For many people, working with food all day would be a dream come true. Whether you're serving up gourmet meals in a restaurant, crafting cookie recipes in the kitchen or taking your dishes on the road in a food truck, there are so many ways to turn your love of food into a successful (and delicious!) career. But working in the food industry isn't easy — it comes with its own set of challenges and not-so-tasty troubles, too.
Wondering what it's like to follow the foodie path? Business News Daily asked Melody Lan, co-owner of both Bumblebee Bakeshop and gourmet snack business Velvet Lantern, all about her job. The custom cake baker and "chief snack officer" dished on just how sweet her career really is.
Business News Daily: What do you do?
Melody Lan: I bake, design and deliver custom cakes and cupcakes for a delivery-only bakeshop that I own with my sister in San Francisco. We hand-draw designs, like spaceships and polar bears, with vanilla buttercream so everything actually tastes good. I also assemble delicious party snacks inside pouches — things like chocolate-covered sunflower seeds and tea cookies — wrap them up into beautiful light-aqua gift boxes and ship them to recipients throughout the contiguous United States.
BND: What made you want to pursue the industry you're in?
Lan: I used to work in journalism — particularly newspapers — and would read about small businesses and their owners all the time. During that time, I would spend non-work hours interviewing chefs or writing food articles so my interest in food grew exponentially over the years. I also had the opportunity to interview small business owners working with food or their own unique products, and those stories and hard-working people really inspired me to pursue my curiosity with running a small food business myself.
BND: How did you get into your job?
Lan: My sister and I have always wanted to open a food-related business since we were young. I consider making cinnamon-sugar toast from a Mickey Mouse "cookbook" one of my earliest inspirations for my love for all things food. (The best part was actually throwing buttered triangle-shaped toast into a bag and shaking it up like crazy.) Honestly, I don't think I can swallow that today as an adult. My sister, on the other hand, made more complicated creations, like sticky toffee bread and cinnamon buns. We ate whatever we made together late at night with mugs of cream soda or coke and lots of ice. (We only ever had mugs at home.)
In 2005, she moved out to San Francisco from New York and started baking cakes for her kids and their friends and then customers. I was more than happy to quit my newspaper job, and join her to make the cake business official. I had been running the bakeshop for [more than] five years before I felt comfortable launching the bakeshop's extension of snack gifts. It was at this point I felt I had more knowledge of products and customer service to venture into another small business field. Today, we offer custom cakes, cupcakes [and] snack gift boxes, and will soon be launching our at-home cake mixes.
BND: What do you like about your job?
Lan: I honestly love eating cake. Now that I've tested the recipes over and over, tweaking the cocoa or the sugar, there's really no need to taste them for quality control anymore but it doesn't mean I don't still want to taste cake as often as possible. OK, I'll just admit that I eat cupcakes for breakfast and lunch some days. Ever since we launched our snack gift boxes, I've certainly been tasting a countless number of snacks to include in our gift boxes. I'm also in my kitchen testing out new snack recipes as we prepare to launch our own treats. It's probably obvious, but I really enjoy working with sweets so the tasting part is the best and the mad-kitchen-snack-lab testing is a close second. I basically feel honored to be able to take part in other people's celebratory activities every day — whether it's baking cakes for parties or wrapping snacks in gifts boxes for various occasions.
BND: What challenges do you face at your job?
Lan: Unpredictable things can happen, like batter I've been working with for years suddenly decides to explode in the oven so the cupcakes come out sunken, blistered or crusty. Or the weather is suddenly really hot and a tiered cake I'm trying to transport 10 minutes away is about to slide off its bottom tier. Parties also happen mainly on weekends so it means Fridays and Saturdays are constantly chaotic and there's plenty of muscle/joint pain when orders flood in. It's a great thing to have a small local following, but sometimes the body just breaks down a bit and I just have to push on!
As for the snack gifts, the worst part is that when I ship the products out, I have no control of it anymore so I have to deal with delays or problems that the postal service encounters, but there's nothing I can do about it despite the precautions I've taken — shipping out early, standing in line myself to get the boxes scanned in the system, putting "FRAGILE" stickers on boxes so delivery people know to handle them more carefully. Then I get anxious about when or if the recipient will receive the gift I sent out. I think I have control and paranoia issues I can let go of, but I always have the customers' and recipients' interests at heart so when I feel as though I can't control the outcome, it makes me nervous/neurotic and more attuned to over-attention of details.
BND: What's something people don't know about your job?
Lan: Though there is flexibility with my schedule, it takes serious discipline to get things done in a timely manner and it requires major mental and physical strength. I'm talking about if you are a highly negative person, running a business is not recommended. It is not a "piece of cake," even if I do get to eat cake often. The stress can be overwhelming and take over every bit of my time and health, and then the negativity can creep in very quickly if I'm not paying attention. Then my work is affected by negativity. Personally, I feel that when I'm positive, all the products that leave the kitchen reflect that energy so there is so much of a balancing act involved to make sure I'm positive, happy, healthy but still getting everything done on time quickly. I've been working in crowded commercial kitchens, not in my own quiet, cute bakery. It can be very lonely sometimes because you are the only one trying to put out the fires, stay afloat and fulfill all kinds of requests.
BND: What's the most interesting thing you've ever done at your job?
Lan: I did a taste-test of 10 different chocolate cakes and then a series of tasting various party snacks (10-15 snacks at a time). It was fun to watch what people really love and what they can't swallow. It was work and play at the same time!
BND: Do you have any advice for others pursuing a similar career path?
Lan: People often say you need to really love what you do in order to pursue something. To an extent, I agree, because why do something you abhor every day? But more so than that, I firmly believe that it takes discipline and persistence to make anything work, even with things that you aren't in complete love with. People can literally sell actual garbage and it's because they found a way to do it right. Love can be learned along the way, as no job will be amazing in every aspect. If you are thinking about opening a bakeshop or some food venture, I [have a few suggestions].
Start small before blowing all your money on expensive packaging or ingredients. Test your products with friends, family and friends of friends. Figure out a super- strong product with a good niche market. Ask for anonymous feedback because your friends and family will often be afraid to be honest with you. This includes things like coming up with a company name or how many products to offer. Don't be afraid to seek local small business assistance because you may find these free resources very helpful in getting you on your feet with the basics of running a business. Don't jump to opening a storefront first because overhead costs can wipe out your money faster than you think. People have the wrong idea that opening a storefront means you've become successful and are making it a big because now the media is covering you. There are so many instances where people who opened storefronts and are covered by the media closed within a few months because they just couldn't make the rent or sell enough product to justify an actual shop. Learn as much as you can about your potential business. Are you planning to make macaroons? Well, you need to know everything from how long do they last and in what storage condition? How do I make them in mass quantities? How I can charge competitively and not undersell my products? What's the history of macaroons? Maybe knowing the history will help you make a better macaroon or deliver better on customer service. All your knowledge will somehow help you run a better business and the details you tuck under your belt will make a huge difference.