Amanda puts the "pretty" in Bake It Pretty

Amanda puts the "pretty" in Bake It Pretty

A few years ago, trolling around Etsy with my first bit of Bake and Destroy shirt sale money burning in hole in my PayPal account, I discovered a shop called A. Bell Emporium and was instantly smitten. Plastic ballerinas, kitchy mushrooms and wee little deer all ideal for topping the weirdo cupcakes I’d been baking and destroying. It was one of – if not THE – first Etsy purchased I ever made. A few days later, a box arrived and inside, a sweetly-wrapped package of vintage cake decorations and special surprises awaited me.

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I got to know Amanda, the lady behind the emporium. I often referenced her colorful cupcake papers and fun cupcake toppers on my blog and I like to think that as she watched my little hobby turn into a big-time website I watched her Etsy shop transform into a full-blown e-commerce site.

A co-worker recently bought my a gift certificate to Bake It Pretty, which I instantly cashed in for gnome candy molds and other treasures and it got Amanda and I talking. I post a lot of Q&As with chefs, but what about the people who make life more fun for us home bakers?  Amanda agreed to subject herself to my pestering and here you have it – a super official interview with Amanda of Bake It Pretty, complete with an amazing prize for one lucky reader! And if you can’t get enough Amanda, you can get even more on her blog!

What were you doing before you started a. bell emporium?

Like most young-ish couples with a toddler, I worked different part time jobs so I could mostly stay home with my kiddo.  I was a nanny to two other kids in my home, and I picked up server shifts at an old restaurant gig, The Wild Monkey.  (No, it wasn’t a strip club – just sounds like one.)    I started blogging because it just looked fun, and I had always been crafty, and into baking, gardening, etc.  Aside from making new friends, and having an interesting hobby, I didn’t really expect anything to come from it.

How did you find/decide on the items you offered for sale?

I never imaged I’d been in the baking supply business!  I did a few blog posts for fun about some interesting cupcake toppers I bought from a local, old school cake and candy hobby shop.  The emails inquiries were almost overwhelming; everyone wanted to know where I found my retro-style cake toppers and miniatures.  I quickly realized that these old-fashioned hobby shops were few and far between, and that the Internet was severely lacking in unique, retro baking supplies.  I had the quintessential light bulb moment:  there was a need – and I could fill it.  The rest is history.

Soda Pop Toppers

Soda Pop Toppers

What were your best sellers back then?

Sadly, several of my best sellers from back in the day are now discontinued.  I never give up hope that I’ll find them again someday, but it’s so depressing when something that people love is unavailable to me.  Some of those toppers include:  Boom Boxes, Retro Fawns, and Turntables (I actually may have been able to resurrect these, but I’m not sure yet so stay tuned!)  Lots of the charm-like miniatures were actually purchased by jewelry makers and collage artists more than bakers.  I always thought that was cool, seeing all of the crazy things that crafty folks were creating with these items.

How did having an Etsy shop prepare you for launching

I wouldn’t have known where to start if it wasn’t for Etsy.  I had already been selling a few handmade things (tote bags, stuffies, and such) on the side and since crafting supplies were – and are – a part of the Etsy marketplace, I naturally felt comfortable opening a new shop just for the baking supplies.  I learned so much.  So. Much.  From profit margin, to shipping policies, photography and marketing – I did it all myself, and all from scratch.  Lots of mistakes were made too, believe me.  The best part about using an online marketplace like Etsy is that you can give your ideas/products an audience with very little time or risk.  It gave me the confidence boost I needed to realize that this wasn’t just a little idea – it was actually viable.  It could really make money, and not just on a hobby-type scale.

What made you decide to close your successful Etsy store and open up an e-shop of your own?

After the launch and relative of the new website, it started to become difficult to keep both shops running smoothly and control the inventory.  Etsy is not the perfect venue for selling large amounts of inexpensive items, I was always aware of that, but as my sales grew it became very clear that the per-transaction fees and structure of Etsy in general just didn’t jive with how my shop had evolved.  Also, certain features I had come to need, like being able to establish a minimum order amount, are not available through Etsy.  I actually do plan to keep the Etsy shop alive, and in the future I want to keep a much smaller and select inventory of special kits and samplers available on Etsy.  It’s hard for me to give up my “post” over there, and I look forward to being able to keep the Etsy shop going, (but I probably won’t get to that project until after the holidays!)

How did you decide on the name?

Naming things is not my specialty.  When we had our son, the registry nurse came back five times to our hospital room and finally had to demand that we, “Name this baby, already!”  For my business, I never really liked the “A. Bel Emporium” thing I had going originally.  It was an odd mish-mash of my name (Amanda Isabel,) and I just liked the word “emporium.”  Nice logic, eh?   I knew that I wanted to change up the shop name when I was planning the new website and I really agonized over it.  I had no ideas.  All I knew was that I wanted it to be short, snappy, easy to spell, relatively unique and hopefully a bit retro in nature.  I came up with “Bake It Pretty” ….and I didn’t really love it, but it was the best I had and it was available legally, so we went with it!  It took me while to warm up to it, and I actually like it a lot more now that I first did.  It’s growing on me.  I like that it’s a name and a statement.  You can add a period to the end and it’s a sentence:  Bake It Pretty. The end.

