorating going into a new holiday season. I also videotape almost everything I do when I decorate. So it’s a slow process. I’ll then spend time editing tutorial videos and video snippets for social media. I don’t do stencil design daily. I usually take a week at different parts of the year to sit and work on stencils nonstop. It’s a better work flow for me to do a large chunk of designing at once.
JMU: With over 800 stencils designs under your belt, do you ever feel creatively challenged? If so, how do you overcome creative roadblocks? If not, what or who fuels your unending creativity and new stencil designs?
HR: New trends are always happening, and I am always looking at the world around me for inspiration. Also, I look at the new trends in cookie decorating and how I can simplify or speed up the decorating process by giving decorators a stencil to do the job instead of piping.
JMU: You were a pioneer back in 2013 with cookie stencils, with few others (maybe just Designer Stencils?) offering them in the US. Now, so many companies are offering them, and so many people cut their own stencils with Cricut machines or other tools. What do you think fueled all of this interest in stenciling and attracted so many players to the business? How are you handling the increased competition?
HR: Stenciling is great on so many levels! I think the time-saving aspect is the biggest. No one wants to pipe 100 cookies with an intricate damask pattern. But with a stencil, you can do it quickly! Stencils also give so many possibilities for cookie designs that you could never do without them. So there is a lot of demand. I’ll be honest, I don’t really spend any time looking at what competition may be out there. I much prefer to focus on my own business and ideas, and how we can service our customers' needs better.
JMU: Looking back on the development of The Cookie Countess since 2013, what’s been your crowning achievement, and why? And what, if anything, do you wish you had done differently, and why?
HR: Oh gosh - this is a hard one! I can’t really point to any one moment or item that has been our crowning achievement. I think, in general, the way our business has continued to grow, the staff we have, and the community of amazing customers all make me proud. It’s such a team effort. I can’t say there’s anything major I would have done differently. I am not a person who dwells on the past or allows regret. I don’t feel like that is energy well spent. I am so happy with how far we have come in five years. I can’t wait to see where we are in another five!
JMU: Now, enough about the stencil biz! It’s wonderful and all, but so are other facets of the cookie world! Let’s talk about teaching, and your teaching experience at CookieCon in particular. How did it go? Can you tell us more about the crux of your presentation there? What do you mean by going “beyond backgrounds” with stencil designs?
HR: CookieCon was fabulous!! Teaching was a blast and a totally different perspective on the event for me. In my class, I showed examples of how to look at stenciling in a way that fuels creativity and saves time, rather than just thinking of stencils as a background to the rest of a design. I also demoed my stencils and shared my top tips for stenciling with an airbrush and also with royal icing.
JMU: In your opinion, what are the key things that cookiers need to remember if they want to consistently take their stencil designs “beyond backgrounds”?
HR: Remembering that stencils are a tool for your creativity is important. Just because it’s a stencil that you’ve seen other people use doesn’t mean that your cookies will look like theirs. Your choices of design, technique, and color are what make your cookies special. A stencil is just another item in your toolbox that allows you to create your vision.
JMU: You’ve taught in a number of different environments and ways. You’ve got your online instructional stenciling videos and now CookieCon! Do you also teach in-person classes at The Cookie Countess or other venues? Which, if any, mode of teaching is your favorite, and why?
HR: Now that we have space to hold classes, I’m excited to teach more. I really do love it. I can’t say I have a favorite way. Online teaching - through tutorials and social media - is a great way to reach a lot of people. But teaching in person is a special experience.
JMU: Did CookieCon present any unique teaching challenges that you hadn’t previously encountered, and, if so, how did you handle them?
HR: Well, teaching the same class eight times in one day was wild. LOL! I have never done anything like that. It was physically challenging, but so satisfying. The fresh faces in the audience of each session were so motivating. I was glad I had practiced my presentation a lot at home - it was overwhelming to do so much in a day. But awesome!
JMU: What’s the key to getting a teaching gig at CookieCon (or any other big event), and what tips would you give to cookiers seeking to land one?
HR: Hmm . . . I don’t think I have a great answer to this. I would definitely just add teaching into what you are already doing. You’ll want to have some experience under your belt before doing something like this on a large scale.
JMU: And, for my terribly predictable parting question (but the one that often yields the most interesting answers ), where do you see you and The Cookie Countess in three years’ time? What are your biggest cookie dreams and aspirations?
HR: Oh gosh - I hate these kinds of questions. LOL. I want to keep growing what we offer at The Cookie Countess - in both our own products and in other lines. I hope to make our new location a learning space for the Northeast. There are very few local resources in New England for cookie makers. I would love to bring together the small number of us who are here, and others who are not too far away, for a weekend of learning. I’m so happy with all that The Cookie Countess has become, and grateful to have been able to make it our family’s business. I just hope to keep it going, to keep growing and learning, and to provide the products and service that will help other cookie makers excel in their cookie making dreams.
JMU: All noble ambitions! And on the festive cookie note above, I want to thank you for spending time with us and sharing your wealth of stenciling and other cookie insights! I wish you and The Cookie Countess heaps of continued success!
To learn more about Hillary and The Cookie Countess, please visit her website and Facebook page.
All cookie and photo credits: The Cookie Countess
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!
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