If you can remember as far back as July (my bad for getting behind on these Close-ups), the wonderful @Cookies Fantastique, aka Carol Mattison, was our featured site artist, wowing us with a rather spectacular Fourth of July set (pictured below)!
In her site artist forum intro published around that time, Carol mentioned that she first got into cookie decorating in 2014 as a way to distract herself from a life-altering event. After volunteering to make small desserts for her niece’s wedding, she got drawn to cookies and then began studying lots and lots of cookie decorating videos to develop her skills. It didn’t take long for her to cultivate a steady stream of requests for special event cookies. Six years later, Carol is now a very sought-after cookier, even in these extremely unpredictable coronavirus times. In fact, she recently reassured me that my tardiness in drafting these interview questions was not an issue, because she was so darn busy keeping on top of cookie orders!
Carol’s graceful way of letting me off the hook () is also testament to her incredible generosity and kindness, which, if you’ve been on this site for any period of time, you know she doles out in large quantities every day. It’s certainly clear that one of Carol’s greatest joys comes from encouraging other cookie decorators! As her bio so aptly points out: “Carol knows that people often need a simple kind word to make their day brighter. This is Carol’s way to pay it forward in thankfulness to the many people who have helped her for many years.” Yes, Carol truly is that special! My day is brightened just by the appearance of her name popping up in my site feed!
So, let’s move on to learn more about this remarkable cookier – what she does day in and day out, how she’s kept her cookie business alive and active during these unusual times, and more!
JMU: Hi, Carol! Thanks so much for doing this interview and for being so patient with me! I have been dying to learn more about you, so I am glad my personal schedule has finally allowed me to catch up with Cookie Connection work. Let’s start with a little context about your cookie business. Are you home-based or do you work in a brick-and-mortar location outside the home? Roughly how many cookies per week do you sell and for what types of occasions and customers, at what typical price point?
CM: Hi, Julia! Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my cookie journey with you. I first started thinking about a cookie decorating business after receiving several requests for special event cookies. These requests came from friends of my family, my friends, and friends of my friends. I am home-based and plan to keep it that way. On average, I receive two to six orders per month, which has been okay because of my physical limitations. That said, I still would like to do more with my business and am rethinking how to go about doing that. (During holiday times, the number of orders is significantly higher. I can barely keep up with my schedule. That level of effort is unsustainable month to month.)
Since the beginning, I have filled orders for custom cookies only. I enjoy this kind of work the most, but it also brings in the least amount of profit. Pricing has always been a challenge. I started out charging $25 per dozen! Insane. Even at that price, there were so many people who wouldn’t order because I was “too expensive”. It was very discouraging! I continue to struggle with how to best price my work. I still haven’t arrived at a pricing schedule that I’m comfortable with in spite of all the research. There are a LOT of views on this subject. I would ultimately like to have pricing that covers my expenses and time.
JMU: Yes, I see so many cookiers underpricing very labor-intensive work, and too few actually costing out all that they put into that work. I think if they did, they’d feel more empowered to say “no” when customers try to bargain with them on price. Anywho . . . I'm sure you'll find the sweet spot that works best for you. Just curious - why did you decide to operate your business out of your home rather than somewhere else? What factors did you consider when making this decision?
CM: Working from home was, and continues to be, the most practical choice for me. I like the freedom and flexibility it provides. With our “kids” grown and gone, I have a lot of freedom and space.
JMU: Is your clientele mostly local, or do you also ship? Was it a conscious decision to structure your business this way? And, if so, why?
CM: I ship more orders than I receive from local clientele. I would prefer to take in more local orders. My business has grown almost entirely from word of mouth rather than from any real effort to advertise on social media other than Facebook. Even my “advertising” on Facebook is abysmally minimal compared to what it needs to be if I’m serious about growing. People won’t inquire about ordering if they don’t know I’m out there and available. This is true now more than ever before.
JMU: Were there any hurdles or particularly challenging aspects to getting your cookie business started, and, if so, what were they and how did you handle/overcome them?
CM: At the beginning, it was very hard knowing how to inform people that I sell custom decorated cookies. I started to see some orders come in after I created a business page on Facebook and received some “likes” and reviews of my work. Whenever I post new pictures on Facebook (not nearly as often as I need to do), I always write a little something about the order and let people know that I sell cookies.
I also took some targeted theme cookies to places I frequented (e.g., hair salon, dentist, etc.) and talked about my business and interest in taking orders. People probably got sick and tired of listening to me!
JMU: I know, it can be tough selling oneself, but it's such an essential part of growing any business. Now that you’ve been selling cookies for four years, have new business challenges presented themselves? If so, what are they and how are you planning to address them?
