Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shut It Down

When my partner and I split from one another the business came to a grinding halt. I think I worked three huge catering gigs by myself in MD because there was no way for me to get out of them, but I canceled all the booked events we had and a handful of cakes that I had agreed to make.

I went into hiding after that. I didn't pick up my cell phone. I didn't return calls. I didn't answer emails. Nothing. People thought we shut things down for good in order to relocate to Chicago, where Joel ended up moving to. No. I just shut myself down.

I traveled a lot that year within the states. I visited friends. I spent weekends away. I partied. I drank. I danced. I did everything I ever wanted to do plus more. I just didn't cook. My friend Melissa was getting married that year. I had agreed to do her wedding cake before the big split. She wondered if I would still be able to do it. I assured her I would be fine.

I did a baby shower cake for my brother's friend. This was the time of MySpace. I blogged about how my hands shook as I cut and decorated. I wrote about my anxiety, and how much sadness I had doing this cake decorating thing without Joel at my side. I wrote about how I had to stop several times during the process because I broke down crying. I wrote about my pain.

That cake still came out fantastically, though. Despite all the pain I went through, forcing myself back into the kitchen after my horrific split, my product was still solid. I even did Melissa's bridal shower cake. It's one of my favorites: Ivy and Roses. I even went as far as making Melissa's fiance's birthday cake: the WWE Ring.

Melissa got a lot of free cakes and desserts from me that year. A couple of months before her wedding, she sent me an email, telling me that she understood that I was going through a lot so she wouldn't dream of burdening me with the huge task of making her wedding cake for her. She was going to pay a real professional to do it. Anyway, with the horrible year I was having; she didn't want to add the wedding cake to the top of the pile of things for me to stress over.

Being a bridesmaid in her wedding, I did feel relieved of the burden as far as getting there on time. I would just have to concentrate on getting ready for the wedding. However, she wasn't straight with me, and I later found out that she didn't think I could make her cake as good as a "professional", and she was worried I would flake out on her because of the funk I was in over my split with Joel.

I learned a hard lesson that year. A friend is an eager friend when they can get free stuff out of you. She didn't pay for one ounce of cake that entire year from me. She was quick to send pictures of cakes she wanted me to replicate; cakes that cost well over a thousand dollars. What was she going to pay for her wedding cake from me? Nothing. I was doing it for free. Well, at least I wasn't going to have to foot the bill out of pocket anymore.

I was very hurt by the way Melissa handled the situation. I wish she just told me that my demeanor scared the crap out of her that I wouldn't be able to make this cake she wanted. When I saw the amateur cake she paid nearly $700 for, I wanted to smack her! She paid a "professional" $700 to produce a cake that some housewife could make in their own kitchen? And she was worried about what I was going to do!

I learned that I had to be more careful with what I disclosed to people. Even though I expected one of my oldest friend in the world to understand that I would not let my depression ruin her wedding cake; she couldn't see past the personal issues I was having. And throughout the year, I kept gracing her with cake after cake- ALL FREE to prove that I still had skills, but it still wasn't good enough.

I had to learn that a customer is a customer, no matter how much friendship was behind the initial cake order. Personal demons had no place in the kitchen. Whatever crap I was going through, however bad my day was, no matter how much I was crying- It did not belong in my kitchen.

It was good that I shut it down.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Business Card update

My business cards arrived yesterday. All 2000 of them. For the most part, I love how they came out, but the backside is not glossy. I know it's just a minor thing, but it's seriously bugging me and I want to return them and have them do it all over again.

Yeah, it's a very insignificant detail, but it's still a detail.

Kids or Cookies?

Business or Pleasure? : Pleasure...No, Business....Pleasure....I think.

There was never any doubt in my mind that I had always wanted a family. Husband, kids, pets- the whole 9 yards. When I was younger and married, I knew it wasn't the right time. Financial and personal circumstances were not ideal and I would not bring a child into this world if I could not do it in the perfect environment.

When my business started to grow, and Joel started to ask when we would start laying down our roots, my excuse was that I didn't have a ring from him and what kind of message would that send to our children? I love your mom enough to knock her up, but not enough to marry her. Well, he produced a ring. Because of legalities (such as his first wife refusing to sign his divorce papers), I never had a wedding planned. Why start something that I may not be able to finish, right?

Business was picking up year after year. Unexpectedly, I was thrown a curve ball when there were two lines on that damn pregnancy test instead of one. I was not a happy camper. I wasn't ready. I wasn't married. My business was booming. How the heck was a child going to fit into all this chaos?

