Today, I’m launching the first in my two-part series of interviews with our 2017 Cookiers’ Choice Awards winners, and we’re kicking off with the amazingly generous and ingenious Cookiers of the Year, Ginny and Doug Levack of Creative Cookier. Doug and Ginny are the husband-and-wife team behind the life-altering Genie products, including the Stencil Genie, Easel Genie, and Thingamagenie, as well as the ultra-personal cookie decorating retreats better known as CookieRehabs. While it’s difficult to recount all that Doug and Ginny have given to the cookie community over the years, one Cookiers’ Choice Awards judge took a darn good stab at it when she said: “From their niche stenciling products to their Cookie Cruises to their CookieRehab weekends, the Levacks have figured out what cookiers of all levels of experience need and want, and deliver. I love that the Levacks don’t just see cookie artists as customers, but as friends and members of a community. This spirit infuses everything they do, and is, no doubt, the secret to their incredible success in 2017." And, to this, all I can add is a resounding, “So true!”
For those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of meeting Ginny and Doug, you’re in luck, because we’re going to get up close and personal with them here, through a revealing and hopefully fun she said-he said interview. Basically, I’ve asked each of them the same questions, and told them they need to answer them independently of one another. Absolutely no sneaking peeks or copying of the other's answers – or else!
If they play by the rules , this post will be the very first time that anyone, except me, has laid eyes on their answers. Will we find that they’re always of like mind, and that doing business together is nothing short of sheer bliss? Or will we find them in a perpetual state of negotiation, with the art of compromise being the key to their success? Well, let’s go and see, shall we?!
JMU: First, welcome, Doug and Ginny! And a huge thank you for going along with this somewhat zany interview plan. I’ve got a softball question – actually, more of a memory test - to warm you up. As you know, I first interviewed Ginny for another Close-up on December 20, 2014. Without looking at that interview, can you tell me how many 3-D printers you were using at that time to make cookie cutters and Stencil Genies, and roughly how long it took to "print" one of your 3 ½-inch Lucy Letters cutters? [BTW, readers, to learn how Ginny and Doug got started in cookies, and what they did prior to Creative Cookier, please check out that early interview with Ginny. We won’t be re-treading that territory today.]
GL: First, let me say, I love being part of the Cookie Connection family! Winning this award is a HUGE honor to us, and I appreciate everyone who took the time to vote. Also, thanks to the judges for their hard work selecting the winners, and, Julia, I think your ongoing commitment to this site is nothing short of amazing. Now on to the interview . . . (Hopefully Doug and I will still be on speaking terms once we read each other's answers!)
Thinking back, I believe we had 14 3-D printers that ran practically around the clock. We set our alarms to go out and restart the Stencil Genies we were then printing on them! I think that the Lucy Letters then took almost 90 minutes each to run! But that's Doug’s area of expertise!
DL: I just want to say thank you for asking us to participate in this interview together. I am really happy to be included. Sometimes people don't realize that there is also a guy, "lurking" in the warehouse, creating cutters, filling orders, and such. More importantly, we are honored to have won this award.
We had 14 3-D printers running almost 24 hours a day. At times, all 14 would be printing Stencil Genies. For Ginny and I, getting a full night’s sleep was a luxury we rarely got. Originally, a single Lucy Letter took almost 2 hours to print, but I have been able to tweak the software and get the print-time down to 90 minutes.
JMU: First, thanks for the kind words! I love having you in the Cookie Connection family as well, and I’m thrilled to know how much the award meant to you both. As for your pop quiz, well, you guys are clearly consistent, but, according to Ginny at the time of the interview, you only had nine (going on 14) 3-D printers back in December 2014. But the Lucy Letter did indeed take about 2 hours to print! (Phew - those machines aren’t nearly as quick as I thought!)
I think all of us can also agree that you’ve come a long way since 2014 and the launch of the Stencil Genie. Heck, the Genie is no longer even “printed”. I think you moved to injection-molding a couple of years ago for more efficiency, right? Anyway, looking back on those times, what would you say is your fondest memory of getting started in the cookie business?
GL: I can't believe it, but we have been injection-molding the Stencil Genie for over two years now! It seems like yesterday that my SIL, Karla Whitsitt, came for Christmas 2011, and we did a family cookie decorating activity. That is when I became obsessed with cookie decorating, and, from there, my marketing background stepped in and things just sort of evolved at a crazy pace
DL: Eating all the cookies! Okay, maybe that was just a side bonus. When Ginny started decorating cookies, I could tell that the artist inside her loved it. It gave her a way to express her art in a form that she could constantly change. I loved seeing her so happy.
JMU: Awww, so sweet, Doug! I wish my husband was as exuberant about my cookie passion (code for "cookies being all over the place")! Of course, prying minds also want to know: what was your biggest headache when starting out, and how did you get past it?
