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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Interview- The Constant Baker

This is why I started this blog. I wanted to connect with people who have their own baking business, to find out how they got started and how they keep their business going.

Catherine Slye of She's Sew Slye was kind enough to introduce me to Connie Martin owner of The Constant Baker. Connie allowed me to interview her via e-mail. I think her answers to my questions are very interesting. She left a good job to follow her passion and live her dream. I hope you are as inspired by her courage as I am!

"Connie's passion for baking began as a young girl when she first entered her butterscotch brownie recipe in her Girl Scout troop bake off and won first prize. Throughout her teens she continued to bake tortes, yeast breads, cookies and cakes. While attending Miss Porter’s School, she taught a month long course on making various dessert mousses. She continued to bake while at college and her passion culminated with a dream to attend pastry school. That dream came true in 2006 when she graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco with a degree in Pastry Arts. After a stint with a patisserie, she now owns The Constant Baker and has been delighting dessert lovers throughout the Bay Area and beyond."
–from Connie's Website


• It sounds like you started baking at a very young age. Who taught you to bake? Do you have any favorite "baking" memories you'd like to share?

Connie: I can “blame” it on my paternal grandmother, whom I adored. She was of German heritage and I remember helping her make her kuchen recipe. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time, when I got started. She would put me on a step stool next to her kitchen counter and let me pour the ingredients into the bowl as she worked her magic. She made the best kuchen. I remember eating it with her warm right out of the oven….it was heaven. Unfortunately, the recipe was in her head and it died with her. Words of advice, if you have family recipes that are in someone’s head, get them to write them down. Even if you don’t cook or bake yourself, they are precious bits of family history to be treasured for future generations. My family still talks about that recipe.

• Miss Porter's is a boarding school for grades 9-12 right? I don't know much about life in a boarding school. Did you have access to a kitchen there? Were you allowed to bake when you had free time? How did you end up teaching the course on making dessert mousses?

Connie: Yes, Miss Porter’s (MPS) is a boarding school for grades 9-12. I did have access to a kitchen there but I don’t remember exactly where it was. It was not the main kitchen so it must have been in a dorm. I didn’t bake at MPS, only during the holidays when I went home. At the time I attended MPS, the school had a January term where the girls could study anything they wanted to for the month. I asked my advisor if I could not only study, but teach a class in making dessert mousses. Mousse, at the time fascinated me. They agreed and, at age 17, I had about 10 students who were making mousses with me. We made at least 8-10 different mousses and had a blast doing it.

• Where did you go to college and what was your major? Did you work in any other fields before deciding to go to the California Culinary Academy? If so, what made you decide to go back to school to get your degree in Pastry Arts?

Connie: I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. I majored in Political Science and Economics! Before I went to CCA, I was in the hospitality industry. I worked in catering sales and as a meeting planner in a fine dining restaurant and then in a conference center. In the late 90’s, I also owned my own event planning company, Corporate Events. When I first graduated from college, I worked in New York on Wall Street as a commercial loan officer in a commercial bank; Bankers Trust Company, which is now owned by Deutsch Bank. I attained the position of Assistant Vice President while there.
What made me decide to get a degree in Pastry Arts? I have always loved to bake. As I have grown older, I realized that my soul was crying out to me to follow my passion. It was very scary to answer this call as I left a very good job to attend CCA. But I knew, that on the last day of my life, if I had not attended Pastry School I would have regretted it.

• I have a daughter who is a senior in high school this year. She dreams of owning her own coffee shop someday. She will probably get her bachelor's degree in business, but she is also considering attending a Culinary Arts school. Can you tell us a little bit about Culinary Arts School? What advice would you give her?

Connie: If you have a passion for baking, especially the science and creativity of it, you are in for a treat if you attend culinary school. I literally had to pinch myself everyday I was in school because I could not believe I was so lucky to have such a wonderful opportunity to learn so much about a subject I love. My chef instructors were very patient given their awesome backgrounds. We were such neophytes but they loved us for both our good times and bad. And there were some ugly moments. But that is how you learn. My worst moments were my best teachers. My advice; be open to the experience and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s better to make them there than on the job!

•After culinary arts school, you worked at a patisserie before deciding to start your own business. I'd like to know more about your decision to go out on your own. What led to that decision? Was it scary? Were there any difficulties in the beginning?

Connie: I decided to go out on my own because no one was doing what I was doing in my area and I wanted some flexibility in my life. It is very scary to go out on your own because you have no idea how your business will be received. It was very difficult to get started. I had to design a menu, cost it out, and write a business plan. Then I had to find a commercial kitchen, get all of my permits…and Santa Clara County has very strict requirements. After that there was the administrative side of setting everything up; bank accounts, bookkeeping system, business identity, logo, website….the list of “things to do” is endless! I am still working on it and expect I will be for awhile!

• How is your business set up? If I remember right, you rent a shared commercial kitchen space and you don't have a store front. (right?) Can you discuss the pros and cons of this type of set-up?

Connie: Yes, I work out of a shared commercial kitchen and it is the best way to get started in my opinion. The costs of leasing and running a kitchen on your own are exorbitant and the permit process is very extensive. Plus I have flexibility. I signed a one year lease. If you lease and build out your own space, you don’t have that flexibility. My shared kitchen works fine. Everyone is pretty accommodating and, when a few of us are in there together, we work things out regarding use of equipment.

•When you first established your own business, how did you get the word out/market your business/find new customers?

Connie: I am a member of a few networking groups and that is how I started getting my name out there. As people gave my products as gifts, those people then called me for cookies. I am still building my business, of course, and am looking into some other venues such as one of the Farmer’s Markets here.

• What is a typical day like for you? How do you manage your time? How much of your time is spent actually baking vs. time spent on "business" things?

Connie: I don’t think I have a typical day. If I have baking to do, which I do most days, I go to the kitchen early and complete those tasks. I spend about 3-4 hours per day baking right now. I hope to increase that. The rest is spent on doing other things such as buying product, networking, and admin..

• I think pricing is one of the most difficult parts of selling baked goods. How did you decide on your prices?

Connie: Pricing is difficult. I priced all of my products last March and the cost of everything I use has gone up considerably. I decided on my current pricing based on the cost plus a mark-up for making the product. I expect I will need to increase my prices in January to cover the increased food costs. I also am using more expensive chocolate now so that has changed my pricing structure too.

• Just for fun… What is your favorite dessert to make? Is there a certain special tool or supply you could not live without? Can you recommend any fun supply sources?

Connie: I love lemons and we have a gorgeous Meyer Lemon tree in our backyard. I love to make anything lemon with the fruits from our tree; tarts, breads, marmalade, cookies, you name it. They all taste delicious because of our yummy lemons.
I love my offset spatulas. I use them all of the time. Fun supply source? NY Cake and Baking. I wish I lived closer to it; although that would be dangerous for my bank account.

Thank you Connie! The crazy busy holiday baking season is fast approaching (if not already here). I really appreciate that you took the time to do this!