Now that the dust has settled (a bit) after the whirlwind of last night's CookieCon reg, I thought, "Why not stir it up again?!" So here you go . . .
I know, I know, our cookier of honor in this close-up needs no introduction. None. What. So. Ever. But my mom taught me to be a gracious host, so I’m going to do a proper welcome anyway. Without further ado, please give a big round of applause to the one and only . . .
SUGARBELLE! [Protracted pause as I wait for all of Cookie Connection to pick themselves off the floor.]
Yes, that Sugarbelle, aka Callye Alvarado . . . aka a driving force behind the cookie blog phenomenon . . . aka the originator of “cookie think” (more on that in a bit) . . . aka the cookier who can make magic out of the most amorphous cookie shapes . . . aka the woman with so many cookie talents they’re too long to list!
If you’ve visited Callye’s blockbuster blog, The Sweet Adventures of Sugarbelle, then you already know that Callye has an uncanny ability to turn less (less icing, less time, fewer cutters) into more (more shapes, more designs, maximum fun)! These Frankenstein and Mr. Potato Head cookies are a case in point! (Yeah, they're made with the same cutter!)
Today, she joins us to talk about the cookie creative process, how to run a successful cookie business, and whatever else comes up!
JMU: Hi, Callye! It’s a huge thrill to have you with us today! Welcome. I haven’t seen you since CookieCon 2012, so we have some serious catching up to do.
Though we crossed paths at the convention and I know your work well from your blog (in fact, I've included some of my favorite designs of yours throughout this post), I really have no idea when and how you first got started in cookies. You say on your blog, “I’m an artist who expresses myself through cookies.” Does this mean you had formal art training? Any culinary training?
CA: Believe it or not, my cookie adventure began quite innocently. I’d seen decorated cookies on the covers of magazines, and had big plans to make the “best Christmas cookie boxes of all time” for my friends and family. Little did I know that my fun holiday craft would become an obsession.
JMU: Am I right in understanding that you once owned and operated a cookie business where you sold decorated cookies to the general public? Can you tell us when and why you started that business?
CA: Once upon a time, I was the local “cookie lady." Starting a cookie business wasn’t really the plan. Like many things in my life, it kind of just happened. My Christmas cookie boxes were such a hit that they quickly turned into requests for custom cookie designs. In 2009, I officially began taking “orders” from family and friends.
JMU: What were your greatest successes and challenges in that business?
CA: The home bakery business brought MANY new experiences. There were many challenges along the way. I got a crash course in time management, pricing, balancing work and a growing family, boundaries, and how to balance perfectionism and practicality. It took time, but the journey brought about things that I’d never thought possible. I was a young, stay-at-home mom with nothing to really call my own. I loved my husband and children, but I was still struggling with feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. I wanted to “do something” with my life. Through my cookie business, I made new friends, developed an unexpected talent, and eventually ended up a “cookie blogger.” It’s still kind of mind-blowing to think of it all. A lot can happen in four years!
JMU: Why did you close your cookie shop? And how did you get from cookie shop to cookie blog?
CA: Sigh. The big question . . . I’ll try to keep it short. When I began baking from home, Texas did not have a cottage law in place. I’d never given it much thought, because for as long as I remember, the women in my community made and sold food items from home. Never in a million years did I expect the health inspector to show up at my door, but that’s what happened. Turns out, someone in my town had reported me. I prefer to keep that part of my life in the past, but if you want the whole sad story, you can read it here.
Anyway, I was hurt, devastated, angry, and everything else in between. I took a little time to mourn, and then decided it was time to get up and get moving. When I started my blog, I didn’t really have a plan. I was just determined not to give up. Even though I couldn’t see it then, that unexpected setback led me right where I needed to be.
JMU: They say hindsight is 20/20. For the benefit of our readers who are trying to build their own operations, what are some of the biggest lessons you learned from being in the cookie business? Any dos and don’ts?
CA: Ha! I could write a novel, but here’s the short(ish) version. Take care of yourself. You cannot be the best you if you’re not eating properly, exercising, and sleeping. Sure, you may make a little extra dough (pun intended), but if you let your health go by the wayside, your doctor is the only one who’ll profit.
Family first. It doesn’t matter how successful you are if you neglect the people who matter most. Cookie decorating is a wonderful thing, but a hobby [EDITOR'S NOTE: or business, for that matter] should never cause you to lose valuable time with the people you love. Some moments you can’t get back.
Take it slow. As tempting as it may be, there’s no need to make a huge investment all at once. Ease into things and figure out what you need as you grow.
Your time is valuable. In the beginning, I seriously undervalued my work. I was so excited to “sell” that I didn’t care that it cost me to have people take cookies off my hands (no laughing, true story). However, as my business grew, I was filled with resentment. It might sound a little haughty, but now when I make cookies for people, I charge what I’m worth. When I am properly compensated, both sides win. The customer gets my best quality work, and I’m not left feeling like I got the short end of the stick.
JMU: You single-handedly caused a collective (and massive) sigh of relief in the cookie world when you posted this cookie pricing chart in late 2012. It liberated so many cookiers to start charging what they’re worth (without all the usual guilt)! What prompted you to post this chart?
CA: Personal bad experience? This really ties into my last answer. When I first started making cookies, I had to make something up. I mean, how can you put a value on something when you have nothing to go by?
Honestly, I always wanted to ask other cookiers their rates, but my Southern manners wouldn’t let me. I felt like I was asking someone about their salary. As I developed friendships with other cookiers like Maryann (aka the Cookie Artisan), I finally worked up the courage to ask.