GL: My original launch of Creative Cookier (as more than just me selling decorated cookies) began with my FIRST of many harebrained ideas, and to say it was the biggest headache is probably an understatement. Cookie Cruise 2015 was actually a spark in my imagination in late 2013, and it took me a few months of research and negotiations before its launch in April 2014. Trust me, at that point in time, Doug really wasn't involved in Creative Cookier, and was none too thrilled with my idea. Once I told Doug that, for this event to succeed, I would need to offer it at a bargain price and underwrite a big portion of it by selling PME pastry tips and cookie cutters (that he had to create), he was pretty sure I had totally lost it! I could literally hear him thinking, "This woman is gonna send me to the poor house.” Thankfully, some pretty amazing cookiers were willing to take the leap of faith; the event sold out; and, in January 2015, the first Cookie Cruise took place. It was a great trip, but we were exhausted between it and our ever-growing line of Genie items! Once it was over, we said we would never do it again, yet we did it again in January 2018, and said the same thing again, but . . . you just never know!
DL: Before Creative Cookier and getting our first two 3-D printers, I hadn’t realized the huge demand for custom cutters. We went from two to five or six printers in just a couple of months. Then came the Stencil Genie, and the headache turned into a migraine pretty quickly. We managed to get all that demand under control with 14 3-D printers. All this happened while Ginny was coordinating the first Cookie Cruise. Luckily, we had the support of some great cookiers who helped us pull it all together.
JMU: Yes, you guys were clearly bonkers to take on so much at one time! But I'm sure glad you survived! Recognizing that hindsight is 20/20, what one thing do you wish you had done differently with the business during those first few years, and why?
GL: This answer is one I am guessing Doug and I will agree on. We should have had the Stencil Genie injection-molded sooner! The injection mold was so costly, and I just kept thinking, "Okay, everyone has one [Genie]. How many more can we possibly sell?" Our sales are still increasing every year, and now we wholesale to retailers globally! Clearly I was mistaken in my thinking!
DL: We should have had the Stencil Genie injection mold made sooner. When we initially released the first version, I asked her, "How many do you think we will sell?" Ginny's answer, "I don't know, 10, maybe 30." I guess she forgot the word "thousand"!
JMU: Wow, you two are consistent! Let’s see if this next question gets you to deviate from one another . . . There are so many facets to your current business – product development, product sales and marketing, manufacturing, event management, and probably others . . . which part is your personal favorite, and why?
GL: This one is tough for me to answer. I am the type who needs lots of things going on to keep me motivated, so I love it all (most of the time)! If I was pressed to choose just one, I would choose the CookieRehab Retreats. I have made so many amazing friendships, and each and every event is different.
DL: I'm going to have to go with product development. The engineering side of me likes when Ginny has an idea for a new product. Then we draw up a design on paper. I get to take that design and make 3-D prototypes, which Ginny and I revise until we have a great product that cookiers really like.
JMU: Ha! Finally a difference of opinion! Now, for the corollary question . . . which part, if any, causes you to lose the most sleep at night, and why?
GL: Customer service. I want to offer our customers the very best service in a world where customer service is sorely lacking. Sometimes, people will send in questions or concerns late at night, and I can't sleep until I feel like I have reached out to resolve them in some way. It's all I can do not to call them back at some crazy hour to let them know what we can do to help answer their questions! To those of you I did call after you were sound asleep . . . sorry!
DL: Order fulfillment. Since I still have a "real" job that takes 40-plus hours of my time a week, getting orders packed and ready to ship can be a challenge on those days/evenings when I am not working my other job. And sometimes that Cookie Cruise caused sleepless nights too!
JMU: You both make me tired just thinking of all the hours you pack into each day! Turning now to the product side of your business, who of you is truly the brainchild behind your new product ideas? For instance, who came up with the Stencil Genie, the Easel Genie, and the others? Can you briefly describe your typical product development and testing process?
GL: I am the thinker-upper of MANY harebrained ideas inclusive of the Stencil Genie, Easel Genie, Icing Genie, and Thingamagenie products. But, Doug is the engineer who turns them into reality.
DL: Ginny usually comes to me with one of her ideas. We then work together to see if it's actually a viable concept, and, from there, I take over on the prototyping.
JMU: It’s great that you’ve got such complementary skills. I’m pretty good at generating ideas, but, even though I’m an engineer by training, I'm hopeless when it comes to mocking up anything that isn’t a cookie! My husband is also mechanically challenged . . . That’s why I rely on outside teams to help me bring my product ideas to fruition.
But, enough about me! Back to you! What’s been the most challenging part of growing your product lines in recent years? Coming up with new ideas, protecting patents on existing products, overseeing manufacturing and ensuring product quality, customer management, or something else entirely? Why has this thing been a challenge, and what are you doing to make it less so?
