Interview with Cameca Johnson by Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Cameca, you graduated from the pastry program at ICE August 2011, and since then you’ve said that you’re baking cakes for friends and family?
Cameca: I went to ICE initially with the idea that I would master plated desserts in a restaurant and open a dessert bar. But after going through the program, a friend asked me to make a cake for her daughter’s birthday, and I continued doing that as more friends and family asked me to do it. Now I’m really interested in all the different aspects of cakes, decorating and sugarcraft, and driving myself to learn as much as possible.
Kathryn: How are you doing that?
Cameca: I currently subscribe to a cake decorating magazine, and I work my way through each of their “projects” systematically. I’ve also taken a lot of advanced classes, and I go anonymously to various classes offered at bakeries to check out what they’re doing and how they operate. But that was difficult to do during the day with my 9-5 job. So I’ve just resigned my day job! Going forward, I’ll have more time flexibility.
(Kathryn interviewed Cameca on the annual ICE Cuisine Course in France. Cameca’s last day at her finance job was just before the trip to the Loire Valley. www.moulinbregeoncuisinecourses.com)
Kathryn: Wow, you quit! Ok, so let’s talk about that decision making process. How are you planning the steps to take to go from not charging friends and family anything except base ingredient costs – to quitting your day job and jumping into this business?
Cameca: I took a 16-week workshop in business opportunities designed for business entrepreneurs to learn how to make their businesses sustainable, versus supporting an “expensive hobby.” I’m just finishing those last classes now: Workshop in Business Opportunities www.wibo.org. I have my last session when we return from France.
Kathryn: So you have a business plan, from having finished that course?
Cameca: The WIBO program gives you a structure, and then you fill in the aspects of the business plan for your own specific business, customer base, etc. They provide a wealth of information. And they bring in actual entrepreneurs to give insight regarding their own experiences. They provide mentoring resources via direct contact as well as seminars, workshops, etc. to participants who need specific legal or accounting questions addressed, before someone is ready to start paying for those services on their own.
Kathryn: So having gone through that program, what about your business incorporation, liability insurance, websites/marketing, your overhead/food/labor cost analysis… Where are you with all of that part of the process?
Cameca: I did cost out each of my cakes, and know what it costs me to make using wholesale ingredient prices and packaging costs.
Kathryn: Up till now, you’ve worked in finance – so that must help! Since you have that skill-set, are you planning to keep up with all of your own accounting, or use a program?
Cameca: Right now, I am manually maintaining my own general ledger.
Kathryn: What about paying yourself? Do you think that your customer base will support it as compared to other market prices for cakes?
Cameca: I think so. Honestly, I didn’t think about paying myself at first. But I think I should “pay myself,” because it is taking me 8-10 hours to make, decorate and deliver each cake. I’ve also looked at what people are willing to pay for cakes – people in other markets besides people living within Manhattan.
Kathryn: How are you charging for the cakes? By the serving?
Cameca: Yes, but I do charge differently for simple buttercream versus the more expensive fondant, and I charge additional fees for sugarpaste flower decorations (which require more labor skill and time).
Kathryn: How do you get your cakes to your customers?
Cameca: I am actually about to buy a second hand car. Friends and family can continue to pick up their cakes from me, or I will charge a delivery fee from my production place in Queens with gas and tolls.
Kathryn: Where will you be doing your production?
Cameca: I will be using an incubator kitchen in my area on a shift-by-shift basis (The Entrepreneur Space). Not too many of their customers are cake bakers – so the incubator has cake pans I can use, as well as additional equipment. I pretty much just have to schedule time to bake and bring in my ingredients. My friend’s husband goes to Restaurant Depot, so that is one way I can get wholesale ingredients. So I have no overhead cost unless I have a customer order.
Kathryn: What if this takes off, what would be your next step for production?
Cameca: Next, I would sign a lease for monthly space at an incubator kitchen that would be open 24 hours a day. After that, I would try to rent and renovate a studio space for a commercial kitchen. I think that jumping to a retail storefront as a next step is too expensive.
Kathryn: What does the incubator require besides the fee for the 8-hour production shift?
Cameca: In addition to the application, the incubator requires: 1) a security deposit; 2) proof of insurance (including worker’s compensation if applicable; 3) Food Handler’s certificate; 4) business registration and tax ID number; and 5) emergency contact information.
After I start using the kitchen I will apply for the 20C Food Processing Establishment License.
Kathryn: How are you marketing your new business?
Cameca: After France, I am meeting a high school friend of mine shortly to work on the website and Facebook page. I am trying to obtain some free PR through doing competitions and charity events. I will make samples for a charity event for 500 people in June, so I am hoping to have brochures ready by then with the website up live. Another strategy I plan to try is advertising in small local papers. Friends are also already helping me with referrals. And I’ve been trying to take my own photos of all my cakes, to help get the website and Facebook pages up and my brochures ready.
Kathryn: How many flavors of cakes are you offering, and are you doing tastings?
Cameca: I have about 7 standard flavors, but I will customize. I do tasting consultations and that cost is included in the final proposal to the client. So far, most of my current customers want round, tiered cakes with fondant and “wow” colors. Maybe from watching TV!
Kathryn: What kind of deposit do you require?
Cameca: Currently I collect 25%, but I am considering going to 50% upfront.
Kathryn: Cameca, I hate to ask, but how are you financing this? You rent your apartment now, right? How are you going to be able to pay for all of this?
Cameca: I have some savings from my prior job in the finance industry that will cover me a few months, and some employee stock that will be automatically liquidated shortly since I am leaving. This, together with the rehire policy from my employer (since I left on good terms), is my safety net. The stock sale may actually generate some tax losses, so I am hoping that I will not have to pay any taxable income penalty.
I also still have a part-time (evening and weekend) job that I got after my externship that will be continuing, for now. And I’m lucky it allows flexibility in scheduling, because it’s in catering and I can tell them when I’m available, and when I’m not. If I had to start working there full-time, the catering job would pay for my rent.
Kathryn: So what words of advice would you give to some other person, like a recent graduate, who thinks they might also be ready to make this kind of a move?
Cameca: Think everything out. You need a plan prior to doing anything. Don’t just quit your day job without a plan – if you work for someone, find out what that company’s termination procedure is. In some positions, you might be vested. Determine if this the right time strategically to leave, or if you wait a bit longer is it more beneficial to you in terms of future retirement pay? Do you have any unpaid vacation days that they will owe you based on how many years you’ve worked there? And finally, how many months will all of that accumulate to help pay your production and living space rent(s)?
Kathryn: OK Cameca, those are very useful questions that anyone else in your shoes who is considering jumping into this industry on your own should be ask themselves.
Thanks for sharing those thoughts, and we’d like to follow-up with you in a few months of baking cakes in the incubator kitchen!