The two months Joel and I dealt with my bun in the oven were no walk in the park. We fought. I left. I came back. I didn't want to continue the pregnancy. He insisted we try to make this work. He promised to have a physical bakery open for me before the baby's first birthday. That way, we could both work and bring the baby with us everyday. No nannies or babysitters. I could still work on my business and we would raise our child together.

In the grand scheme of things, this would have been an ideal situation for me. I could have my business, my baby, and my husband with me all day and night. Awesome!

That was a very naive and clueless girl who believed things would be as easy as that. Fate interceded and my pregnancy terminated itself. Honestly, a brand new business is not the place a newborn should be. Throwing a cradle in the corner of some kitchen is not how to take care of your own. With how lost I get in my work and how much running around Joel would have to do, who would really be there to make sure my child had every bit of attention a newborn demands every single second of the day?

Needless to say, there were never any more "oops" moments after that.

My relationship with Joel survived our personal struggles because we loved working with each other. There was a mutual respect in our kitchen that just could not transfer over to our own partnership. We had each other's back countless times, and I would still love to have him back as a business partner. Unfortunately, all the personal history between the two of us would definitely be a problematic sticking point.

Other people that I know who run their own business have succeeded because they married a partner who was not only a partner in life, but an active partner in their business. Working together provides a level of understanding that someone from the outside just never gets. People think that setting up a cupcake tree or a huge cake for a wedding is simple. But there are so many other factors that go into it, and you need to be able to handle anything unexpected; even if it means you're setting up 200 cupcakes in three feet of space in the backroom of a hall, sandwiched between DJ equipment.

Joel saw everything I went through putting together some of these orders. He knew what kind of people I had to deal with, how it sucked when someone didn't have my money, and how I had to handle unsatisfied customers. So, he cut me a little slack when I wasn't in the best mood, when I was too tired to go to his sister's birthday dinner, or when I had some massive meltdown in the middle of a baptism cake disaster.

Treating my business like my child has it advantages, but it also has huge disadvantages. I am protective like an overbearing parent. I am careful who I let in. I am cautious who I speak to about my operations. I am very selective with whom I work with. I've had many investment offers in the past; people who wanted to hand me a load of money to grow the business. It always made me nervous and I never went through with any of it. I was scared someone was going to pull my baby out of my arms and steal it. I was worried that it would fail and then would owe some big time money that I had no way of paying back.

Like an overprotective single parent, I won't just jump into a partnership blindly with anyone. While the allure of "free money" and overnight growth seems as appealing as a handsome, rich, and suave suitor coming to ask for my hand in marriage; I know better than to believe the hype. After all, what good is marrying the handsome, rich, suave suitor if he turns out to be a huge pain in the ass?

It's good to have many dreams, because if one of them doesn't pan out, you have plenty more to fall back on. It doesn't seem like I'm going to have that family I dreamed about. I admit that realization is heartbreaking to me, but I can't spend the rest of my life mourning it. I just have to refocus my efforts towards my business; my baby.

Who knows? Maybe the satisfaction of opening up my first bakery will feel as proud as watching my kid graduate from kindergarten. I thought that making the choice between Business or Pleasure would be the hardest decision I would ever have to make; concentrate on a family or concentrate on my business? I think my procrastination caused the decision to be made for me. No more family. Just work on the Business.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Cards

Business or Pleasure? : Business

With the soft-opening of my Wordpress blog-site, I've had a place to refer clients to when they want to see my work. Unfortunately, I have not had any business cards to carry around with me to hand out. It's embarrassing when people ask for my card, because I never had any. The first 3,000 cards I ever had was something I created by tweaking some clipart, and paying a printer with two carrot cakes in order to print the very bland designs on some colored card stock for me. They did the trick by giving out my info, but it was nothing to be proud of, nor did it represent who I was as a pastry chef or my company as a fun, young, exciting product.

I was told that it made me look unprofessional and not serious about my work.

Once upon a time, I had a graphic artist working on a business card for me, but things didn't work out. It did light a fire under my ass to get it done, though. With the logo he created and a Christmas gift illustration that was sent to me, I came up with a card that's fun and functional. I guess it represents me in a way that I would be proud of. It's been delivered today and I cannot wait to see them!

I'm grateful to have known people who have helped me along the way with my business. My mom got me started. My ex-fiance Joel raised Queenie Cakes with me when it was a baby. I've hit some bumps along the road during it's tween years, but I was lucky enough to have people around me who gave me great advice, handed down some logos and beautiful marketable graphics, and dispensed valuable tech advice to bring me up to speed on the way things are done now.

