Next up in our CookieCon 2018 Speakers Series is none other than the multi-talented Autumn Carpenter, owner of Country Kitchen SweetArt and Sweet Elite Tools. As we learned in our recent chat with Autumn, she descends from a long line of entrepreneurs and spends the bulk of her time selling and developing products for both of these enterprises. But, in the midst of all of that, she also finds time to write books (she has seven!), teach, and create! Autumn travels regularly throughout the United States, sharing her love of cookie decorating and other confectionery arts. If you miss her at CookieCon in September or on her other travels, no worries - you can always catch her online cookie decorating class on craftsy.com and get to know her better through this interview.
As always, I’ll dig a little deeper in this interview to close any gaps in our previous live chat.
JMU: Welcome (again!), Autumn. I’m excited to pick up where we left off in your chat. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? You mentioned in your bio that you have been around cakes, candies, and cookies your entire life. But can you tell us a little more about how you got started in the sweets business? And how has your role in it, and with Country Kitchen SweetArt, changed over time?
AC: I really thought I wanted to go into teaching (elementary students, not cookie students, LOL!). I was attending Purdue University, and decided that I was really missing the family business. I came back and started working full time. At that time, we had a large wedding supply department with hundreds of cake toppers. A wedding cake was considered bare without a topper in the 90s! I managed the wedding department and would also custom-make wedding cake toppers with lace, flowers, and personalized brides and grooms. That business grew, and I began wholesaling my custom cake toppers. At that time, I also became interested in cookie decorating, and that’s where my passion for making confections really started.
JMU: When you officially took over your parents’ business were you fully prepared for your new position and responsibilities, or did you encounter some surprises and challenges during this transition? If so, what were they, and how did you deal with them?
AC: The takeover started in 2003 and has been a gradual process, so there weren’t a lot of huge surprises. While my mother still owns part of the business today, she fully retired in 2008. The biggest changes/surprises came in 2016 after my sister and her husband decided to sell their portion of the business. My sister, Leslie, handled the accounting and managing of employees, while I did the creative part (handling the classroom, ideas, printed catalog, website, etc.). My sister’s husband, Todd, managed the orders and customer service through our shipping department. After they left, I went into the shipping department pretty blind. I had a lot of learning to do, as well as a lot of changes I wanted to implement. We are still gradually applying lots of changes and improvements that I am really excited about.
A peek inside Country Kitchen SweetArt!
JMU: Wow, what a challenge it must have been to essentially double or triple your work responsibilities at that time! I understand that your husband Bruce, though he has a full-time computer programming job, is also now deeply involved in the business, especially Sweet Elite Tools. Can you explain his role in the business? What are the pros and cons, if any, of working so closely with your spouse?
AC: Bruce develops and maintains all of our websites, as well as creates many programs that are customized to our needs. He handles all of the accounting and most of the communications with our wholesale customers of Sweet Elite Tools. We truly enjoy working together. It’s really fun when we see positive results from the changes and hard work that we’ve both put in. He is hoping someday to fully retire from his nine-to-five job so that he doesn’t have to work every weekend and several weeknights on our family businesses. It’s hard to make that commitment now, as we have three kids in college! The biggest con of working with my spouse is that it’s hard to break away from the business. Even when on vacation, we still seemed to get pulled into work conversations. We have to work hard not to talk business!
JMU: I hear you on the latter! My husband and I don't even work in the same field, and it's often hard for us to distance ourselves from our work. Mine invades our home, so that's part of the issue . . . Have your kids been involved in the family business as well? Have they expressed any interest in settling down in your business after college? Do you encourage them to help out with the business, or would you rather have them explore other interests? I don't have any kids, so parent-kid interactions are always very intriguing to me!
AC: All four of our kids have worked in the business at some point; some are working even now. My kids aren’t full-time employees, but they do come and help out a few times a week with projects, or just to fill in when other employees are out. I think it’s important for kids of business owners to be working at the business, so they can see the roles and challenges of owning a business. At this point, none seem to have a long-term interest in the business, and that’s okay! I think it's important for them to find their passions and follow where their hearts are leading. It sounds corny, but you only live once! If you can make a living from your passion, you will not regret following your dreams. I feel extremely fortunate to have found my passion in my family’s well-established business. I can definitely see some entrepreneurial traits in a couple of my kids, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they start their own businesses. They are always giving me suggestions and ideas (quite good ones!). Who knows, one or more of them may decide that they miss the family business and it is their passion too!