I like the way you think. Bake and Destroy. The end.

What were some challenges you faced when you were designing/launching the store?

Since we started small and grew so organically, there were not many problems.  There was a lot to learn, but everything ran pretty smoothly.  The biggest thing we struggle with now is growing too quickly.  That may sound obnoxious, but trust me: growing too much too fast is really hard.  Being successful is great… if you are prepared and can keep up with the demand.  We received some amazing press a few months ago that really rocketed our business to a whole new level, a level that we had hoped to work up to much more gradually, and it was an extremely stressful and crazy time for us.  Of course, we are immensely grateful for the surge in business, but it’s been a real wake up call for us:  hiring employees, training them, setting up a payroll, reconfiguring our taxes (!) … this is all scary stuff.  As Biggie would say, “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”  I think many people (myself included) wish for success without actually thinking about the logistics that go along with it.

Stick 'em up.

Stick 'em up.

Oh my god. Let’s do another Q&A where you just quote Biggie.

Your site is one of the cutest out there, tell us about your vision when you were working with the designer.

Aw, thanks!  I was probably really annoying to work with from a designer’s point of view, because I didn’t have a super clear vision of what I wanted.  I knew I wanted something” retro-vintage” in nature, and no cupcake images in the logo.  Other than that, I was really open, and I’m still changing and evolving the site design as I go.  I think most people think that’s bad for business branding, etc.  But, the shop has already changed so much from where it as last year, or even last month!  I’ve allowed myself, for at least the first year or so, to let the shop evolve until it feels just right.  (And I think we are almost there…)

Who designed the site, by the way?

Hope Wallace did our original site design and logo, and I loved working with her.  I also did many, many alterations on my own to the side design.  Our site host, Pappashop, is great because even a novice like me can control and edit much of the side design and layout fairly easily.  The downside is the lack of features and usability.  One of the reasons we are doing a big site redesign soon…. I can’t wait!

I read you recently hired your first employee, what part of the business do you handle as opposed to your new employee(s)?

We love our new Team Bake It Pretty!  Seriously, our first experience with employees has been great so far.  We have one full-timer, and two part-timers.  We are training them in every aspect of packing orders, shipping packages, restocking products, organizing inventory, assembling kits, and portioning products. Some things that I am still in complete charge of and are NOT being done by our employees include: sourcing and ordering new products, answering emails & phone calls, photographing new goods and adding them to the site, blogging & social networking, making tutorials, etc.  I have a certain, special person in mind to help me on that end of the biz…more on that later!

Since you launched I’ve seen a few other quirky baking supply sites, what sets your store apart?

Since the beginning, I’ve felt it was important to not make the shop “all about cupcakes.”  Gasp!  Shocking, I know.  Don’t get me wrong, I love cupcakes and I do not think they are just a passing fad.  But, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be so much more than just cupcakes, so much more than even just a supply shop, and I think that mentality is what sets me apart.  I sort of went out on a limb with some of the party supplies, gifts, and vintage candy that I stock in the shop, but I figured, “Hey, if I love this stuff, there has to be other people who will like it too, right?”  So far, it’s been working out pretty well, and customers are responding favorable to the wide variety of items we carry.  Yes, cupcakes and cute baking decorations are hip right now and everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, but trends fade out, and good ideas are always going to be replaced by the-next-big-thing.  You have to be so ahead of the game, it’s not even funny.  I’ll never be able to rest, I will always be scouting for new, and hard-to-find products, ideas, tutorials, etc.  It’s exciting, and also kind of draining, but I know that keeping my shop fresh will be the only way it will survive.

Cute cupcake papers - they're like crack.

Cute cupcake papers - they're like crack.

What is your best seller right now?

Cupcake liners!  Wow, people really, really love cupcake liners.  Actually, a lot of that has to do with Better Homes & Gardens doing a feature on our baking cups this summer.  But really, you folks just can’t get enough baking cups, can you?  Not that I blame you…they are pretty awesome.

Do you have any personal favorite items you carry?

I’ve been geeking out over the party supplies these days; it’s one of my favorite categories to expand.  I think normal “party supply stores” are usually a disappointment.  I really have fun searching for retro-style decorating supplies, and it so fun putting together orders and imagining all of the amazing parties that people are throwing with this stuff!

Is there anything you’re always on the look out for?

Well, since baking cups are in hot demand these days, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a thrill every time I sourced a new style…especially one that I really had to dig deep for.  You would not believe how hard it is to find these suckers!   Aside from that, I’m really into scouting for unique packaging supplies, especially for the holidays when I know everyone likes to gift their baked goods to friends and family.

The photography for your store is adorable – do you have any tips for shooting small things with such detail?

Thank you!  You know, I bought a fancy, new camera a year ago and I’m still learning how to use it.  Photography doesn’t come easily to me, but I do enjoy it.   I guess I have the same tips that everyone uses:  turn off the flash, natural light only, and use a tripod (though I hate wrestling with my tripod and rarely use it, so there you go.)

