Hi, everyone! I apologize for another gap in Cookier Close-ups, but at least this time the gap was much shorter than my last! To make up for my silence, I have an ultra-special interview this month. I usually focus on cookie artists, but, today, I’m departing from that norm by interviewing a product innovator who makes our job of cookie decorating that much easier! And this person is . . . the one and only Michele Hester, founder/owner of SugarVeil®, and the inventor of the first edible lace and mats!
Michele’s products were all the rage at the recent Reno CookieCon, where Cynthia Raven of @SugarChat demoed some beautiful applications on cookies. Cynthia showed how to dust and airbrush SugarVeil®, as well as how to turn it into edible fabric that can be cut, punched, trimmed, and cinched to make eye-catching cookie decorations!
@Manu, one of our fabulous Cookie Connection contributors, has also made numerous cookie creations using SugarVeil®’s original Needlepoint Mat, which, I am proud to say, I co-developed with Michele back in 2016. This mat was designed expressly for the purpose of eliminating the painstaking grid-piping associated with needlepoint designs, and it’s done just that as you can see below in the sampling of Manu’s work using that mat.
Pretty ingenious products, right?! How on earth did Michele come up with these innovations? Was she always inventing from an early age, or did she come to inventing later in life? Why did she choose cake and cookie decorating applications? What does she do to fuel (and re-fuel) her creativity? And does she have any new cookie innovations in store for us? My aim is to address all of these questions and more in this Close-up, so please read on!
JMU: Hi, Michele! It’s so wonderful to have you with us! I’m going to start at the very beginning if that’s okay with you, and ask what you did prior to SugarVeil®, and what motivated you to start the company?
MH: I started the company in 1988 as Silkpaint Corporation – I had escaped the corporate world and was freshly back from a seven-year stint in Europe teaching arts and crafts. I had learned a French technique for painting dyes on silk, and decided to start my own business around that technique. I learned at a later stage in my life (I was 35) that I had a passion for formulating products. The French silk painting process involved petro chemicals; I developed eco-friendly, water-soluble substitutes for the process.
JMU: Since you weren’t a baker or sweets decorator by training, what factors first motivated you to move on to develop a product for sweets (particularly cake) decorators, and why edible lace?
MH: My training is in fashion. I have a degree in fashion design, but have always had an instilled desire to create new things outside existing parameters (products now known as “disruptive”). As a teenager, I made and sold dolls that were warted and wrinkled. I have written children’s books with characters publishers deemed “too frightening”. And somewhere I have a letter from one of the top jeans companies (at the time, there were only three: Lee, Levi, and Guess) saying it was absurd to suggest deliberately distressed jeans could be a marketable product. When all of those things became the norm in years that followed, I began to realize my ideas were simply ahead of their time. I began filing patents on my inventions, resulting in several long-lived products existing still today, including Silkpaint Water-Soluble Resist, Fiber Etch Fiber Remover, the AirPen, and SugarVeil® Confectionery Icing.
Continuous, hand-drawn lines are difficult to produce no matter what the craft activity – painting, ceramics, or cake decorating. Dimensional lines are even more problematic. Squeeze bottles/piping bags are the go-to remedy, but they are awkward to use, “burp” at unexpected times, and create hand injuries. Carpal tunnel problems and arthritis were huge incentives for creating a mechanical method to easily produce consistent and even lines – thus, the AirPen.
We started using the AirPen in the crafts industry, with silk painting applications. The cake decorating marketplace was an obvious alternate marketplace. I knew nothing of cake decorating, but read every book available. In 2001, there was an international cake decorating trade show in Kansas City, and I signed up for a booth. Amazingly, people stood in a line to buy the AirPen, blocking booths all the way down the aisle. During the next two decades, we fine-tuned the AirPen to accommodate cake decorators – adding a more powerful pump for thicker royal icing; a selection of tips for chocolate, piping gels, buttercream, and glazes; and components that allow the AirPen to be used on the vertical sides of a cake rather than always keeping the tip in a downward direction. I am happy to say that the version of the AirPen we have today is at the absolute summit, and we are pleased to hear from the thousands of enthusiasts whose work is greatly enhanced and made easier with the Pen’s help.
As an outsider looking at cake decorating, I couldn’t understand why there were so few advances in this area since the 40s. I wanted to be able to produce (1) an entire cake top “off the cake” (cake toppers often broke with royal icing) and (2) more intricate designs than I could get by piping with buttercream and royal icing. These ideas started me on a quest to formulate a flexible icing that would not break when manipulated, and which could be used “off the cake”. Thus, SugarVeil® Confectionery Icing was born. The entire process took about a year and a half, because it seemed I raised the bar at each juncture. Most important was that the product must taste good. Secondly, I wanted it to be a ”clean” product with no additives or preservatives. I also wanted it to have a long shelf life and be economic to package and ship (thus, a concentrated powder that consumers mix themselves). Then I wanted to ensure it would be non-gluten (even though at the time, few people knew what gluten was).