JMU: You wear a lot of hats – business owner, product developer, author, decorator . . . but what does your typical work day look like? How does your usual work day begin, evolve, and end? Do you wear all of these hats equally?
AC: My day varies so much from day to day. However, there is a routine I follow every day. I start the day by going through my emails and reviewing my current task list (which could have several months of projects organized by priority). After reviewing, I make a daily task list. I live by lists organized by priority. It sounds a little crazy, but it really doesn’t take me that much time (5 to 10 minutes a day to review and make my list). I would be a complete disorganized mess without these lists. After that, I am ready to start the day. One day I may be immersed in getting ready for a trade show. Another day could be filled with planning an event we are holding at the retail shop. Another day could be filled with business meetings. Unfortunately, right now the “fun stuff”, which I consider book writing and decorating, isn’t a priority, so I don’t get to do those projects as often as I would like. I certainly do not wear all the hats equally. I wish, while at college, I had taken some business classes. I sometimes feel a little inadequate running a business. However, I feel fortunate that I had great training from my parents. I also have a great team of employees that I can rely on and bounce around ideas with.
JMU: Ooh, I know all about list writing too! Like you, I have lists of my lists! I can't end a day without writing one for the next day, or start the next day without reviewing, and possibly tweaking, the list written the night before. Call me compulsive, but this ritual keeps me calm and on track.
If you had to choose just one of the things you mentioned above to focus on going forward, what would it be and why? (Sorry, I like to ask impossible questions! )
AC: Oh boy, that is a hard question! I think it would be book writing . . . no I’ve changed my mind . . . product developing . . . wait . . . business owner . . . too hard! I love every one of them. If I were to quit doing any of them, I would truly miss them.
JMU: So speaks a true renaissance woman! Being so close to the consumer and their decorating wants and needs surely gives you a unique vantage point when it comes to spotting product trends or new ideas. What have been the most significant product trends you’ve seen in cake and/or cookie decorating tools or supplies over the last 20 years? When and why did they occur, in your opinion?
AC: I think metallics are really fascinating and have had a huge impact on decorating for over 30 years. I remember the excitement in the 80s of new dusts to add shimmer, and I have seen the transition of nontoxic luster dusts to now FDA-approved dusts, sprays, paints, and liquids. While the FDA-approved products are still not as vibrant as the non-edible metallics, they seem to improve every couple of years. Texture is also a trend that continues to be popular and can easily be obtained with mats, tools, and piping.
JMU: As a corollary to my last question, what do you see as the emerging trends in cookie products right now, and what’s driving those trends?
AC: I love how stencils have become mainstream in decorating cookies over the past few years. When I started, there weren’t any stencils designed for cookies. Now you can find stencils in any pattern and layered stencils (love yours!), or you can make your own if you can’t find the stencil you want! I think social media plays a huge role in driving the stencil trend. Stencils can be intimidating and frustrating to use if you don’t follow tips and instructions. The videos and tutorials online show just how easy it is to obtain a professional design on cookies.
JMU: Well, I certainly hope the stencil trend continues! But, of course, I have a vested interest in that! Continuing on the topic of products . . . What do you think are the biggest unmet needs among cookie decorators, and do you have plans to design any tools to fill those needs?
AC: Hmmm . . . Any tool that makes decorating more efficient. I’m always trying to figure out tools that make cake and cookie decorating quicker and more practical. Right now, I do not have any brilliant ideas for cookie decorating. I love seeing what others come up with though! I have to say one of the biggest game-changers for me in a long time has been tip-less bags. I absolutely love them for using thinned royal icing. (Although I hate them for stiff royal icing and buttercream icing, LOL.)
JMU: Let’s move away from products and tools for a bit to talk about teaching. You’ve taught in many different ways – through your seven books, your online Craftsy course, your in-person classes at Country Kitchen SweetArt and elsewhere, etc. Which of these teaching methods or platforms is your favorite, and why?