CM: The biggest challenge remains the same . . . getting myself known as a business. I don’t have a website! This is a HUGE drawback to growing any business these days. For me, a big part of not having a website comes down to fear of not being able to keep the content updated frequently enough, as websites are constantly evolving. It cannot be neglected. If my content (pictures, calls to action, written communication, ordering process, etc.) is stale or unclear, then no one will look at it.
Not having a website screams that I’m not serious about my business! There are a lot of templates available for creating a website. The bottom line is that I must make a commitment to spend time at the computer and work on it every single day.
Another big challenge is simply that I am not able to sit at a computer or at my cookie decorating table for very long at a time. I need frequent breaks and sometimes can’t work at all. In broad strokes, I believe that I am basically aware of what needs to be done to grow from where my business is today, but I have a lot of concerns about my ability to consistently follow through with what needs to be done. The only answer to this dilemma is to try!
JMU: I am so sorry that you have physical constraints which limit your work time, but I do believe that having a positive outlook (as you do) can help one move mountains! For instance, so many have struggled to keep their cookie businesses going through the pandemic, while you seem to have been very busy, at least recently. Is my perception true? How has your cookie business been impacted by the pandemic?
CM: I was seeing steady growth in the number of orders coming in until the pandemic hit in March. I went for two full months without even one order. It freaked me out, and I soon realized that there was no predicting how long this pandemic would last. What I did know was that there would be a “new normal”. I needed to quickly figure out how to respond if I wanted to be in business. It was during this time that I started investigating the process of making cookie decorating videos and was more seriously looking at website templates.
June has always been a busy month for me, and this year was busier than ever before. I was happily surprised that a lot of orders started coming in again.
JMU: Great to hear that business may be turning around, though I can appreciate how the unpredictability could freak one out! Let's explore this topic a bit more . . . Have you pivoted your business in any particular way(s) to help keep it growing and prosperous during these crazy times? For instance, have you changed what you offer? your pricing? your clientele? If so, how and why did you decide to try these things? Have they helped your business as much as you had hoped?
CM: This is one of my big problems, Julia. I haven’t pivoted as I need to in order to grow during these times. The biggest thing I’m considering right now is adding more visual interest to my Facebook and Instagram pages. By creating some short decorating videos, I think there would be more people drawn to my work. That’s where I’m headed right now. Hopefully, videos will make some difference.
I believe the intelligent use of technology and social media is a critical factor for me to grow a cookie business during these times. Sadly, I am woefully challenged when it comes to technology. Seriously challenged! In spite of all the reading I’ve done, there’s much I just do not seem to grasp. I really don’t want this specific issue to be the end of Cookies Fantastique, so the research continues.
JMU: We don’t want it to be the end either – so keep on researching! Or maybe start reaching out to cookiers for advice? There are many social media masters out there who could lend tips, and people always love to talk about their successes. Speaking of tips . . . What top three tips would you give to cookie decorators who are hoping to start selling cookies in the near future? Would these tips be any different if we weren’t still in the middle of a pandemic?
CM: First, and most important, it’s critical to be firmly connected to social media sites. One’s involvement there needs to be constant. Making daily or every-other-day updates with new content is extremely important.
Second, be visual. By that I mean: it’s clear that cookie decorating businesses cannot operate as successfully without giving people something interactive to engage their interest. Doing this has become more important now than ever before, in my opinion. Short videos can provide a way to meet that interest. During this ongoing pandemic, people aren’t traveling much. If teaching is one of your business objectives, then it is important to make detailed step-by-step instructional videos. Like what you do so well, Julia! I know that I love watching those detailed videos 😊. There are so many skill levels that can be addressed in this way.
Third, be involved in giveaways. I touched on this point briefly already. Here’s a specific example of something I did: when I went to my salon to get my hair trimmed, I brought along several hair-themed decorated cookies. I had my business cards ready to give out to anyone who might be interested. Giveaways are a great way to make people aware that you have a business of creating decorated cookies for events.
As far as whether or not these tips would be different than they might have been prior to the pandemic . . . Actually, I don’t think so. Using technology to create awareness and interest is always timely.
JMU: It’s clear from the cookies you post here on Cookie Connection that you’re well versed in a wide range of techniques. (Your pink and lilac set, two photos up, and the floral cookies, directly above, are great examples of what I mean.) You’ve also figured out how to seamlessly integrate those many techniques into a single set while keeping the set looking visually cohesive – which is no small feat! Of all the techniques you use, which are your favorites, and why? And what technique, if any, is your “cookie kryptonite” or weakness? Any plans to eliminate that weakness?
