How to Start a Home Bakery
ICE alum Joy Cho (Pastry, '19) shares her quarantine baking adventure, from restaurant job to home business.
You know what they say: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade … or lemon curd for strawberry cake, lemon-ricotta cake with mint, or ditch the lemons altogether and roll with oranges instead.
Up until three months ago, I was working the evening pastry service at my dream restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. The schedule and nature of the work were grueling at times (especially transitioning from an office job), but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I also had a café pop-up planned that I was excited about and was starting to explore other opportunities on the side.
I never could have anticipated that in mid-March, I would lose my job due to COVID-19, return to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and launch a weekly baked goods delivery service from my parents’ kitchen. The last few months have been a wild ride, but I’ve never been closer to pursuing my dreams of running my own small business. I’ve learned to make the most of the circumstances — unexpectedly, creatively and dynamically.
Like so many hospitality professionals impacted by the pandemic, I felt lost and overwhelmed when I found out that I had been let go. What was I supposed to do with all this time? When would I be able to return to work? How do I even apply for unemployment benefits, and why was the system so difficult to navigate?
Also like many hospitality professionals, I turned to what I knew how to do even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety: making food and sharing it with others. It provided a unique comfort and structure to the sudden onslaught of free time I had never asked for but perhaps needed. It was one of the only ways to preserve some semblance of normalcy.
At first, I baked with no real aim – I just wanted to be in the kitchen, baking up a storm and delivered the extras free of charge to anyone who responded to my Instagram stories. As I continued to share treats across central Ohio, I wondered if people would be willing to pay for my baked goods. Would anyone be interested? Was I qualified enough? There was no way to know though except to try, right? Thus the Baker’s Box project was born. I would release a new curated box of three to four items for preorder each week through my website and Instagram and bake and deliver them to customers’ doorsteps the following week. Boxes were themed, whether a cupcake omakase box, a breakfast-inspired box or treats dedicated to cities I’ve lived in.
Over the past two and a half months of launching this project, I’ve learned so much – talk about literal on-the-job, hands-on training. In a matter of weeks, I went from a pastry cook in NYC to head baker, small business owner, pseudo-graphic designer, cake decorator and marketer all in one. Baker’s Boxes, and the process of creation, execution and delivery, have optimized and evolved. Though there are more lessons I’ve gleaned than I have space to write about, I’ve outlined some of the biggest takeaways below:
Transitioning from a restaurant kitchen to a home bakery:
At Gramercy Tavern, I walked in every day to a list (and any additional notes from the chefs) that structured my shift. My job was to prep and execute my tasks accordingly. Transitioning to being the sole baker in the kitchen was quite the adjustment. Not only do I prep and bake my items each week, but I also have to take inventory, shop for ingredients, test menu items for the following week, respond to email inquiries, and keep up with social media and marketing. I’ve never been in a more dynamic role where I have to manage myself and structure my own days and weeks. I do miss the camaraderie of being part of a restaurant team, but it’s been exciting to explore the freedom of running my own concept.
Stepping out of my comfort zone:
I realized firsthand the value of “going for it” despite uncertainty and doubt. Spurred on by exploration rather than perfection, I pursued a series of collaborations with local breweries, using their beer in my box items; partnered with a national nonprofit one week to donate tips from sales to the organization; started a weekly email newsletter; ran a few Instagram giveaways; and streamlined the cake order process on my website. I’m still learning to put myself out there; it’s the best way to grow.
Working smarter, not harder:
Initially, this was a one-woman show: I was baking the Baker’s Box items, packaging them, turning around, making deliveries – and quickly burning out. I ended up hiring my first employee (my brother) to make deliveries. Though seemingly a small decision, handing off deliveries to someone else freed up a lot of time for me to work on more orders, cakes or other projects. With box items, too, I’ve increased efficiency by choosing one to two baked goods that can be prepped ahead of time (such as freezing unbaked cookie dough) so I’m not scrambling on delivery day. Adequate planning and strategizing have worked wonders, both in saving time and effort and also in preserving my own sanity.
Enjoying the journey – in and out of the kitchen:
Coaching myself to slow down, celebrate my wins and take time to do non-baking things has been challenging and incredibly beneficial. Overworking is easy to do when you build your own schedule and can quickly lead to exhaustion and burnout (I learned that the hard way). Biking in nature, hanging with friends and setting aside time to work on personal projects are some ways I’ve found to ground myself.
Baker’s Boxes started out as a way to keep myself occupied in this quarantine period and earn a bit of extra income, but they’ve become so much more in the process. I’ve been blown away by the support of central Ohioans, many of whom I’ve never met – the power of word-of-mouth or grassroots marketing cannot be underestimated. Posting a new menu every Thursday and sharing the treats with my customers has been a unique way to foster connection and hospitality even while socially distancing. This is my line of work, and it’s a huge privilege to share my passion with the community wherever I am.
Though I’m not sure what the future will hold in terms of my career trajectory, I will always remember the past few months as a meaningful time when I took a chance, grew in unexpected ways as a pastry professional, and realized once again the power of homemade treats to brighten people’s lives. I’ve never felt more challenged, excited and overwhelmed (in a good way) by the possibilities that lie ahead. Stay tuned on my website and Instagram as I explore shipping options and potentially migrate Baker’s Boxes to the NYC area!