To obtain intricacy in design, I spent years studying types of silicone, design lines and angles, and the easiest method for a consumer to produce an intricate design in icing without needing to know how to pipe, all of which resulted in the first Confectionery Mat. My idea here was to swipe a thin silicone mat incised with designs with SugarVeil® Confectionery Icing, and then peel the icing from the mat to wrap it around a cake. Lace was by nature intricate, so it seemed the best subject to choose for a design. I was also intrigued by the entertainment value of someone presenting a dessert with beautiful lace on it – that subsequently was to be eaten along with the dessert. Funnily enough, after many, many mat designs, that original Lace Mat remains our biggest seller.
JMU: Wow, I thought I knew a lot about you and SugarVeil®, but I did not realize the full extent of the rich history behind your products. Thanks so much for sharing all of that! Looking back to the launch of the AirPen in 2001 and your subsequent related SugarVeil® products, what were the biggest challenges for you in getting the business off the ground, and how did you overcome them?
MH: The biggest challenge was to find a way into a distribution channel for a disruptive product that, essentially, eliminated the need for other tools/products already existing in the field. US distribution was stymied because of this, so we simply began exporting. Most important was to establish and grow the entirely new market category created by SugarVeil®.
The second challenge was keeping up with product quality and finding a packager with all the certifications necessary (FDA, OU Kosher, non-gluten, etc.) who could keep up with demand. This process took countless hours on the phone, library research (pre-internet), and inspecting facilities.
The third challenge was in educating people about SugarVeil®. Early on, before the internet, we had to do this via print advertising, DVD distribution, and trade shows. The internet totally changed the game – we can now easily show videos to communicate much more effectively what SugarVeil® is and the multitudes of ways to use it.
JMU: Can you tell us a bit about the scope of the business now, some 18 years after launch? I know you sell your icing, mats, and other tools from your own site, but how many distributors do you have and into how many countries do you currently sell? Are you still primarily inventing, or do you spend more of your time on other day-to-day business tasks?
MH: SugarVeil® is sold in 40-plus countries throughout the world. I’m also a product concept developer for the food and crafts industries. So besides inventing products of my own from the ground up, for SugarVeil®, I help other companies develop, redirect, and/or tweak formulations of their own proprietary products. That activity is probably most akin to consulting, but the process is more hands-on.
JMU: As a follow-up to my last question, roughly what portion of your business is dedicated to cake-related vs. cookie-related products?
MH: Sometimes this mix is difficult to discern, as many cakers have become cookiers, and vice versa. In general, SugarVeil® use is split roughly as follows: 50 percent cakes/40 percent cookies/10 percent plated desserts.
JMU: Back to distribution for a sec . . . how do you go about finding good distribution partners in foreign parts? I ask partly because I’m in the midst of trying to expand my own stencil distribution! Are there certain selection criteria you use to ensure a good fit? Are there any red flags to watch out for in potential partners?
MH: Two important things to consider: (1) have a distributor agreement drafted by a lawyer; and (2) deal with distributors on a non-exclusive basis, at least for the first year or so. This approach gives you a chance to get to know them, how they order, and if you would like to entertain working with them on an exclusive basis.
JMU: Great advice! You started first with cake mats and selling primarily to cake decorators. Why did you go that route, and when did you launch your first cookie-size mat? What factors caused you to start serving cookie decorators at that time?
MH: I believe that decorating cookies is the perfect way to learn cake decorating techniques. A cookie is small; it’s easier to test a new technique on a cookie; and cookie decorating is a faster way to assemble a repertoire of decorating abilities. The scale is a bit different when designing mats for cookies versus cakes, since cookies are so much smaller than cakes, but designing cookie mats opens up other creative parameters for us. I believe we began cookie-sized mat versions in 2014.
JMU: It’s one thing to create a cute cookie design, but it’s completely another to create a truly breakthrough (or “disruptive”, as you call it) product such as SugarVeil®, which opened up a whole new way to decorate cakes! How do you spot market opportunities (or unmet needs), and do you see any in the cookie decorating market right now?
MH: I’m working on several ideas at the moment, within both the cookie field and the specialty food industry in general. I think it’s important to read and take in seemingly disparate subjects, and see what you get when they are combined. This sounds vague, and is a bit hard to explain, but as an example, at the same time I was researching cake decorating, I was intrigued with the different line patterns of millinery veils from the 40s. I had an entire collection, which I studied and used as ideas for a few mat designs. (BTW, that’s how the name “SugarVeil®” came about, too.)
JMU: Are there any unique aspects of designing for cookiers versus cake decorators? If so, what are they, and how do you handle them?
