Turning tasty treats into a humble side hustle.
Every holiday season when I was a child, my cousins and I all gathered at grandma’s house to decorate sugar cookies in the shapes of trees, Santa Claus, snowflakes, and — my favorite — snowmen. I would pile on a copious amount of our store-bought frosting and strategically place small Red Hots to act as its eyes, mouth, and buttons.
Years later, when I actually developed an appreciation for art, I started seeing videos on social media of bakers creating beautiful lettering, florals, characters, and more all on top of sugar cookies. I started appreciating cookies as more than just a snack, but as an art form instead. And while my sugar cookie decorating days should remain in my grandma’s kitchen for no extra eyes to see, local bakers around town are turning this art into a side hustle from the comfort of their own kitchens.
Starting From Scratch
For Laurel Harlan, owner of Kiss Me Cookies, her love of making sugar cookies began eight years ago with a batch of red and blue fish inspired by Dr. Seuss for her daughter’s baby shower. “I just did it. I didn’t think about it, and I didn’t have an idea in my head of what [the cookies] should look like besides the book illustrations, which they also looked nothing like,” she remembers with a laugh. “I look back now and I cringe. My sister calls them ‘red fish, blue fish, mean fish’ because they look like they have a scowl on their face.”
As Laurel looks back at her first batch of scowling cookies, she is proud of how far her skills have come. She credits her improvement to practicing the art form and learning new techniques.
In baking, practice is everything. From the way the royal icing is made to how the hand-piping is done, this art form requires a lot of practice to have the skills necessary to satisfy customers and create unique designs.
“There’s always a learning curve,” Jenna Rozum, owner of Sommersweet Bakery, says — especially with hand-piping the icing. “It takes a lot of practice, especially when you’re doing things like writing text. You really just have to practice.” If the icing isn’t consistent, Jenna explains, then the design can go terribly wrong, or incredibly right.
Ashlyn Balch spends her days working as a clinical dietitian at University Hospital. Last year, she started Sprinkled and Frosted as a side job, but her passion for cookies started when she was a kid baking in her grandparents’ kitchen during the holidays. After her boyfriend took her to Kansas City for a decorating class, her interest was piqued even more.
“I started practicing random cookie designs at home, and I would give them away to family and friends to get feedback. Then they started ordering from me,” Ashlyn says. “[The business] really started with my family and friends.”
Inspiration Is Everywhere
It’s no secret that running a business — even as a side hustle — can be a challenge, especially when it comes to the financial side. Every business owner has a wish list of what they’re saving up for, like a website for Sommersweet Bakery, or more cookie cutters for Sprinkled and Frosted.
“It’s addicting to keep buying cookie cutters,” Ashlyn says. But she’s been able to cut costs of her ingredients by sourcing what she needs from Aldi, and she never lets her royal icing go to waste, as she safely stores her extra supply in the freezer so she can use it for the next batch.
Running lean helps inspire more creativity, and that inspiration can come in many different forms. Ashlyn finds inspiration by looking through different hashtags online. “It’s a great way for me to compare and contrast different designs, so I can see what I like, what I don’t like, and how to pair different color schemes together,” she explains.
Take a quick glance at Sommersweet Bakery’s Instagram page and you’ll easily find a variety of cookies decorated with flowers and greenery. With a full-time job as the horticulture manager at MU, Jenna is always surrounded by plants, and she gets a lot of inspiration from these natural beauties. “Sometimes I want to try to make something that looks like a somewhat realistic flower,” she says. “I also get a lot of inspiration from the invitations, or even prints and wallpaper.” Her main source for inspiration, however, is the client, and what will make them happy.
A Glance into the Future
As with the rest of life’s plans, these independent bakeries were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether through cancelled events or classes. “I was set up to teach classes in March, but we had to cancel due to the pandemic. Once some of the social distancing guidelines are lifted, I would love to teach people just for a fun girl’s night, or even as a family event,” Jenna explains.
Each of these bakers have their own unique skill sets to offer the community. And someday, they hope they can through teaching workshops for everyone.
“I teamed up with Plume and offered decorating workshops with [the owner]. But COVID hit, and teaching took a backseat,” Laurel says. ‘My next venture is to teach instead of doing as many custom orders. It’s fun to work up a set and teach other people how to decorate them.”
Cookies have the power to make lasting memories. Through her cookies, Laurel has been able to build a relationship with the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at MU. She’s gotten to try new designs with them and even surprise them with different cookies. Her cookies have also seen a customer’s daughter grow up: From the baby shower to the little girl’s birthdays, Laurel’s cookies have been there through it all.
“I don’t define success primarily as financial. One of the things I really enjoy is being a part of my customers’ lives,” Laurel explains. “It’s something that comes over time. . . . Getting to be a part of people’s lives has been rewarding.”