Welcome to our second Cookier Close-up of the summer. You're in for a treat!
Every cookier puts her/his own distinctive mark on the cookies s/he creates - that’s part of what makes this cookie decorating community so darn appealing! But when it comes to elegance, the cookier who most consistently pops into our editors’ minds is none other than Amber Spiegel of SweetAmbs . . . aka the woman who singlehandedly started the brush embroidery-on-cookies craze!
We were thrilled when Amber agreed to sit down for some cookie-chat with us, because we know you’re all dying to get to know her better. Read on to hear about how she got started, what fuels her creative process, and where she plans to take her cookie passion!
JMU: Wow, it’s so great to finally “meet” you even if it’s at a distance through cyber-space. If you don’t mind, I’d like start at the very beginning. From what I’ve read, I understand that you were born with both right- and left-brain genes?! You graduated from Ithaca College with a BS in Business Administration, yet now you’re creating some of the most elegant and finely detailed cookies around. Did you always have a passion for decorating, or did it come about only after college?
AS: It’s a huge honor to be the subject of a Cookier Closeup! Thank you! I’d always been interested in baking and decorating, but it wasn’t until my junior year of college that I decided to make a career out of it. I come from a family of artists and entrepreneurs, so it made sense for me to combine the two!
JMU: I also know that you went to the ever-so-highly regarded Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park. Did you find that experience helpful in fine-tuning your decorating skills, or did the learning of your cookie craft come through other experiences?
AS: My education at the CIA didn’t necessarily fine-tune my decorating skills, but my experience there has helped to shape my career overall. Most of what I know about cookie decorating came from reading books, work experience, and practicing on my own.
JMU: There are different schools of thought on the value of formal versus on-the-job culinary education, especially as the costs of attending culinary school have skyrocketed in recent years. How important do you think it is that cookie decorators go to culinary school? Or is it more valuable to intern or take a paid job in a real-life bakery? Or to learn the necessary skills some other way?
AS: If you’re just starting out and want to get some experience in the field, I think it’s a good idea to spend some time working in a bakery. I would not say that it is necessary to go to culinary school in order to be a cookie decorator, but everyone’s situation is different so it will depend on what works for you. As I was saying earlier, I didn’t learn cookie decorating skills through my formal training at school, but it was beneficial in other ways. It is possible to learn everything you need to know about cookie decorating through tutorials, decorating classes, blogs, and books.
JMU: From culinary school, you went on to work for Wilton in 2008 and created cakes for their annual yearbooks, among other things. What spurred you to go into cake decorating at that time rather than cookies? And what lessons did you take from that experience into your current business?
AS: My decision to make cookies instead of cake came when I opened my Etsy shop, which was about a year before I started working at Wilton. I wanted to decorate something that would be shippable so that I could share my craft with people all over the world. During my time at Wilton, I picked up decorating and photography tips here and there that I use when creating content for my blog.
JMU: In 2011, you decided to jump headlong into cookies by launching SweetAmbs, leaving cakes behind at least for the time being. What spurred this sudden shift in focus? Is there something unique about cookies that caused you to make them the cornerstone of SweetAmbs?
AS: I’ve actually been much more interested in cookies than cakes since before I started at Wilton, which is why I ended up being the go-to cookie decorator while I was working there! I always had a stack of cookie decorating projects on my desk. So, cookie decorating had been part of my life for a while, but starting SweetAmbs as an official full-time business in 2011 was something I wanted to do so that I could have complete creative freedom.
JMU: How much of your typical day is spent designing and creating cookies? Can you briefly describe the normal run of your day to give readers a better idea of what you do?
AS: Earlier this year I decided to focus more on the teaching aspect of my business and I’ve cut down on cookie orders. So now, I spend about three days a week designing and creating cookies and the rest of the week is spent on the computer editing photos and videos and blogging.
JMU: OK, so I was right! You do a ton in cookie space right now – you run an Esty store, write tutorials, maintain a blog, teach, and I’m sure the list goes on. But which of these things came first, and why? And – more importantly - how do you juggle it all?! Do you have employees or other help, or other ways of managing your varied workload?
AS: I started out selling cookies in my Etsy shop. Then, a couple of years later, I posted my first video tutorial and received a lot of positive feedback. So, a few months ago, I put my Etsy shop on “vacation mode” in order to focus my energies on teaching and tutorials. Keeping up with everything can get overwhelming and other aspects of my life end up getting neglected, but that’s something I expected when I decided to start my own business. I don’t have any employees, but I do have very supportive family members who are willing to help whenever I need it.
JMU: What’s the business model for SweetAmbs, meaning what’s your mission and how do you make money, assuming that’s a goal? Do you find that certain line(s) of your business (selling cookies, writing a blog, teaching classes, etc.) are more lucrative than others? If so, why do you think that is?
