Time Management Challenge
Interview with Marisa Iapicco
Chef/Owner of Semisweet
By Chef Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Marisa, so I met you a month ago here at the Hesperides Kitchens when I noticed your beautiful, decorated sugar cookies! How did you get into doing this style of cookie with royal icing?
Marisa: I started doing custom cakes as soon as people found out I had graduated from pastry school (Institute of Culinary Education/ICE in 2008). I worked at a bakery in PA, and then my friends asked me to do holiday cookies that year. This business grew from that demand. I later moved to NJ, formed an LLC and found the incubator kitchen here in Hawthorne. I still do small custom cakes and some cupcakes but my main business is decorated cookies.
Kathryn: How long have you been here at Hesperides and how much time do you spend here a week?
Marisa: I’ve been baking and decorating at Hesperides incubator for a year. Typically I am here in the bakery 4 days a week, 6-18 hours a day and the rest of the time I’m doing paperwork in my office and home. I currently live 45 minutes away and that’s too far, so I’m moving soon to be 10 minutes away, so I can pop in to make dough when I need to, or package up cookies that have finished the drying process.
Kathryn: When you sell your cookies, what kind of packaging do you use?
Marisa: I am in the process right now of changing it, but I offer a clear top gift box with the cookies in shredded paper for the standard decorated cookies. ‘Minis’ are packaged in clear plastic cylinders. For custom cookies, which tend to be hand-delivered, my clients typically want them presented on a platter or an individually wrapped party favor. I have tried heat sealing each cookie but I don’t feel it looks quite right so I put the cookies in a craft box, and seal the box. It also works better to ship them that way.
Kathryn: I heard that you tried selling in a local mall but now you’re not there anymore. Can you tell us about that process and decision?
Marisa: There was a local mall that was (supposedly) trying to promote local businesses. They offered a 3 month trial for a cart and in exchange I paid a percentage of my sales to the mall. After that, a monthly rent would have been established based on my sales record. I brought cookies and cupcakes over from the kitchen, and used my phone for credit card transactions.
The cart had limited electricity, so I couldn’t put anything in a refrigerated case. The problem was the mall placed my cart inan area where the sun came in through the roof. Per the mall’s rules, I wasn’t allowed to put up an umbrella. The cupcake icing got soft, and some of the royal icing colors faded on the cookies. It became clear that my product and the location in the mall were not a good “fit.” There were just too many obstacles and restrictions. I didn’t have the “clout” as a trial customer to argue with the mall but it did give me a heads-up that maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to sign a long term lease with them if they were going to be so difficult to work with.
Kathryn: Besides the mall-selling experiment, how do you market your product?
Marisa: I have a website, and people find me on the internet. The biggest part of my business is through word of mouth. My business has grown exponentially without me spending anything on advertising. My biggest customers are moms and brides-to-be who order cookies for engagement parties, bridal showers, baby showers, and bachelorette parties. I also do some corporate orders.
Kathryn: I see various sizes and shapes of cookies here in your kitchen. How do you organize your product offering and pricing?
Marisa: I have 2 lines. The first is a standard collection with holiday and seasonal specials. I offer vanilla, chocolate, orange-almond and gluten free for those cookies, and they are iced with royal icing but these are the standard shapes and colors. I have different sizes, including ‘minis.’ I can work on the standard cookies pretty quickly because I know the designs. My second line is custom cookies. I have lots of different cookie cutters, and I work with a client to develop what they want. Based on the detail required and the number of royal icing colors on each cookie, the price for custom cookies increases ($5.50 is typical per cookie). It takes more time to design each of the icing effects for a custom cookie.
On top of the cookie prices, I charge for delivery. Within NYC, I charge a $30 fee to cover the cost of tolls and gas. I also deliver within 3 counties of NJ. Other than that, people can either pay for a situational delivery charge, or pay to ship the cookies. They do ship fine.
Kathryn: Marisa, are you doing all your own deliveries?
Marisa: At the moment, I am the only one working on the whole process. I’m making the dough, rolling it out, baking, and icing both the standard and custom lines. I am trying to persuade my husband to help, because he’s very good at the artistic side, but he’s in graduate school. My mother helps a lot – sometimes she assists me in the kitchen, and she’ll organize or clean, or help with the finances.
Kathryn: That’s not sustainable. Either you’ll burn out, and/or you’ll max out the income you can earn off of your business. I’ve watched you, here in the kitchen working and I see your labor time for these hand-piped cookies is incredible. Can’t we get you some externs from ICE to help you?
Marisa: I need to have standard production days where I do the same thing each day before I can bring in an extern. Right now I don’t have a standard production schedule and each week varies.
Kathryn: I think someone could be trained by you to make your doughs, roll them out to the thickness you need and cut and bake them. Maybe even after you’ve piped them, an extern could come in and pack the dried cookies for you and get them ready for delivery or shipping? You could retain the “control” of the icing, at least for the custom cookies?
Marisa: Luckily, to date I’ve been able to do everything myself. It has meant that I haven’t had to worry about paying someone else. The labor time to make these cookies is enormous. Between rolling the dough, and the drying time for the icing to set, it takes 18 hours per cookie order over the course of the week.
Now I’m pretty much maxed out, doing everything myself. I do need to restructure my time, have better production organization, and have a standard schedule in order to take on more work.
My busy season starts in the fall with “back to school,” birthday parties and then all the string of holidays. I am planning to restructure this summer, tackle my time management, and take on some externs and be ready to gear up.
I’m starting with having someone re-work the website. I’ve also been starting to target new distribution channels for my high end, custom work in an effort to gain more corporate clients. But you’re right; I have to be able to remove myself from doing all of the production to also be able to tackle these goals.
Kathryn: Okay Marisa, thank you for your time! Why don’t we talk again after the summer, when you’re geared up for a new phase of growth? We’ll be able to review your new operating procedures!