I’m back with our second-to-last Close-up with CookieCon 2018 instructors. (I know, it’s hard to believe, but by January, I’ll be moving on to the 2019 instructors!) Here, we’re catching up in more detail with @Andrea Walters of Andy Kay’s Cookies, with whom we first chatted back on October 6, here. We learned then that Andrea is a home-based decorator from Wichita, Kansas, USA, who somehow manages to routinely crank out 500-plus cookies per week on top of being a mom to two kids! She also competed in the 2017 Food Network Christmas Cookie Challenge (see a quick clip here). And, since her demo about writing with royal icing at CookieCon 2018, she has become enamored with teaching!
Today, we’ll explore a variety of topics with Andrea, including her best practices for work flow management and writing with royal icing, how one prepares for and recovers from a Food Network Challenge, and how she plans to incorporate teaching into her already busy cookie-life!
JMU: Hi, Andrea! It’s great to have you back with us for this Close-up. Thank you for participating again! Let’s turn back the clock a bit, and hear about how and when you first got started in cookie decorating. Who or what first attracted you to this craft?
AW: I honestly had no interest in decorated sugar cookies! A friend twisted my arm to attend a decorating class with her around Valentine's Day in 2012. I registered and picked up the list of items needed for the class. I spent around $60 or $70 on tools that I had no idea what they were for! I attended the class and left SO frustrated. I didn’t learn anything! I even recall a little old woman sitting next to me who kept telling me “you are doing it wrong.” Yes. Yes, I was. So, I went home and put the newly purchased tools in a box and didn’t look back! Nearly a year later, I was throwing my daughter an Alice in Wonderland birthday party and thought how cute teacup cookies would be! I pulled out that box of tools, blew off the dust, and gave them a try. My cookies weren’t good at all, but I had fun doing them! (See photo, below left, along with some of my other "first" cookies to the right.) So, I started binge-watching YouTube videos and looking at photographs of beautiful cookies. I was hooked, and the rest is history!
JMU: Why did you decide to sell cookies out of your home rather than in a rented or purchased kitchen space? What sort of hoops did you have to go through to make sure your home kitchen and cookie business were compliant with the requirements of both your local health department and cottage food laws?
AW: In my previous life, I owned a brick-and-mortar business. It was stressful, expensive, and incredibly time-consuming. I have no desire to enter into that sort of business again! I wanted something I could do as a stay-at-home mom that allowed flexibility in my schedule. I’m very fortunate that my city and state have fairly lenient laws. I am just limited to not selling any refrigerated or wholesale items.
JMU: Do you ever envision moving your cookie-making business out of your home and into a leased or shared commercial space? It sounds like you don’t want to buy, but leasing and/or sharing space can be less costly and risky.
AW: No. No and no. I do not want a brick-and-mortar business of any kind. I applaud all of the bakers who have successfully made the transition to a storefront! It’s amazing to watch these transitions on social media, but it isn’t for me! I will say though that my newest venture combines the best of both worlds - space out of the house and flexibility! I purchased a vintage teardrop camper that will allow me to host pop-up shop events and join the food truck coalition in town! My dad and I are currently renovating it to fit my vision!
JMU: Ooh, that sounds like an exciting project on many levels! (I personally love breathing new life into old things.) Let’s talk now about writing with royal icing, the subject of your CookieCon presentation. Judging from your various cookie photos (some directly below), you clearly have an aptitude for piping all sorts of fonts! What problems or pitfalls do decorators most often encounter when writing with icing, and what tips do you have for getting past those problems?
AW: I love piping lettering! I love how a font and style of lettering can completely alter a cookie set! In my CookieCon class, I talked about common problems that decorators face and how to conquer them! The majority of problems come down to consistency of icing. It can be too dry and cause breakage. It can be too wet and not hold its shape. Writing can have all sorts of lumps and bumps, as opposed to a nice smoothness. I see these main issues often!
JMU: Do you use a Kopykake, pico projector, or any other visual assist when piping fonts? If so, what’s your preferred device and why?
AW: I started out using a projector that I actually made out of an oatmeal canister! I upgraded to a Kopykake when my business grew. When pico projectors became popular, I purchased the entry-level AAXA model. And for two years, it worked great! But, I had so many issues with wires failing. I have since purchased a bluetooth projector similar to this one, and I love the convenience of it!
JMU: Ha! I would have loved to have seen that oatmeal canister in action! Are there any things you do differently when piping a block font versus a script font? For instance, do you alter your icing consistency, piping tools (tips or bags), and/or piping cadence in any way? If so, how and why?
AW: When piping script font, I typically pipe very similar to how I would write it. But, when I do a block font, I typically outline the lettering with my piping-consistency icing, and fill in the letters with a flood-consistency icing. So, yes, all fonts require difference techniques.
JMU: In your recent chat, you stunned everyone by saying you routinely make 500 or more cookies a week, without any help! You’ve got to decorate each cookie pretty darn fast to have that sort of yield . . . though I imagine simplifying designs helps tremendously. Can you give us a clearer picture of your design complexity by posting a few cookie designs that you have comfortably produced to this level (500 per week)? What tips do you have for design simplification? In other words, what are the most time-consuming cookie decorating activities, and what tips do you have for streamlining them?
