Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Livin' the Dream

The other night, I had a dream. I was at a pool party and was about to showcase to the guests my brand new jet pack. It was right out of the 70's, an over the shoulder model with hand grips at breast level for ignition and steering. I was nervous. Would it actually fly? I ducked out to put it on and came back again, feeling kind of exposed. I pressed the jet propulsion button on the hand grips and started to hover slowly above ground. Then I started to zip around the party, but not nearly as fast or as high off the ground as I thought I would. I soon left the party grounds and nipped into a kind of off-season ski resort bursting with fall colors. I was still just hovering above ground, above the trees, which seemed more like bushes. The gondola was running and someone dropped a sweater. I wanted to dip down and pick it up, but knew if I did my batteries might run out and I'd be stuck in the valley. So I headed off, still trying to fly higher and higher but really only skirting the ground. I ended up at a prep school or college, with again, more fall colors. I decided if I couldn't really fly like I'd hoped, at least I wanted to get to the top of the Gothic tower on the school grounds. I knew to scale the wall and land on the roof I had to give it all she had, which I realized at that moment was the juice of two double A sized batteries. Oddly, I was not afraid, or perhaps I just forgot to think about the possibility of crashing to the ground if my attempt failed. I made it to the roof with a soft landing, but encountered a hangman who looked like Shrek and menacingly wielded a long-handled ax. I calmly turned in the opposite direction and began my long walk home.

The only part of this dream I could not figure out was how Shrek fit in. Then I realized, I've been staring at his mug on my son's tush for the past few weeks after my mother bought some "big boy" underwear for my three-year-old in our attempt to potty train. I don't know if it's the picture or the context, but Shrek has been freaking me out lately, in the drawer, the laundry basket and the bathroom floor.

The rest is textbook stress and frustration. I am not flying as high as I set out when I got this jet pack. It's not delivering on the promise of total flying-car level transportation. I'm merely hovering. Oh, sure, I can zip around occasionally, but one false move, and I'm in a valley. More shockingingly is how my unconscious seems to realize I don't have the juice to fly. My mind equates the power at my fingertips with two double A batteries. And what is this juice? Business capital? Staff? Wherewithall? Or all the above. Whatever it is, I don't seem to have enough of it.

The good news is, there was a soft landing. And Shrek did not kill me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Open Call

Oprah has not called yet. I'm not put off by it, I know she's busy. But I thought I would just put myself out there. Maybe she doesn't know I'd be interested. In fact, there are a lot of great shows out there whose producers should be made aware that, yes, if invited, I would indeed be happy to showcase our little cookie topped cupcakes and cakes for their enjoyment. Top of the list, next to Ms. Winfrey, of course -- Martha Stewart. We both went to Barnard College. She seems to have done more with her degree than I have, but that aside, maybe she would think I could bring something to the dessert table at least. I've also seen some cookie topped cakes in her catalogues over the years, so we apparently are simpatico when it comes to styles. Next, Rachel Ray's Show. I just think she would dig what we're doing and give a perky exclaim when she saw our stuff. And I want to hear what nickname our goodies would get. Cookie toppos? Cookie cakies? Where would she take this? Finally, I would do the Today Show, but I would prefer it if Natalie Morales would host the segment. She's having a baby soon, and we could top some cupcakes with little booties or baby chicks or onesies and really get to show off. She also seems very sweet. I'm a little too local for the Regis and Kelly show and I'm not sure if Regis would get what we do, but Kelly has three kids, so I'd like the chance to market myself to her and get at least three solid gigs a year there.

Finally, as a side note, I'd like to invite David Sedaris to work at my bakery for a month or so. He seems to have a varied resume and I doubt would find the prospect absurd. His sister, Amy, also makes cupcakes I understand, so maybe he'll want to check out what we do here to pass on some tips to her. While I do need the extra pair of hands always, it's more for his own enjoyment that I think of him. I imagine he would thrill at the prospect of writing the ridiculous phrases that pass for serious instruction, criticism and conversation here. "You forgot to put the pink bow in the monkey's hair. See, it's written right here. Pink bow." "Replace the elephants with giraffes and add more lions." "You put black hooves on the pigs?" "The border on that cake looks like lots of little boobs." I could go on, but I'll save it for David to discover himself. (And if Amy wants to come, too, that's fine with me.)