AC: In-person classes are always the most rewarding for me, as I love meeting the students and working with them one on one. The students typically start a little intimidated when working on their projects, and it gives me such pleasure to see how happy they are at the end of completing their work. I've really enjoyed my books as well. You can reach so many students through books.
JMU: Do you have any plans to write more books or do more online courses? Why or why not? If so, can you tell us a little bit about any upcoming projects you might have in the works?
AC: I have lots of ideas for books, but haven’t started on any of the ideas. Once I decide to write a book, it consumes me. It’s hard to make that commitment, because I become a little obsessed and spend all waking hours on it. I do love the challenge though and look forward to writing one within the next few years.
Currently, I am continuing with my Sweet Elite Tools product development line and have some new products coming out. One of them is a cutter set from Jodi Till (also a CookieCon 2018 instructor). They are adorable lizard and snake palm pet cookie cutters. They should be out within a couple months.
JMU: They sound super cute! I'll have to ask Jodi more about them when I interview her in a few weeks for this same series. Back to teaching . . . Many cookiers seem to be more and more interested in teaching in-person classes. You teach them and also host outside instructors at Country Kitchen SweetArt, so it seems you’ve got extra insight into what it takes to be a great cookie teacher. Based on this experience, what are your top five best practices for teaching in-person classes?
AC: Here goes:
- Organization is key. Students always notice when an instructor isn’t prepared or can’t find tools during the demonstration. I spread everything out on large trays. Each section on the tray represents a technique.
- Printing a great handout is also key. It should contain all of the information covered in class so that, when the student is back home, s/he can refer to it and not feel frustrated trying to remember what the teacher said.
- I also do a lot of demonstrations. When demonstrating (this may not necessarily apply to a hands-on class), a fast-paced demonstration that covers a lot of information keeps students more engaged than a demo covering just a couple of techniques. I always start my demos by saying, “I am going to cover a lot of information, so if there is anything you don’t understand, simply stop me and I’ll go over it in more detail.”
- Prepare at least one or two extra of everything. Sometimes snafus happen. A student who you weren’t expecting may show up, cookies may break, icing bags can explode, etc.
- Finally, it always frustrates me when I hear a teacher say “you’re doing it the wrong way”. Cookie/cake decorating is an art, so I don’t believe in a right or a wrong way. With that said, if a student is working toward a certain look, it is important for the instructor to show the student how to obtain the look in a kind, patient manner.
JMU: I agree on all said. A special "bravo" on point five too - you are so right. I like to keep my eyes wide open in classes, because students usually come up with very creative riffs on what I've taught. I always come away from my classes having learned so much from my students!
Can you give us a glimpse into what you’re planning to teach at CookieCon and why you chose this topic?
AC: I like to choose topics that every decorator - whether just beginning or already advanced - can use. This year, I am teaching accents for cookies. These accents will include royal icing, rolled fondant, wafer paper, and more. Royal icing flowers and ready-to-go pieces are really expensive to buy, yet they are easy to make. The same is true of rolled fondant decorations. They can be made several months ahead of time. Making accents ahead of time can also take away some of the stress of decorating in the moment.
JMU: Absolutely! Last, but not least, my usual parting question . . . Where do you see yourself within the cookie world three years from now? What are your cookie (or other) dreams and aspirations?
AC: Not much different than where I am now. I love the variety of my job. I will continue developing tools and cutters for the confectionery industry. I would like to say another book will be in the works within three years, but book writing involves such a time commitment (as you know). I really miss the whole process though, and some days I sit and jot down my book project ideas, so I don’t think it will be too long!
JMU: Well, we will all be eagerly awaiting its arrival, while watching you continue to grow your sweet empire! Congrats on all of your many and varied accomplishments, and thank you ever so much for spending more time with us today!
To learn more about Autumn and her businesses, please visit the Country Kitchen SweetArt and Sweet Elite Tools sites. Be sure to take a peek under the "Sweet Elite Designers" section of the latter to read Autumn's full bio.
All cookie, photo, and video credits: Autumn Carpenter and Country Kitchen SweetArt
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!