Marcy Newman has made a big career change. She retired from her job as a highway engineer, designing and managing the construction of multi-billion dollar freeways. And now she’s designing and making custom cookies, starting at about $45-50 per dozen.
When she retired, Marcy was looking for something else to do. She wanted to do something creative, and she stumbled upon an online class for baking cookies. She gave it a try, did some baking for friends, liked it, and decided to get serious about it.
When she made that decision, her engineering and project management background kicked in. She didn’t just start baking. She started by doing research. She researched the law for home baking businesses in Texas; she found recipes, equipment, and supplies; she took another online class in food safety and got certified; she registered her 'Southtown Sweets' business with the county, set up a dedicated bank account, got insurance, found an invoicing and payment system, and established Instagram and Facebook pages.
This wasn’t just a hobby, it was a business, but, at the same time, it was a business that wasn’t quite as pressure-filled as highway engineering.
“The good thing about this business is that I don’t have to do it full-time,” Marcy says.
Marcy has a bunch of holiday-themed cookies that are pre-designed. But she can also work with you to create a design that's all yours.
Marcy started baking her custom cookies a little more than a year ago.
“I go back now and look at photos of those first cookies, and they look so amateur, but it’s like anything else, you learn with practice.”
Some of the best lessons, Marcy says, come from making mistakes.
She describes how she once added lemon extract to frosting on a batch of cookies. From that she learned that lemon extract contains oil, and that oil breaks down the icing she uses, and it doesn’t set firmly. “So, lesson learned,” she says. “Today I work mostly with artificial flavoring, and I tend to use just vanilla in the frosting and let the cookie itself be the big flavor.”
Marcy also learns from other bakers. She’s a member of Facebook baking groups where people share tips and tricks. She’s learned what brands of food colors to use (she wants a food color that is flavor-free, and says that food coloring in the supermarket often adds a bitter taste to food). She’s learned to use parchment paper under her cookies when they bake, because they’re rich in butter and the parchment paper absorbs the excess, so the cookie isn’t oily.
Marcy has developed several holiday-themed cookie designs this year, including some special ones that children can paint with color themselves.
“I’ve got some cookies that are little Santa Clauses or nutcrackers and things like that, where I’ve made a base white cookie and then stenciled a black frosting outline onto it. Along with the cookies, I deliver these little edible paint palettes that kids can use to paint their own cookies.”
In addition, she’s got some standard, fully-frosted holiday designs that she’ll be making, and she’s happy to discuss any ideas you have for your special design.
All of Marcy’s cookies are ‘custom’, and every one of them is handmade.
The process goes like this: A customer approaches Marcy with a concept. It can be very specific, like a business logo for a corporate event, or more general, like a pregnant woman with an umbrella (which Marcy recently did for a baby shower).
Based on the concept, Marcy sketches up a possible design and shares it with the customer. After some back and forth, they agree on the look, and Marcy gets to work.
First, she needs to choose a cookie cutter.
“I’ve got several hundred cookie cutters,” Marcy says. “They’re all sorted and organized by theme. So, for example, I’ve got a set of Fiesta-themed cookie cutters with a cactus, a jalapeño pepper, a flag, that kind of thing.”
But even with hundreds of choices, she still gets requests for a shape she doesn’t have — like that pregnant woman with an umbrella — and in that case she makes it herself.
The next step is the cookie. The dough is basic vanilla, but sometimes she’ll add a flavor, like lemon, chocolate, almond, or strawberry.
“I’ve got a host of different flavors you can choose from,” she says.
The cookie gets baked and set aside for a period of time, and then the hard work begins — hand-applying the frosting to match the design.
Some of those designs are pretty basic, with just two or three areas and colors. But others are very detailed and precise — logos, for example. In that case, Marcy may begin by making a paper stencil and using it to ‘sketch’ the design onto each cookie with a ‘scribe’ — a sharp tool that cuts a light line into the cookie. She then uses that sketch as a guide when she applies the frosting.
But there’s a limit to how precise a design can be when you’re working with frosting.
“I don’t do photorealistic things or copyright designs,” Marcy says, “If that’s what you need, I’m the wrong person.”
“But,” she adds, “I can use a photo for inspiration.”
As an example, she points to a series of cookies that she created after a recent trip to visit the Grand Canyon and other Western landmarks. Using her photos for inspiration, she designed cookies to represent the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Glen Canyon, and Bell Peak.
“They’re never going to look exact,” she says, “but each of them was clearly recognizable.”
These 'paint your own' cookie kits are great for kids. The cookies come ready-to-paint, along with a palette of edible paints.
Her minimum order is two dozen, and a basic cookie with a two or three-color design typically costs $45 or $50 per dozen. Something more complex, like a logo, is likely to cost $60 to $65 per dozen.
These prices are higher than when she first started out, Marcy explains, because the prices of eggs and butter have gone up quite a bit since then. And yes, she says, she knows that you can get cookies cheaper at Walmart, but these are different — custom-designed and handmade, right here in the neighborhood.
If you’d like a batch of cookies, Marcy needs to receive your order at least four days in advance.
“Don't wait till the last minute, though” she says. “Four days is the minimum required, and earlier is better because I may already have other orders in front of you.”
Marcy requires payment in advance. That’s another lesson she learned by making a mistake. In the early days of her business, she was partway through preparing an order when a customer called her to cancel, because the customer’s event had cancelled.
Marcy uses Square for payments, and can therefore accept credit cards.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
Check out some of Marcy's work, including specialized designs and a cookie-based holiday centerpiece.