Local Entrepreneur Sees Cookie Decorating Trade Expand to Cutter Design Line
In a Western culture that places a premium on full self-actualization, “do what you love” is a common mantra. At some point in their lives, most everyone has had a dream of turning a hobby into a livelihood. Some of us will accomplish that, to varying degrees, and many will not. To reach that goal in the 21st century is an exercise in perseverance, practice, overcoming setbacks, knowing your market, and more often nowadays, making the best use of the internet as a tool to reach that market.
And a little luck doesn’t hurt.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Callye Alvarado, as she explains how she managed to turn a simple interest in baking and decorating cookies into art, and art into a product with international appeal.
But to quote J.R. Ewing from an episode of the old TV drama, Dallas (for the baby boomers among us), “sometimes a person makes his own luck.”
A resident of Seminole for a little over a decade since arriving in town from Crane, now 35-year-old mother of four Callye indulged her own passion for two things in her spare time, baking and blogging, part of it during her time as an employee of the city of Seminole’s parks department. While she honed her craft, it was a magic combination of the two that ultimately led to her first big break from original concept to the Holy Grail of retail marketing, a coveted spot on the shelves of a major national retail chain.
“It started about 2009 when I just started baking cookies for fun — mostly around Christmas and mostly for relatives and friends. Other people would see them and it just kind’ve turned into a home baking business.”
At the time, though, it was Texas state law that proved to be Callye’s biggest obstacle. The resale of home-prepared goods at the time was not legal in the state, and Callye was temporarily sidelined.
After some lobbying in Austin by Callye and a home baker’s group, the state has since relaxed its restrictions on home baking. In retrospect, though, Callye feels that the experience was good for her. It forced her to begin thinking beyond the kitchen — “outside of the box”, as they say, and after a little prodding from her mother, she took a slight detour.
“What I thought at the time to be the worst thing that happen to me, actually turned out to be a blessing,” Callye explains. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself, but I didn’t want to stop, so I started a blog. People started reading it, and that sort of surprised me. Then it just started growing and making money.”
With some pretty impressive traffic to her website, sweetsugarbelle.com, Callye established herself as a cookie designer of some note — even earning a taping on the Martha Stewart Show just before Christmas, 2011. It was her cookie cutter designs on the site, however, that got the attention of the CEO of a major Utah-based marketing company whose specialty is converting a person’s creative instincts into retail dollars.
That was little more than a year ago, and more recently, a new avenue opened up with the Home Shopping Network.
“When American Crafts saw the site, they were really big into paper crafting and stuff,” Callye explains. “But they wanted to get into food crafting, and there wasn’t much out there. The CEO liked to bake, and she liked me, so it was kinda’ dumb luck. She had a boxer dog and I had made a boxer cookie cutter, and she just thought it was the coolest thing. From there she had her eye on me.”
“At first I thought it was a scam,” Callye admits. “But I started doing a lot research on it. When they actually started paying for things, I knew they were serious.”
Serious enough, in fact, to put Callye on a three-year contract after the initial meeting in June, 2015 and nearly a year of preparing her creations for distribution in a “soft launch” earlier this summer. She essentially became a contract employee, while retaining a considerable amount of creative control.
One of the hardest thing for an artist to do is to relinquish some control of the creative process, but upon going commercial, it’s a sacrifice that one often has to make to reach the market, given the complicated and very expensive maze of processes, from patents to licensing, from manufacturing to packaging, from marketing to international distribution.
The Lindon, Utah company, American Crafts, helped to promote Callye’s product and get it the necessary exposure to ultimately put it on the market. It is a team effort built on mutual trust and mutual interests that, as Callye explains it, requires a lot of “give and take” in the creative process.
“I’m pretty niche and I know what works for my people, so they rely on my expertise and experience. They work on giving it broader appeal. I work with them on design and product development, but they handle the back end,” Callye explains. “They have buyers that work with places like Michael’s, Target, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby — a lot of those places. That’s how it ended up in the big box stores. Because I had something they needed, and they have the resources to get it there.”
So far one of those, Michael’s — rivaled only by Hobby Lobby as the most familiar name in home crafting, has made Callye’s “Shape Shifter” cookie decorating kit part of its product line. The Michael’s marriage was no cakewalk, and the Dallas-based company’s buyer proved to be a tough negotiator before the product was finally released for test marketing in 311 out of Michaels’ more than 1200 stores. Some of Callye’s creations, again, require her to give up a bit of her branding identity to packaging that carries only the Michael’s logo, though her royalties remain the same.
“It’s been a lesson in learning to let go, and trusting other people,” Callye says.
The unique Shape Shifter kit employs a clever twist that allows for each of the 20 basic cookie cutter shapes to be decorated into two other distinctly different designs. For example, the shape of certain fish of Callye’s own design also makes a dandy pirate’s head, complete with eyepatch — if one can imagine it without a visual. It’s an all-in-one kit that also includes not only cookie recipes, but decorating templates that turn any novice do-it-yourselfer with a sweet tooth into a cookie design wizard and the envy of the neighborhood.
Those 20 designs represent only a fraction of what Callye has created. The product line can be subject to change, especially with the changing of the seasons, and certain holidays. Not surprisingly, Christmas cookie cutter designs and templates answer a higher demand during the late fall and winter. With international sales a part of the mix as well, cultural differences between countries can result in variations in design work.
From a personal growth standpoint, Callye explains, the effort has forced her, a self-admitted introvert, out of her “comfort zone”.
“It was good for me. I’m a blogger and I like to stay home and write and do what I do in my space, but this completely turned that upside down,” she says with a smile.
In July, Callye’s “home office” was relocated to Wofforth, thanks to a job transfer for husband Bernie, a native of Seminole and an employee of Centurion Pipeline. The family occupies a mobile home temporarily while a new home is being built. Their new home’s proximity to a regional airport has allowed Callye to cut down on travel time, a definite plus as the growing family works to balance her increasing travel with business and domestic life.
With the relationship with American Crafts still in its infancy, new things with the Home Shopping Network in the works, and an emerging worldwide market awaiting, life is an adventure for Callye Alvarado right now. While she remains well-grounded and methodical, she still seems just a bit taken aback.
“I was just baking cookies, and happy to make a little money on the side and have some fun. But I would’ve never in a million years imagined something like this.” Callye says. “I’m getting a whole education!”
“Even after all this though, I still don’t know that this is what I want to do forever. Maybe it’s just a door that opens to the next thing.”
By Sam Holbrooks, Seminole Sentinel