What does being a home baker entail?
You’ve probably seen the meteoric rise of home bakers slinging cookies, cakes, pastry, bread, and so many other goodies. There are so many on Instagram. Some of us take orders by DM, by email, a google form, website, etc. But as part of this wave, I wanted to reveal a little about what the new occupation “home baker” means and what comes next.
Process standardization & quality control
Some home bakers have come from professional backgrounds. No thanks to the pandemic, many lost their jobs. Baking at home for them meant being able to continue to practice their craft and continue to serve customers - but now for themselves.
For those who aren’t professionally trained (like me), you quickly learn that a million things can go wrong at every step of the way when you produce at a high volumes. For cookies, it’s your ingredient temperatures, how you mix at every step, a method to never forget any ingredients, the shaping, and the bake. Each step has to be done perfectly to get a perfect result.
For home baking especially, we started out just using our home oven, which is a headache beyond just capacity- consistent heat control (staying at the right temp when you’re baking at high volume) and uneven heat if you decide to bake multiple trays are cause for concern. Needless to say, we love our commercial oven.
Getting used to producing at volume & the physical workload takes a lot of time and many will ask, “is this worth it?” 12+ hour days on your feet are enough to make most people reconsider pursuing a career in food.
Business licensing & finances
Honestly so tedious, but it’s what lets us operate out of the home as a cottage food operation. The two major things are: there’s an approved list of things you can sell from your home (hence we’e only made a couple types of filled cookies), and that there’s a sales cap for home bakeries. We also do bookkeeping, pay our taxes, etc. Let’s move on to more interesting things.
Sales channels (getting your product to your customer)
Most home bakeries reach customers via delivery or pickup because we can’t ask you to “come into the store”. We chose to reach customers by offering free delivery since day 1, as well as free pickups. We’ve also partnered with @discoverpastel to reach more people around the bay.
Marketing & social media
I set up our website this year using Shopify because our prior website (custom one-page site coded by @tonydangblog) wasn’t able to automate every part of our ordering process or provide us with branding opportunities (read: a way to blog, tell you more about the products, tell you our story). A website gives your customers a place to land - to see your story, all your products, to read an faq, and order. Websites give peace of mind to both customer and business-owner, but come with many problems. Shopify customer support & app support are my best friends & enemies at times.
For social media and other stuff that helps customers find us, we’re on Instagram and yelp. I take the photos as best I can and write all of our content! It’s really fun for me to write the social media posts. Nothing beats writing about cookies!
The tech stuff & automation
Here’s a non-ideal customer experience: You go to order from a home bakery you find on Instagram. They don’t have a website and you have to order through a form which doesn’t take payment. You don’t get an auto-generated order confirmation. You weren’t automatically notified about pick-up or delivery, and when you got your order, something was missing.
There’s a lot to set up and it’s painful to do so. We started by taking orders via DM, and accepted a few forms of digital payment (venmo, zelle, etc.) Since I was logging the orders manually, there was a lot of error. Sometimes I’d end up short on cookies, or forgot to log someone’s order. Nothing was automated.
Even with our shopify site - shopify is not designed for food orders. We export our sales data, run python to reformat, and then use pivot tables to get exact counts of how many of each cookie to prepare. We had to take a lot of time to set up all the customer notifications (ready for pickup, out for delivery, etc.) and - as a small but key detail, we’ve set up auto-generated labels so that customers know what’s in each box. I think it’s important to have this for online food orders.
We still occasionally make small mistakes if I manually log a custom order, but in general - it’s best never to touch the numbers and let the system automate everything. Human error is ever-present.
There's still a lot of room for our system to improve, but moving on...
We have some of the kindest customers, but we also get meanies and weirdos. I’ve been asked if I can make someone else’s cookie recipe before too, which hurts my pride and everything I’ve built (all of our cookie recipes are our own). Total mixed bag. All I can say is: if you’re looking to be a home baker or you are one, take time to develop rapport with your customers, and do your best to be clear - then do it again 10x. Most people do not read. This is really important so I'll give examples.
- It took us about... 3-6 months before customers stopped asking us "what's a pudge". This showed in cookie sales - the proporiton of pudge buyers increased greatly after we were constantly explaining that we call our 6 ounce cookies "pudge". now it's got a prominent spot on our website.
- we get texts asking if we make cake. nuff said - there is no cake on our yelp, website, or Instagram, ever. customers find us and call before even scrolling through any of our info or pictures.
I take weekly, sometimes bi-weekly trips to costco. We’ve spent a lot of time tracking down ingredients, like pre-chopped heath bars, pecan pieces (found at costco business center, not regular costco), and various chocolates. It takes longer than we want to source ingredients in bulk and at a good price. A lot of the warehouses are also quite far. When we can get ingredient pricing down and production up, we plan to lower prices.
Planning our menu
One of the most delightful parts of the bakery, especially with a seasonal menu! We plan by: choosing what we like, what would be in season (fruit in summer, warm spices in fall), what customers ask for, and what inspires us. Some bakeries have fixed menus that work for them. We like to switch it up. And most importantly, I love to test new flavors and keep learning. A lot of learnings from new cookies can be applied to existing recipes.
Business strategy & misc. business stuff
Lawrance handles all the business side for us - from pricing, procuring equipment, licensing, considering partnerships, whether to continue baking at the home, rent commercial kitchen space, or make the leap to a storefront! Behind each decision you see, there is a lengthly planning & execution phase. We commonly stay up til 2 or 3am if we’re working on a complex new development.
We’re incredibly happy with where the bakery is now vs. when we started - we did about 3x+ in sales compared to last year(!!!). 2022’s gonna be a big year.
I hope you enjoyed reading this! Whether you’re a home baker, aspiring home baker, customer, friend, or stranger. I hope it was useful or that it shed light on what businesses are doing behind-the-scenes. What we’re going through is just a fraction of what big businesses deal with - we haven’t touched on hiring, managing/training, payroll/admin, expansion, construction, etc. Ready for more!