AS: The focus of the business is on creating video tutorials for my website and teaching classes. I love decorating cookies, but the part that I enjoy the most is documenting the steps of the decorating process through photos and video. SweetAmbs is still evolving, so I can’t say for sure which part of the business will turn out to be the primary focus, but I am going to continue on this path of sharing my techniques through my blog and other outlets and see where it takes me.
JMU: So many of our readers have Etsy stores or are aspiring to have them. What was your thought process behind opening an online store versus a physical bricks-and-mortar bakery? Pros and cons?
AS: Opening an Etsy store is probably one of the best ways of going about starting a business because you don’t have to make a huge investment and there’s very little overhead. However, it’s tricky with food-based businesses, because different states have their own laws about baking from home. Etsy is a good place to sort of test the market before you take the plunge into a commercial bakeshop. I now have a commercially licensed bakeshop, but it’s a small place that’s just big enough for what I need to do. Also, since I do everything online and only make cookies to order with no retail storefront, I don’t have to keep a stocked bakery case.
JMU: What advice would you give to readers who want to open and operate a successful Etsy store?
AS: One piece of advice I can give is to take great photos of your work! Beautiful pictures are more likely to be shared and potentially featured on the front page of Etsy, which is great for business. Once you get started you’ll have a better idea of what works for you and what doesn’t in terms of the items you’ll offer as well as pricing and policies.
JMU: You’ve also got an active – and, I might add, very beautiful - cookie decorating blog. For the benefit of those readers who may want to start blogs of their own: do you think there’s room for another cookie decorating blog, or do the giants have that market cornered? Any tips for someone who’s just getting their feet wet with blogging?
AS: The Internet always has room for cookie blogs! Everyone has his/her own style of cookie decorating and way of doing things, so it’s good to have a place to share them with the world. If you’re thinking about starting a blog, just start posting! It’s free and fun.
JMU: You’ve made so many gorgeous cookies since 2011, which have been splashed all over the Internet. Congrats! You clearly love brush embroidery. Is that your favorite technique? If so, why? If not, what’s your current fave?
AS: Brush embroidery was definitely my favorite technique when I started decorating cookies. I remember the first time I saw a cake decorated in brush-embroidered flowers. I hadn’t seen anything like it before and I was so intrigued! Once I learned how to do it, I couldn’t stop! I’d say that the cracked glaze technique is my favorite at the moment. I’m sure I’ll have a new favorite next month!
JMU: As a follow-on to my previous question, which of your cookie designs makes you most proud and why? Pictures, please!
AS: The design that makes me most proud is a cookie tower that I made for the Claire Pettibone runway show last fall. [Editor's Note: The tower is pictured at the top of this interview; glamour shots of the individual cookies are shown below.] It was very challenging to put it together and then transport it to the location, but it was so much fun to be able to go all-out with the design. I incorporated all of my favorite things including brush embroidery, gum paste roses, fondant cameos, filigree, and gold luster dust.
JMU: We all have a dominant cookie decorating style, and you’re clearly an icon of cookie elegance. Is your style something you purposefully cultivate, something you want to shake, something that lies somewhere in between, or something you don’t spend that much time thinking about?
AS: My style of decorating isn’t something that I try to stick to or try to change, it just is! There have been times when I start doing something that is not “me,” and those projects never turn out well! I’ve found that it’s better to just be who I am as a decorator. [Editor's Note: Listen to Amber, all! Don't worry if you can't do brush embroidery like her, or character cookies like someone else, or whatever else. Take pride in your own special skills and distinctive style!]
JMU: I ask almost everyone this, probably because I’m dying to know the answer myself. So here I go again: Do you feel that decorated cookies have the potential to be the next cupcake? Why or why not?
AS: I don’t know what the future holds for cookies. It seems as though intricately decorated cookies are making a steady climb into the mainstream. Or, maybe I just believe that because I’m so deep into the cookie world that I think it’s the norm now!
JMU: I see you’re teaching a cookie decorating class in Madrid later this year, and you’ve recently expanded your site to include a store with your cookie decorating tutorials. (Another huge congrats!) But what’s next on the horizon for SweetAmbs? Do you foresee a future where cake makes a comeback or where you diversify into other sweets?
AS: I’m looking forward to going to Madrid to teach at Alma’s Cupcakes in the fall. [Editor's Note: More info about these classes can be found here.] Later this summer I’ll be moving into a bigger space so that I can hold classes regularly in upstate New York and I will continue to create new designs and video tutorials for my website. When I first started baking, I thought that I’d be making wedding cakes and all kinds of baked goods, but I have now narrowed it down to cookies and I think I’ll stick with that. [Editor's Note: And from the looks of her stunning cookie box, below, I can see why!]
Lucky us! Amber will continue this conversation in a live text-based chat on this very site on July 6, 2013, 12 pm CDT. Just click on this link to tune in then, or to enter your questions in advance. (Answers will not be posted, however, until the chat goes live on July 6.)
Want to learn more about SweetAmbs? Please visit her online:
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to hear from, please post requests in this forum, and we'll do our best to round them up! Thanks!