A cynic would be bitter and jaded at the people who promised them the world but delivered nothing. I say; be grateful for the knowledge you attained by meeting these kinds of people. The best knowledge is often free. I've learned to be a little less trusting, to work a little harder, to stop relying on others to help me get the job I need to do done, and to still be sincerely appreciative for any little helping hand that I shake along the way.

Spiritualists say that every person you encounter in life has a purpose. Some are good and others are there to teach you a valuable lesson. My business is still young and growing. As a first time "parent", I tried many different methods and have found successes and stumbling points along the way. I want my business to succeed so I will adopt the philosophy that I will work hard to attain the goals that I set, accept and learn from failures as they come, and to be truly grateful for all the fantastic people that I meet along the way.

It is my personal belief that you will only get what you give out of Life. Maybe some would call it Karma. Many people have been there for me and my business throughout the years. I will help as many people as I can on my own journey. That way, all the good things will come around again full circle.

This business expense took a large chunk out of my bank account. Honestly, money has not been good lately for personal reasons, but I know I need to invest more in my business if I really want it to grow. In this case, I really had to re-evaluate what expenses I had that were 'pleasure' and cut those out so that I could afford this 'business'. Concerts were missed, movies were un-seen, dinners out where not eaten...But I have some beautiful new business cards waiting for me at home!

Burn Out

Business or Pleasure? : Business, Dammit! Okay?! It's Business?!

In 2007, Queenie Cakes was booming! I had a steady stream of regular customers that sold my cupcakes and cakes in their diners and restaurants on a weekly basis. I had special cake orders that totaled at least 15 a week, not to mention big events like baptism, huge house parties, some weddings and engagement parties. Joel did his part. I never lacked anything I needed to run my business. Business cards, labels, boxes, equipment, ingredients, and customers. He brought in more business than I could handle sometimes.

Food orders we worked together. Events that required me being there usually were negotiated in way that Joel was paid to be there, too. The cakes were all my doing, but he got me to the delivery point time and time again. He motivated me when I was losing focus. He kept me awake when  was on my 3rd night with no sleep and still more than half of my Thanksgiving Pie orders to finish. He rubbed my aching back, ran a hot bath for me, and kept my fridge well stocked with my fuel of choice- Coke. (The soft drink!)

It got to the point where I was taking days off from my regular job in order to complete orders for my night jobs. I was sleeping a lot less. I was irritable all the time. I was constantly tired and in danger of just collapsing. Despite all the work we were being given, Joel and I were fighting constantly. I begged for a break; a real vacation.

Our lease was coming up for renewal, and Joel made it clear he did not want to spend another year at that apartment. His mother had passed away a year before that and we no longer needed to live in that building to take care of her. (She used to live in an apartment right above us.) He promised a bigger apartment in a better neighborhood. I told him it was time to start looking to buy.

Besides working, we spent that year looking at co-ops and small houses. The houses were out of our price range, and the co-ops that I liked were in buildings that were very strict. Joel worried that someone would rat on us for running out business out of the apartment and we could lose our security deposit if we got kicked out. We bickered over things like that constantly. I finally conceded to rent for another year to save more money. He found a three bedroom apartment with a 3-room kitchen-dining room area and a huge living room. It was a little more than we wanted to pay, but it was in Maspeth, which I suppose would be slightly better than where we were situated in Woodhaven. We were set to move in three months.

That summer was busier than anything I can remember before that. Every single weekend was booked full of cooking and cake gigs. My regular customers were increasing their weekly orders. This meant more work and less sleep for me. Our joint account / house-fund was growing bigger with each paid gig. I should have been happy. I should have been excited. I was so damn tired, though. I was always so tired.

I managed to get off a night once a month to meet up with my old high school girl friends. That was an issue for Joel. Was I going back to my alcoholic ways, he would ask me. If I slept in an hour later on a Saturday morning, that was an issue for Joel, too. He insisted I stick to a schedule. If I put off baking my cakes until the day before an event, that was an issue. Every deviation from our lives the last five years was disastrous to Joel. He wanted structure, routine, and predictability. Anything less was going to "ruin everything".

That was it. One HUGE fight and it was all over. Our life together. The joint business. Our home. Everything was over. In the space of a few minutes, our entire foundation was demolished and our business and lives crashed down. It only took a few minutes to destroy what we spent 5 years building.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Business or Pleasure? : Business

The first year Joel and I lived together was nothing short of chaotic. I was coming from an abusive marriage and was probably an official alcoholic. He was coming from a failed marriage, looking for peace of mind and order in his life. I was puking in the bathroom every night, stumbling home drunk from one bar after another after to work. He was home, ironing his jeans and color coordinating his shirts in his closet.