I felt like throwing up when I found out how badly I had missed the mark. Long story short, I figured if I’d wondered about pricing, I probably wasn’t alone so I put it out there.
I’m good about bringing up uncomfortable subjects. It’s my way of making them not uncomfortable anymore.
JMU: You clearly have a distinctive cookie design aesthetic. Would you say you subscribe to a particular design philosophy and, if so, what is it?
CA: I would call my style practical perfectionism. I would like to spend hours making perfect cookies, but as a (seriously underpriced and overworked) cookie vendor, I quickly learned the fine art of editing. Some details just aren’t worth the time. This doesn’t mean I don’t admire cookie masterpieces (like the incredible things you create, Julia); they just aren’t practical for me. I will always be a perfectionist, but I’ve trained myself to let the little things go in order to simplify the process. Eventually that became my “style."
JMU: I know you use the word “cookie think” a lot, but what exactly do you mean by it? Are there certain advantages to being able to “cookie think”?
CA: This is my way of saying that everything I see becomes a cookie in my brain. I think of “cookie think” as a job hazard. When you’re bitten by the cookie bug, it just kind of happens. The advantage is (even if you don’t realize it) that by seeing cookie designs in everything around you, you’re actually making yourself a better cookie designer.
Often people begin by imitating people they admire, but as they practice and develop their skills, they learn to incorporate things that they see into designs of their own. It’s what makes each and every one of us unique.
JMU: Can “cookie think” be taught or learned? If so, how?
CA: Everyone is capable of "cookie think," whether they know it or not. I truly believe that the more you exercise a skill, the stronger it becomes. Start simple. Look at a cutter and imagine other things it might be.
I have a few more tips on developing "cookie think," which I will talk about in an upcoming blog post.
JMU: A more technical question . . . Your icing is always flawless (smooth as glass with no air bubbles or craters to speak of). How do you achieve such reliably picture-perfect results, like those in your PB&J cookies below (which, BTW, make me smile every time I see them)? What’s your best defense against craters?
CA: I honestly think that the arid West Texas air gives me a slight advantage, but my top three tips for flawless icing are: mastering consistency (this takes time), drying cookies with a fan, and this is the big one . . . covering ugly spots if possible. People think I’m joking, but many of my “embellishments” are strategically placed cover-ups. A little lame maybe, but practical for sure.
JMU: Ha! I'm with you on that - I often say that the art of cookie decorating is the art of masking mistakes.
On a different note . . . Glory Albin was asked a really great question in her recent online chat on Cookie Connection. Since you’re clearly one of the great cookie decorating teachers, I thought it would be useful to hear your response to this question as well. So here goes: What tools or items would you recommend for a beginner’s decorating kit?
CA: Since I ran a “business,” I have enough equipment to outfit a small bakery; but if I were to break it down to the bare minimum, I would say you need: disposable bags, couplers, bag ties (I like the purple Wilton kind), a few #2 and #3 tips, an offset spatula, Americolor gel colors (like their student set), two to three good quality cookie sheets, dough bands, and one of those boxed cutter collections like Wilton’s 101 set.
That sounds like a lot, but I am a big believer in having the equipment you need for the job. You’ll be much happier with the final product if you have the right tools for the job.
JMU: And a corollary to that question . . . you’re a master of making do with the cutters you have on hand. What three to five cutters are most indispensible to you, or would you recommend that every decorator have? (If you’re not familiar with Callye’s signature method of piecing together cookie shapes, just check out this post here.)
CA: If I were stranded on a desert island (equipped with my oven and all of my other tools, of course), I’d have to have a circle, my favorite Wilton ice cream cone, an egg, a flower, and candy corn. I might sneak in a tulip too, if I thought I could get away with it.
JMU: Turning to more personal matters, I know you have several young children, a husband, and a booming blog that requires a lot of attention. What are your tips for staying sane when you have so many balls in the air?
CA: I touched on this a bit already, but the secret to juggling so many things is prioritizing and balance. To be fair, I wasn’t born knowing how to manage it all. I’m human. I’ve neglected my kiddos, husband, and myself in the name of cookies. But when it’s all said and done, I know that none of my “accomplishments” matter if I lose sight of what I’m doing this for. It’s always nice to know that you’re a capable, successful human being, but the most important thing to me is that my family knows that I am present in my life, even if it means turning down an order or that a blog post has to wait. It’s been a process, for sure. I’m just thankful for my patient and supportive husband and kids who love me even at less than my best.
JMU: You’ve got one of the biggest cookie blogs out there and an astronomical number of loyal fans. What more is there for Callye Alvarado to accomplish here in cookie land? Do you have any new and exciting projects on the horizon that you can share with our readers?
CA: Well, that’s a hard one for me. You may have noticed by now that I travel a winding path more often than I plan.
It took me a long time to figure out where I was going with the blog thing, but at this point, I can honestly say that my ultimate goal is to continue writing the best blog I can while enjoying the process of teaching and inspiring others. Maybe someday something else will pop up, but for now, this is just what I need. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Within mere hours of finishing this interview, I caught wind that Callye is now designing cookie cutters for Karen's Cookies. I love Callye's humility, don't you? Let's join together in giving her a big congrats! And please check out her new cookie cutters here.]
Want to continue this conversation with Callye? I do too! Stay tuned; a live chat is scheduled with her for Saturday, October 12 at 3 pm central.
Cookie Photo Credits: Copyright Callye Alvarado
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!