I Swear

I've been feeling a little guilty about the tone of my last entry, my cartoon curses and sailor's tone, especially since my husband thought I should lighten up and write a little bit about some of the good aspects of owning one's own business. When I find out what those things are, I'll let you know, but in the meantime my last entry got me thinking about my language. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. We do have a lovely little bakery here. It's cheery, well lit, with frosting colored walls and cases filled with yummy sprinkle topped cupcakes. Our main customers are little ones and their parents. We make fun little cookie decorated cakes that are often iced in pink or baby blue. Don't you just imagine Snow White in the kitchen, happily humming a tune as perfection emerges from her offset spatula? Well, OK, that IS Jess, our pastry chef, (most of the time) but it's not me. And that's the thing. This is the food business. Anyone who ever waited tables for a summer during college, or even just read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, knows that kitchens are foul-mouthed places, with f-bombs flying by the minute. While that's not exactly the case here, it could be. I enjoy swearing very much. It releases the tension. Since this is food, food to order with multi-faceted specifications here and there, and lots of orders that are all over the place in terms of designs and colors and names and messages to get right and ways to package them, things get f*#@ed up. I usually walk in the door to greet my co-workers not with "Good Morning!" but with "Anything bad?" Meaning, did the sh@$ hit the fan while I was out making a delivery or getting supplies. Food is a stressful business. People who go into food, I believe, generally have an earnest desire to please others. When this goes awry, even in the smallest way -- perhaps we don't live up to our own standards, not necessarily the customers' -- we feel it deeply. To compensate for the disappointment and frustration that comes with the job, I could drink or smoke or do drugs, but that's all very expensive and time consuming. My chosen vice is swearing. Mind you, I've cut it down since opening the store, for fear of little ones in earshot, and that it seems to unnerve the staff, but there was a time when it was much worse.

I used to share a bakery space with another cake person who ended up becoming a dear friend. I will out her here by saying she likes to swear, too. I won't say we bonded over it, but neither of us blinked an eye over a G*d d@#$%it or m&*(her f#%*er every so often. In fact, after I had my son and was out of the business for over a year, we would see or talk to one another as often as we could to catch up. She was in the throes of her successful business and of writing a book. And I remember noticing to myself when we chatted, she swore A LOT. Actually, I have no idea if it was a lot. It was some, but I had been out of the food business for so long and been dealing with a little baby instead of a little business, that any seemed like a lot. Without the food business, there was different stress that for some reason didn't call for that brand of swearing. But, a year and a half later, I was back in business, and back to my old ways.

So really, who cares, right? You may be wondering what this Polly Anna is going on about? Everyone swears. Yes, many do. Some even at work. Everyone while driving. I am less concerned about my French, and more concerned about this Mary Poppins/Eddie Murphy dichotomy I've got going. Is it a betrayal to all those who visit our bakery or website and get a warm fuzzy feeling from what we do to learn that it's a job, and an often frustrating, maddening, difficult one that drives people to seek solace in lunatic rants? Does it rain on the parade of all future cake decorators choosing this career for its sugarplums and moonbeams? Yes, it does. And I feel bad about that. But f#$& it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ground Hog's Day

Our bakery has been open just over a year. In that time, I have let three people go, including the original pastry chef, an intended key player, had two no-shows and had another two give notice. That's seven people in one year. My current lease is five years. If I stay in business just those five years, for giggles, let's do the math. That's 28 people who will come and go for the balance of my lease. I will fire 42% of them, causing me no end of pain leading up to that point and angina, nausea and fear of karmic reprisal during the actual firing. I will have 28% break my heart by leaving me for greener pastures and another 28% f&*% me over.

Of course, I understood going in there is high turnover in the food business, but to experience it from the end staying, not leaving, is much more painful than one imagines. Ironically, it's not due to the dreaded firing of some manner of jackass or the sadness of a talented employee's resignation or the out and out f@#* you of a no show. The pain is that I have to experience every mistake I ever made with my particular recipes, my particular method of cake and cookie decorating, the way I have to box cake, store a food item or render a design, over and over and over again, on top of the other mistakes I am making managing people, money and operations. I don't get to be free and clear on the things I actually know because I'm delegating those tasks to others who, for a time, don't know what I know. What I've learned not to do, I get to experience for the rest of my time as a cake shop owner with each and every person who puts on an apron here.

Mind you, I am sympathetic to the learning process and the fact that it seems in baking (and decorating) you have to make a mistake once with everything you touch in order to eventually get it. It appears when working with recipes, the associated quirks are not something of which you can be made aware and understand intellectually. Well, this is what I tell myself. And I do admit, when I am down a man in the kitchen and I have to jump in to bake off cakes or cookies, nine times out of ten, I completely screw it up because I have been working in the office, finishing cakes, delivering cakes or designing cakes and I haven't as much as turned the oven on in weeks. Despite this understanding and the acknowledgment of my own fallibility, it's no less painful to deal with, especially when relived with each sudden or eventual departure and the consequent new hire.