We clashed hard. Shouting. Fighting. Objects flying across the apartment. Again, my food business took a nose dive. I was never available to take orders on the fly because I was drunk or hungover. I was more concerned about going to one party after another from school than I was booking future cake orders. Even my once a month customers seemed to stop ordering from me.

As Joel and I sorted out our personal lives; he gave me a choice. He would get me anything I would ever need, take me anywhere I would ever need to go, come up with any money I fell short of, and provide his assistance every single step of the way....for my Business. I had to sort out my priorities. I needed to make a decision and make it swift.

Would it be partying and living in the moment or would it be the business? One chance to make this decision and that would be it.

I gave up drinking that day. I stopped hanging out with my trouble-maker stagier friends. I did not see the inside of a bar again for many years. My body went into withdrawal from the sudden disappearance of alcohol in my system. As I found my equilibrium and nursed my body back to health; Joel nursed my ailing business back to health, as he promised he would.

Instead of huge entertainment centers or extra seating or fluffy couches; work benches, rolling racks, and an extra freezer took up most of the space in our apartment. My fiction and horror books were given to charity and only cookbooks lined our 7 book cases. I didn't have cable for 5 years because it was too much money wasted. Shopping meant buying cake boxes, wholesale ingredients, more vintage cookbooks, out of commission cake pans, or antique cooking tools. Money from cooking or baking jobs that didn't go directly into the joint account was spent on buying more equipment or ingredients. Vacations were working vacations. If we were not traveling somewhere to work, we were not going there for vacation.

Parties, socializing, and get-togethers stopped. We had kept in touch with a couple of people from school and would see them every other month. That all stopped during our second year together. Our business was keeping us so busy, we didn't have time for birthdays, anniversaries or baby showers. I lost touch with my friends, I stopped going out with the crew after work, and if I was not at my apartment working; I was probably visiting my family.

Six years is a long time to stop being young. However, my reputation, my cakes, and my business prospered. We had more money in our joint account than either one of us ever had in our checking accounts. We started looking at co-ops and small houses. My debt was being elimated several thousand dollars a year. Life was finally starting to work out.

This was it. I was going to be a small business owner. All my hard work and sacrifice was going to come to something tangible that I could hold and say, "Look at what I did!"

I can't say it was easy giving up the Pleasure. I eventually started to drink again; a glass of wine on a special occassion. Sociallizing meant date night with Joel once a week; usually dinner and a movie--IF we didn't have a gig that week. It was rare when we didn't.

Nights partying meant I had on a chef coat, dishing out cake at someone else's party. During those years, the Business was my Pleasure. It would all pay off eventually, right?

Your Kitchen or Mine?

Business or Pleasure : Too Much Pleasure, Back to Business

I met my partner Joel about the time I was going back to school. He was friends with my father, worked down the block from the dry cleaning facility, and a two-month veteran of the work study program I was attending. In fact, it was because of him that I got in ahead of the waiting list in the first place.

I didn't like Joel, at first. Being 16 years older than me, we didn't have much in common. I tried to strike up conversation as we headed to school together twice a week. He was married, two grown sons who were not much younger than me, at the time, and he was a Born Again Christian. Most of our early conversations consisted of me ripping up his backwards, racist, and sexist beliefs.

In the year and a half I was working at the school with Joel, he had separated from his wife. I was in the middle of my own messy separation, as well. I would leave my husband, he would come find me - begging and crying for me to come home, and I would go back. I did this again and again over the course the my work study program. I started drinking heavily with other stagiers. I was stumbling to my new bank job half drunk in the morning and then running to school to work quickly so that me and my cohorts could disappear and get drunk on the rooftop again and again. We stumbled into Limerick's across the street to drink some more until the sun came up. We passed out on the trains, to get home, shower, dress and then head out to our day jobs. I killed many brain cells that year.

My little side business stopped moving. I was too drunk, tired, and hungover during the week to make cakes that were needed on the weekdays. I was sleeping, fighting with the soon-to-be ex-husband, or doing mountains of laundry during the weekends to really push for more food orders. Still, I had a small trickle of clients who ordered odds and ends from me every month. For one reason or another, my little business was still breathing.

Joel and I hooked up during this time. I wouldn't say I loved him. I was attached to him, though. He protected me at school. He had my back. He pulled me out of trouble time and time again. He covered for me when I was in no shape to work the classes. He cleaned me up when I was a hot mess. He was the anchor I needed so badly. Over time; I fell in love with him.