CM: Oh, Julia, you are far too kind! I love variety which can be a real drawback in terms of making money. The techniques that interest me the most include 3-D construction, airbrushing, and intricate piping (although I have a long way to go there). And I’m using fondant and modeling chocolate where it makes sense in the design. I don’t care for the taste of fondant, which is one reason why I like to keep it to a minimum, but it and modeling chocolate can really add dimension to a flat cookie.
My weaknesses are many! I cannot draw to save my life. This is a real handicap when planning a themed set of cookies. My lack of knowledge and fear of technology are huge! Quite frankly, with technology, I often don’t even understand what I need to learn in order to accomplish my objectives. A good example is that I want to make videos. I can grasp the basic idea of how, but setting the stage and editing the finished product baffle me.
Also, I am by far my worst critic and often doubt the decisions I’ve made with a project.
What I’m doing to address drawing: I research and watch drawing tutorials, and I’m practicing. As I said above, I’m researching how to make and edit videos. At some point, I need to just dive in and do it. I figure that, if I’m going to learn, I must accept that failure is often a part of the learning process. It’s okay.
JMU: I agree. I think people often learn the most through failures or unexpected outcomes. It’s too easy to fall complacently into a rut when everything goes as predicted. Related to the above question . . . how on earth do you weave so many techniques into a typical set and still have it looking beautifully cohesive and not disjointed? Any tips for the rest of us mere mortals?!
CM: What a kind way to ask this question 😊. I’ve not given much thought to the use of a lot of techniques when I’m decorating. I am constantly thinking about what I’m doing. I often find that one cookie design may naturally segue into a different one that fits the theme. I even turn my drawing of ideas upside down to not be overly influenced by it, which probably plays a big part in why I’m so slow decorating my cookies.
JMU: Now, onto some questions that I like to ask everyone. What do you like most about being part of the broader cookie community, and why?
CM: I absolutely love Cookie Connection! I’ve always enjoyed meeting people, and the world of cookiers is one of kindest and most generous you could ever find. I am inspired by the incredible work everyone creates. Each post is like opening a new present.
JMU: Oh, I am thrilled to hear that you love the site. It’s been a labor of love for me, and it’s always great to hear that the time invested is paying back by making people happier and better cookiers. And for the corollary of the last question . . . what do you like least about the broader cookie community, or what would you most like to change about it, and why?
CM: That’s a tough one. There are extremely rare instances when I see a lack of integrity. That bothers me a lot. People copying other cookiers’ work without permission is a pet peeve of mine. Fortunately, that’s very, very rare.
JMU: If you could turn back time and redo any one cookie thing that you’ve done since starting to decorate, what would it be and why?
CM: This answer actually goes back to my last one . . . I posted a picture of a cookie I made that was predominantly based on another artist’s design. Even though I also posted the picture of the original artist’s work and mentioned that I was unable to find out who the artist was so that I could get permission, I made and posted my cookie anyway. Not good enough! I would really like to undo that one! I should have trashed the idea altogether! In the end I was utterly embarrassed that I even posted it.
JMU: Well, we all have regrets, so you’re not alone in that camp. It’s a rarer person who can acknowledge them and grow from them, as you have. Thanks for your candor. As you look back on all you’ve accomplished in the cookie world since you started in 2014, what is the biggest cookie lesson you’ve learned, or the biggest tip that you’d like to impart to those just starting out in cookie decorating?
CM: Practice! No artist ever reached his or her goal without a lot of trial and error. Take your ultimate objective with cookie decorating one step at a time. Set periodic goals that are attainable for you. Once you feel comfortable with that goal, then set the next goal and so on.
JMU: Such great advice! Still looking back over the years, what single cookie accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
CM: I made a 3-D house that actually fit together the right way, and was absolutely thrilled beyond what I thought possible 😊.
JMU: 3-D projects ARE really gratifying – once you’ve got them firmly “glued” in place and past the point of crashing to their demise, that is! And, last but not least . . . To date, you’ve played in cookies as both a creator and a seller. Do you have any aspirations to try your hand at other cookie-related things apart from the video production you mentioned – i.e., teaching, developing products, or something else? In other words, where do you see yourself in the cookie world three years from now? And why would you like to head that way?
CM: I would love to teach those who are beginning to decorate cookies. Once I learn how to make and edit videos (ha ha), I see teaching that way as an attainable objective. As much as I would love to teach in person, one-on-one, I don’t know if that’s possible. But never say never.
JMU: Well, I, for one, will be eager to see your first video tutorials, as I'm sure many others will also be. Don't forget to post them here to Cookie Connection, and I'll be sure to help spread the word. Thanks again for taking the time to give us a view into your cookie life! It's been so fun and interesting for me to learn more about you!
Cookie and photo credits: Carol Mattison
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!