So, what's the answer for this constant turnaround? I have no idea. I am in the process of trying to streamline operations, create procedures, make rules, communicate better, but this all takes time. And people.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Occupational Hazards

Nothing could prepare me for the news.  In fact, I had been quite blase about the whole visit, but within minutes, I had created a stir in the tiny office.  I was prepared to hear the same lecture I heard every time and had steeled myself for it, while also silently vowing to be better next time.  But this was a shocker.  Five cavities.  I have five cavities.  I had not had a cavity since I was eight years old, and yet in the six months since my last visit to the dentist, I had managed to wreak havoc on my once strong teeth.   I was pummeled with questions.  "Are you drinking a lot of juice?  "Are you brushing before bed?" "Are you flossing?"  It seemed like a mystery to the staff at first, I mean, how I could have fallen off the wagon so violently, so quickly?  But I knew at once:  I'm a baker.  I eat sweets all day long to either test for freshness, nibble on a broken or fresh baked something or try out a new recipe.  And, I am also a business owner.  I fall into bed at the end of a long day, often with nary a care for my dental hygiene, 'til morning at least.  It was bound to happen.  I was eating on borrowed time.  

Now, I await my appointments, plural, because apparently it's just too much work for one visit. OK, I've put them off, but I swear I'll get on it right away.  Just as soon as the cakes are done for this week.

Now, what are those funny little blue veins on my ankles?

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Ten years ago, I switched careers, or rather I gave up hope with one and grasped desperately onto another. I had been trying to make my way in production, thinking I should be an editor, then a producer, then a writer, all vain and directionless goals in areas where I had no real skills. In reality, I amounted to no more than a secretary, with the exception of one writing gig that ended when the company did. Then, one birthday, my now husband gifted me a short cooking class. It clicked. I was happy. As soon as I could possibly enroll and line up the funds, I signed up for the pastry arts program at The French Culinary Institute. I took a mindless day-job that guaranteed a strict 9-5 schedule and took classes at night. A new world opened up for me and I became a foodie.

After my graduation, I took a job at a tiny bakery in the East Village where a very talented artist was trying to make a go of it creating work-of-art custom cakes. She sculpted life-size unicorns, vase-sized flowers, made Radio-City Musical Hall shaped gingerbread houses, and did this very cool thing of adorning cakes with decorated cookies. I stayed on as the baker there for about ten months when she decided to close to re-organize (which she did, then closed again for good to my sadness).

Then I began my on-again off-again relationship with the food business. I took a secretarial temp job to make some money after my first food job, not yet used to the low pay and needing an infusion. Then I remembered I hated office jobs, decided I could launch a dessert business from my kitchen with no promotion and no money and did so for about four months, until I needed money again. I decided to try the restaurant business, to go through the boot camp I'd avoided after school. I worked in a pastry kitchen at a fine dining restaurant in New York for ten months. I hated the life, but I understood those who didn't. It was addictive, trying always to be better, to compete at a personal level to be tough, fast, good. Sleeping during the day, working and playing at night, having days off when others were working. In the end, though, there was no balance and there's only so out-of-sync I'm willing to be with the rest of the world. Next I tried a food-related business, working as a salesperson at a food distribution company. I was a wretched salesperson and was soon fired. Next I did some corporate party planning for a friend of a friend. This soon led us to want to start our own party planning service for children's birthdays. I would make the cakes. We had meetings. We got serious. There was some money investment, some looking around for a space. Then I found something. Or rather someone. Someone also looking for space from which to make her cakes. In the end, she found the space and took the all the financial risk. I became her tenant. But my partners bailed and I was faced with deciding if I could persue this on my own or not. I took the gamble. Flour Girl was born.

I worked two jobs for over a year, the day job to pay the bakery rent and some personal bills and the baking job on the weekends, when I could get the work. I sent out a press kit on myself and got a few nibbles. Then, almost nine months after my press kit went out, I got a visit from a writer at New York magazine who liked one of my cakes. In March, 2004, Flour Girl was named "Best Kid's Birthday Cake" in the Best Of edition of the magazine. The orders flooded in and I was able to quit my day-job. Then I worked the equivalent of three jobs for the next year and a half.

Sometime during that year and a half, my husband and I decided to have a baby. Part of me wonders if I chose to get pregnant because I needed the vacation. Whatever the case my be, I made plans to close briefly and reopen in a nearby suburb, where I was lured to move with notions of opening a retail shop, having an actual staff, being able to accept more than a handful of orders per weekend and actually making some money. (More on that later.) I decided four months' leave should be enough to find a space, finance a business, outfit it with equipment, find a staff and adjust to motherhood. It took me a year and a half -- and I have still not adjusted to motherhood.

And now, the bakery I finally did open, Flour Patch Bakery, is approaching its one-year anniversary. There is not a week that goes by smoothly. Every single week, every single day, there is something with which to cope, whether it is a no show employee, a black-out, a cash crunch, an unhappy customer or a personal crisis. I have much to learn and much to tell. This blog is meant to document my journey in the cake business, to serve as comic relief and to be a cautionary tale for others in my shoes or wanting to be, whether you sell soap or T-shirts or, heaven forbid, cakes.