AW: Sure - take a look at the two "big-order" cookie photos posted directly below. First, let me say that I work incredibly fast, at everything I do. I oftentimes post videos on Instagram of me working, and they are usually in real time. When I have a large order like these two, I will avoid designs that require a lot of colors! Mixing multiple colors is very time-consuming.
JMU: I imagine, too, that having one design across the order, as in the above two examples, also leads to efficiencies. Can you go a step further and explain how you organize your time and activities across the week to singlehandedly deliver so many cookies? What are your top time management tips for cookie decorators?
AW: When I’m taking on 500 cookies in a week, I plan and streamline by grouping work activities. I will normally bake the cookies all on one day; then flood the following day, and detail over one to two days, depending on what I need to accomplish. I pre-plan my days so that I stay on schedule, meaning I plan out each day prior to the due date. So, think ahead!
JMU: You sound very disciplined as well as fast! Do you ever envision a time when you will hire someone to help with large orders or to expand your business in general? If not, why not? If so, can you tell us more about your vision for growth?
AW: I’m asked this a lot, and my answer is always no. I could possibly see needing help baking my cookies, but that’s as far as it would go. My customers purchase cookies from me, because I’m the one creating them. I have my artistic vision and my own hand in all of my cookies. I don’t ever see that changing.
JMU: What’s been the most challenging aspect of running your cookie business to date, and how did you handle that challenge?
AW: Learning to say “no” was my biggest challenge. In the beginning, I felt like I needed to accommodate everyone in order to grow my business. I rarely said “no”. Now that I am four and a half years in, I’ve learned the word well. If I’m already heavily booked for a week, I say "no". If a customer didn’t plan ahead and wants me to save the day, I don’t feel obligated to do so any longer. It’s all about a healthy balance. I am so much more than a cookie baker, and I don’t allow the cookie business to dictate my life.
JMU: Yes, confirmed! You definitely have great discipline! Onto competing! Last year, right around this time, you appeared on TV in one of Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenges. (See Andrea on the Food Network set in the photo directly below.) We talked a fair bit about that challenge in another chat with some of your fellow competitors, but, for the benefit of those who didn’t attend that chat, can you tell us why you decided to take time out from your busy cookie operation to compete? What did you think the benefits would be, and did those benefits actually materialize?
AW: Goodness. It’s hard to believe it aired a year ago! When I applied for Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge, I did it to shut up my friends! Ha! I never imagined actually being chosen for the show. It’s Food Network, after all! But, I received a call pretty quickly after applying. The show was so far out of my comfort zone that I knew I had to push myself. I turned 40 that year, and I really wanted to have an extra amazing year! When I was chosen for the show, my number one goal was not to be eliminated first! I’m not kidding. I told myself that over and over and over, including during the competition! I was so relieved when I made it to the finals that I think I was actually unprepared for the finals! I didn’t think big enough when I went into the competition and in hindsight . . . I wish I had. I really wanted to do well, show a good face for my business, and have fun. All of which I believe happened. I have no regrets and would do it again in a heartbeat!
JMU: What tips would you give to others who are thinking of competing in a Food Network or other TV challenge? Please share tips for both preparing and competing.
AW: Think outside the box! In your application, in your interviews, and in competing! They are looking for something different!
JMU: In what ways, if any, has your life or business changed since competing on Food Network?
AW: I am so much more confident in my decorating/baking life. Being chosen for the show made me feel really qualified in my field. I was proud of the products I presented in a crazy, hectic, and very short time frame!
JMU: If you could do over anything about your Food Network experience (i.e., prepping, competing, and/or handling the aftermath), what would it be, and how would you do it over?
AW: If you watched the finals of my episode, I was mostly proud of what I presented. My flavors were spot on. My little house and snowman were great. But, I got inside my own head. I had a mental picture in my head to create a Christmas tree with stacked snowflake shapes. The cutters that were available were limited, and I didn’t have what I needed. Rather than changing my vision, I stuck with it and didn’t think it through. Sigh. I knew it was too short. But, I had to go with it! When you are on a time clock like we were, there isn’t much that you can do!
JMU: Yikes, sounds stressful, but congrats on getting as far as you did! And, for my usual parting question: Where do you see yourself in the cookie world three years from now? You alluded to a newfound love for teaching after your recent CookieCon experience. Will teaching play a role in your future cookie business? If so, how? Do you have any more TV competitions on your horizon? Why or why not? And what about the camper? What are your deployment plans for it?
AW: I fell in love with teaching at CookieCon. It was just an amazing experience! I will be teaching pre-CookieCon workshops in Reno in 2019! I’d also love to offer local classes or possibly travel to teach! That would be amazing. I would also love to compete again! It was such a fantastic experience for me, and I made a few solid friendships from it. I would jump at the chance again! And . . . my cookie camper is going to be a great addition! As I noted earlier, I am hoping to do pop-ups around town and neighboring towns once a month and especially at holiday times!
JMU: Well, knowing how fast you work on cookies and just about everything, I have no doubt you'll accomplish all of these things - and more - in no time flat! It was great talking again, and I look forward to seeing you in person at CookieCon 2019! Woo hoo - Reno, here we come!
All cookie and photo credits: Andrea Walters of Andy Kay's Cookies
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!