MH: Cookiers seem to like individual products that are compact and suitable for small projects. Even though it is easier to create large sheets of SugarVeil® and cut it into smaller pieces for cookies, our experience has been that cookiers have preferred isolated shapes on a smaller scale, contained entirely within the cookie. This preference, however, seems to be changing, as I discuss in the answer to your last question.*
JMU: Interesting! We'll get to that last question in a bit, but first . . . Based on my limited experience with designing and producing stencils, I suspect it’s a constant challenge to carve out time for creative thinking and dreaming up new designs and products when there is the day-to-day pressure of keeping an ongoing enterprise humming. How do you balance your creative and administrative/operational time?
MH: Since I work all the time (sometimes just in my head), I luckily love what I do – the ability to create and make an income around what I’ve created. As for the administrative/operations side of it all, my advice is to find smart employees who you trust, and make their jobs interesting by giving them responsibility to make decisions that impact the business. And above all, always give them the freedom to experience moments in life with their families. Often those moments are fleeting and pass much too quickly. No matter how important you think your business is, it will never be as important as their families and personal lives. Nor should it be.
JMU: Again, such useful and practical advice! Thank you! When (under what circumstances) do you do your best creating? Do you ever get creative blocks, and, if so, how do you refresh and overcome them?
MH: Ideas for me are like breathing. They are constant and welcome companions, and are my particular reason to be. Lucky for me, they have created a career opportunity for me to make a living.
JMU: Since the intro of SugarVeil®, there have been numerous other copycat products brought to market, including some very recently in the cookie decorating segment. How have you handled this onslaught of competitive products? How do you defend your intellectual property?
MH: I’ve learned throughout my professional life that there are two kinds of people: those who create and those who copy. I cannot imagine a life that would be so devoid of ideas that copying would be a suitable choice.
BTW, as I recall, this distinction was what made me contact you. I saw one of your videos and was struck by the fact that your work was thoroughly original and employed a striking amount of ingenuity and creativity. It was so exciting to see such originality in the field of decorating; I was (and, of course, still am) impressed!
In terms of intellectual property (IP), if you have it, you have to defend it. That’s the part of the business I like the least. Luckily, all that negative stuff is very well handled by lawyers who would take a bullet for SugarVeil®. They have devised a very wise, ongoing plan of which infringers they deal with and when. The infringers are both very large and small. Having patented, copyrighted, and/or trademarked IP makes defending it a pretty easy victory, but the confidentiality agreements wrapped up in the settlements prevent us from bragging, pointing a finger, shaming, or publicly discussing the specific spoils of any infringement dispute.
For someone who infringes a copyright, trademark, or patent, it is not only costly, it is risky. Some infringers are forever banned by social media or from selling on Amazon; others find their websites suddenly taken down by servers as a result of illegally selling infringing products. With risks like those in mind, I can’t imagine infringers would sleep very easily at night knowing their days selling infringing product (and perhaps even their entire business) were numbered.
JMU: I hear you completely. I don’t know how infringers can look in the mirror and honestly feel good about themselves. They must know in their heart of hearts that what they’re doing is inherently wrong, but they often persist . . . As a follow-up to my last question, how is SugarVeil® distinct from these more recent entrants to the edible lace business? (Oh, and thank you for the very kind words about why you decided to contact me! I am so glad you did! )
MH: Simply, SugarVeil® tastes good. It’s something you want to eat. You can even place a big dollop on a sweet potato (which, BTW, happens to be a wonderful treat). SugarVeil® contains no additives or preservatives. It is also non-dairy and gluten-free.
We stand behind all of our products, which are meticulously engineered to be of the highest quality. They are the very source of our pride – our life’s work.
JMU: How valuable is it to go through the often lengthy, time-consuming, and expensive process of getting patents and/or trademarks on new products or processes? I ask, because, as a small-scale product developer myself, I’m not sure I could afford the legal expense associated with defending a patent or trademark. Can a small business practically defend a trademark or patent?
MH: Find a legal team that will take a bullet for you. Many will work on a contingency basis, which means they get a percentage of the settlement money paid by the infringer. Once they file against one infringer, processing of other like-infringers is rote.
JMU: What tips would you give to aspiring product developers who think they have the next best product for the cookie market? Any dos and don’ts when launching a new product?
JMU: Last but not least, do you see the cookie decorating market changing in any way, and, if so, do you plan to approach your SugarVeil® business any differently in the coming years in response to those market changes?
MH: *In terms of the Confectioner’s Mats, cookiers are becoming more experimental, and are utilizing cookies as an art surface that sometimes only partially contains an entire design; they see patterns of larger designs and position a portion of the design in a unique position on a cookie. They also seem to embrace variety rather than repetition when designing cookies – i.e., using a theme with many different variations. We are very much in support of this trend we perceive, and are accommodating with mats to enhance it.
JMU: Well, I, for one, can’t wait to see some of those new mats! I am sure they will be just as inspiring as your earlier products. Thanks a bunch for sharing so much business history and advice regarding product development and intellectual property today. All so interesting and important!
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!