Before work study was over, I had left the husband for good, and gotten a better day job. Joel had left his wife for good, but not before getting her knocked up...long story. We moved in together. My parents had no idea. My soon-to-be-ex had no idea where I was living. All they knew was that suddenly, I was making all kinds of new food and showing up at the house. I was bringing new things to parties, getting bigger orders from some of the guests and networking like mad.

My little secret living arrangements meant I had more space. I had a professional kitchen. I had equipment. I also had a partner who was willing to help me get anything I needed, drive me anywhere I needed to go, and work with me all day or night on recipes and new concepts. I finally had it; someone who loved to work as hard as I did (actually he worked a million times harder) and loved all aspects of food, too.

Things were finally starting to gel together.

My Baby

Business or Pleasure : Pleasure

Eight years ago, in the middle of a Big Mistake of a marriage, my family pleaded with me to find something I really wanted to do, and go back to school to do it. I was spending more time at my parents home, trying to stay away from my own home as much as possible. My mother started taking an amateur cake decorating class at a local craft store. She tried to talk me into signing up with her. It was $25 for the two of us, and a 20% coupon off anything in the store we needed for the class. Because of work, I declined.

Well, she loved this class. Every week, she learned something new. She insisted I read her instruction books, look at the tools, and see if I could do what she was doing. Out of sheer boredom, I went ahead and made my first decorated, layered cake. It was a hot mess; lopsided, colors too bold, icing too thick, and just a sheer disaster.

I'm not one to take failure well. I was determined to make a cake as pretty as the one's in the books. I tried again and again and again. I finally got it.

That got the ball rolling. Through luck of knowing the right people, I got a rare work study opportunity at a Manhattan culinary school. I would work for 1,300 hours, and in return, I would get a $30,000 education for free. Uniform, knives, and various other expensive kitchen tools would be free, as well.

That 1,300 hours was hard. I was still working full time at my day job. I had just been laid off my fashion sales job, the money-maker of my work career thus far. I was in about $50,000 worth of debt- give or take a few thousand. I was working at the family's wholesale drycleaning business, doing the books, payroll, collections, and invoicing. I was barely making enough to pay the rent and none of the credit cards were being paid at all. My worthless husband brought home just enough to cover utilities and some food. My mom was sending me home with groceries from her pantry, even though I tried to pretend I didn't need them.

Life was bad. But, work study was fantastic! I was working in the prep kitchens, tasting, learning, and handling food and ingredients I had never seen or tasted before in my life. I was meeting people from all walks of life. I was around people my age and a little older. I was working with magazine editors; washing up pots and pans with them, and taking out the trash with investment bankers from Wall Street. Yes, some of these people could afford to pay the full tuition many times over, but they loved the backroom education- as someone had put it. You just don't learn about receiving or rejecting orders when you're sitting in a prepped classroom.

My love of all things food blossomed on those nights when it was 12am, and I needed to be up for my day job in 6 hours, and I still had 2 hours worth of cleaning to do in that school. I took home the most expensive cuts of meat, the most rare bottles of wine, and the most beautiful pastries you could ever drool at in some fine Parisian bakeshop window. Tired as all hell, but the luckiest girl in the world.

This food thing was great. I was experimenting with recipes at home with my family. My cakes were getting tastier and prettier. Out of the blue, people started paying me a little money here and there for a cake or a tray of Pad Thai or to cook for someone's birthday.

Not a culinary school grad or some Le Cordon Bleu student; I was just a stagier - a kitchen assistant who mopped floors, hauled up bins of food, and scrubbed pots and pans. This is what I wanted to do. Food. I wanted to live it, breathe it, and earn my fortune with it. This was my baby.

The Birth
The name of my company; Queenie Cakes was almost handed to me. When I first started working at CVS when I turned 17, I kept to myself. I didn't hang out with the gang after work because I wasn't allowed to. I dressed up in tights and skirts and always looked impeccable; even if I was just a cashier at a drug store. Some of the girls started teasing me. They said I was stuck up. They started calling me Miss Queenie, after one of them misheard my mom calling me my nickname- Kareen. They thought she said Queen. That was my first email address: . I still have that email address. I get coupons there now.

I wasn't much different going from job to job. I had the same air of haughtiness, but once people got to know me; it was clear that I was not stuck up or conceited. I was just quiet and shy. The name stuck though- Miss Queenie.

And now- Chef Queenie. The owner of Queenie Cakes; my baby.