GL: Because we are a two-person show, all of the above is intrinsic to our success, but time management is our Achilles’ heel. There are never enough hours in the day. My parents do come and help us label and package new products, and my step mom, Sandy, does our bookkeeping, which helps tremendously. In 2018, we are reevaluating and revamping many of our processes to help us handle our ongoing growth without killing ourselves or shortchanging our values.
DL: Every part of our business is challenging because it's just Ginny and me. As shipments come in, we do get help from family with labeling and packaging products. We are currently working on streamlining many of our processes to help increase our efficiency.
JMU: Once again, you two are in perfect lockstep! Now, onto your events . . . you do them everywhere, in your new CookieRehab House, at inns, on boats . . . and, for all I know, you have some other new venue up your sleeve! They also run the gamut from very intimate (your weekend retreats) to quite large (like the group of 50-some cookiers on the recent Cookie Cruise). Which event format, if any, do you prefer, and why?
GL: I love them all, as they each bring something new and exciting to the mix, but I am enjoying the luxury of being able to do many of them at our new CookieRehab House here in Texas!
DL: The Cookie Cruise is the big event for me. There is SO much planning involved to make it happen. It's like a game of best/worst case scenarios. (Ever try to find a 9-volt battery on a cruise ship?) I love seeing all the attendees having a GREAT time decorating cookies with fabulous instructors. And the attendees still get to have a vacation at the same time.
JMU: I personally love both your Rehabs and Cruises equally well, but, now that I’ve seen a glimpse of your Rehab House (photos directly above and below), it may just be my favorite place! I do need to visit one day soon! For you personally, what’s the most gratifying part of organizing and running these events, and why?
GL: The feedback we get from attendees is why we do these events again and again. There is no greater feeling after events than to get the cards, emails, and messages telling us what a great time everyone had, how many new friends were made, and how what was learned is having an impact on people's work! It's the kind of stuff that makes us both teary-eyed! (Hmmm, Doug may not admit to that though, LOL.)
DL: When we bring together instructors and attendees for an event, the friendships and memories made, the skills exchanged, and the feedback we get literally get me all choked up. But, don't tell anybody; it may ruin my grumpy image!
JMU: Grumpy image?! What grumpy image, Doug?! You’ve been nothing but a model of sweetness here!
What’s the craziest thing that ever happened at one of these events, or in the preparation for it?
GL: I think your question might be better phrased, "What crazy thing hasn't happened during one of your events?" Just when I think we have seen it all, something else even more bizarre occurs. From unlikely weather delays and baking disasters to devising inventive uses for "airbrush cleaner", encountering a four-legged retreat visitor ("Herman the Opossum”), and witnessing the unimaginable aboard ships, there is ALWAYS something to keep each event memorable.
DL: There is ALWAYS something crazy that happens. I think the best answer is for people to attend one of our events and help us add to the ever-growing list of crazy stuff.
JMU: LOL – I have fond memories of coming up with that inventive use for “airbrush cleaner”! But, enough about that! I think we need to leave readers wondering a bit longer. What’s been the best part about having your spouse so deeply involved in your cookie business? And the worst part?
GL: The best part: We get to spend a lot of quality time together creating something amazing. The worst part: We get to spend a lot of time together.
DL: The best part: Spending time with your “best friend”. The worst part: “Spending time” with your best friend.
JMU: In agreement, once again! And one last, more forward-looking question . . . please describe your hopes and dreams for Creative Cookier in 2018, and also three years from now!
GL: Right now, we have a couple of exciting things in development that we hope to introduce this year and, shhhhh, don't tell anyone, but we are working on another BIG event in 2019! Our long-term outlook is to streamline processes, grow our Genie Ambassador program, continue to expand our wholesale division, and stay in direct touch with the cookiers who make it all happen for us with their continued support.
DL: 2018 should be another exciting year with new products presently in development, and an event for 2019 already in the works. Long-term goals are continued growth through streamlining our product line and expanding our wholesale client base.
JMU: Well, judging from the harmony of your answers, I think we can all safely conclude that Creative Cookier is a model of business bliss - and that you two are still speaking to each other after seeing these answers! Congrats again on your business success. I look forward to the grand reveals you just teased for 2019! Thanks too for playing along with the interview today! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
To learn more about Ginny and Doug and their Genie products and events, please check out their site, creativecookier.com.
Please also stay tuned for our second, and final, Close-up in our 2017 Cookiers' Choice Awards series. It will feature Cookie Artist of the Year, @swissophie, aka Sonja Galmad, but it won't be hitting your screens until later in May.
All photo credits: Creative Cookier and Julia M Usher (See attachments for individual photo credits.)
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!