What do you use for the background detail in the photos?

In the very beginning, I used vintage fabric from my personal stash.  I loved the patterns, but I hated ironing…so I compromised with colorful scrapbook paper from the craft store.  I’ve always liked having bold colors and patterns in my photos.  These products are so fun, and picturing them floating in a plain white background just doesn’t do them justice.

Do you have any advice for someone reading this who is considering making a big decision about his/her career?

Don’t make the jump unless you are 100% confident.  You don’t have to necessarily know how everything is going to work out, but you have to truly believe, not just hope, that you can do it.  You can’t fake confidence.  Your gut will tell you what to do – listen to it.

Tell us about your home life – who do you share your home with?

My husband Mike and I have been married for 8 years now, and we both run the business together.  Mike quit his 9-5 when we sold our house last year, moved to North Carolina, and launched the new business.  We have a son, Max, who is almost seven years old.  We are currently home/unschooling – and we also run the business from home, too.  It’s pretty nuts.  But we love the flexibility of working for ourselves, and being able to spend our days together.  We figure that Max will either grow up and be inspired by our family entrepreneurship, or totally annoyed by it and run screaming to a 9-5 job.

Cocky cupcakes

Cocky cupcakes

How do you balance a growing business and your responsibilities to your family? I’d imagine you have some supportive people behind you.

Oh yes, the family support has been huge.  But I have to give a major shout out to my dad, our head accountant.  We knew from the get go that we would hire an accountant for the business, and we were so grateful when my father offered to keep our books free of charge!  Not only is he totally trustworthy, but it’s also good for him to have a hand in our business and see that we are actually making money and able to support ourselves, and that we are paying our taxes properly – it makes him feel a lot more confident about our future.

What is your favorite thing to bake?

I really, really, love to make pies.  My homemade piecrust is pretty insane (if I do say so myself.)  Since Mike and Max don’t have much of a sweet tooth for pie, I usually eat them all myself.  And gain 5 pounds.   Hence, I don’t make pie very often.  It’s so sad.

What’s your favorite baked treat?

It’s a tie between my Grandma’s homemade cinnamon rolls and rice pudding.  I’m all about the carbs.

Do you have a favorite local bakery? What about one you love to visit away from home?

We are still exploring Asheville, but Short Street Cakes has some of the BEST cupcakes you’ll find around here. And whenever I can find an excuse, I’ll drive down to Charlotte and go to Amelie’s French Bakery – that place is a dream come true.  They have the most unbelievable pastry selection, including the illusive French macaroon!  And the best part?  They are open 24-7.  You can go buy a pain au chocolat at 2 am…. and there will probably be a jazz band playing.  I think the last time we were there Max spent 20 minutes talking to the lead singer of the Black Crows, (but that’s just what the lady at the counter told me, because I have no idea who that dude was.)

What are some of your favorite places to shop online?

I just bought a ton of candy from Have It Sweet Confections and it’s all amazing!  I highly recommend the salted caramels.  I do love shopping on Etsy for gifts and treats.  I don’t really buy clothes online, I’m a strange, tall body type.  I buy lot of books and such on Amazon. I spend so much time online working on the shop, and ordering things for the shop…I always think that I want to get out in the real world when I shop for myself. Which sounds good in theory, but then just leads to me wandering around the mall bored.  Yep, online shopping is the way to go.

What’s one album you could listen to over and over?

Any Tom Petty album.  I’m a big fan, in a borderline creepy kind of way.

Oh my gosh! Me too! I mean, not creepy – but I loooove Tom Petty!

Whose magic is more powerful, a gnome or a unicorn?

I think unicorns are more powerful, they just don’t know it.

Magical magic from Bake It Pretty

Magical magic from Bake It Pretty

But which one makes a better cupcake?

I’m gonna go with the gnomes on this one, since they have opposable thumbs. You can’t make a decent cupcake when you’re all hooves and horn.  Sorry, Unicorns.

What’s next for Any new items or ideas we should get excited about?

Oh man, lot’s of new stuff coming up.  Most importantly, a big site redesign and a new ecommerce provider.  Lots of great bells and whistles like customer accounts, wish lists and registries, easier checkout, automatic email shipping updates, and lots more…. I am so stoked!  Basically, these are all things that “real” websites have, that we have had to do without.  I feel like Pinocchio did when he became a real boy – “We’re going to be a real, live website now!  Yippee!”

Thanks so much to Amanda for taking the time to let us in on what it’s like to say, “fuck it, I’m doing what I want!” I’m psyched that your shop is doing well and I hope I’ve turned a few new people on to the cuteness that is Bake It Pretty. And now for the prize – check out Amanda’s shop and leave a comment on this post about your favorite thing she carries. I’ll choose one random commenter (on Oct. 3, 2009) to receive a $50 gift certificate to Bake It Pretty! (Also thanks to Amanda for that!) Now get to browsing!

Wow – this was a record-breaking post! I actually had to upgrade my server due to all the traffic! Thanks a lot to everyone who commented and congrats to Lindsay, comment #40. Looks like we’ll need to team up with Bake It Pretty again soon!