People often ask how I got my start. They are fascinated with work I’ve done for celebrity parties, and I’m most often asked, “How did they find you in Seattle?”
It’s crazy, really.
As a native of Washington State, home of the World’s Greatest Cup of Coffee, caffeine is practically running through my blood. So when I was 23 years old, my husband and I opened our very own espresso stand, One for the Road. It was the perfect job for me – I loved serving up a daily caffeine pick-me-up with a side of smiles and laughter to our regular customers. For just under five years, we ran our little coffee business quite successfully.
And then my beautiful daughter, Ally, was born. Suddenly coffee beans weren’t my first priority. Six months after Ally was born, my husband and I sold our espresso business so I could stay home with my daughter. Much as I made a deliberate decision to dedicate my time to Ally and loved spending time with her, before long, the entrepreneur in me couldn’t help but find the daily grind of baths, laundry, grocery shopping, and dinner planning a bit boring. I wanted to be home with my daughter, but at the same time, I needed a creative outlet to prevent myself from losing Jenny Keller to Ally’s Mommy.
In October 2006, my husband handed me a cookbook called The Greatest Sugar Cookies Ever. He loved baking with his mom when he was growing up and thought it might be something fun for Ally and I to do together. Granted, baby Ally was only ten months old at the time, but she could definitely monitor the sugar cookie baking from the seat of her high chair. So, a few days later the two of us gave “the greatest sugar cookies ever” a shot. The result? Let’s just say they were not the greatest sugar cookies ever. Not even close.
Even though the cookies were bad, my interest was piqued. With sugar cookies on my brain, I asked my mother-in-law for her time-tested recipe. In no time at all I was a woman obsessed. That October I baked dozens upon dozens of pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies and handed them out to family, friends, and pretty much anyone else who crossed my path. They were a hit! It felt great to be doing something productive and I could feel my creative wheels creaking back to life. My pumpkin-shaped cookie cutter was soon replaced with a turkey for Thanksgiving, and then snowflakes, trees, and ornaments for Christmas. I was a baking machine—when I wasn’t making the actual sugar cookies, I was whipping up buttercream icing and decorating them, all with little Ally right by my side, happily perched in her high chair. It turns out that the creative outlet I’d been looking for was a bowl of buttercream.
From thereon out, I was constantly on the prowl for an excuse to bake themed desserts: birthdays, holidays, preschool parties, park play days, you name it. The sugar cookies were now joined by cupcakes and cake pops, both simple techniques that didn’t require much baking background. I really wanted to add cakes to the list, but wasn’t sure where to start. With a toddler at home, enrolling in a fancy pastry school was out of the question. I remembered seeing advertisements for a cake decorating class at my local craft store. I was picking up Wilton decorating bags, food coloring, and cookie cutter so often, the employees practically knew me by name. So I ran down to my local Michael’s store and signed up for a 4-week Wilton Method® of Cake Decorating course. I could hardly wait to get started.
Every Tuesday, I’d pre-bake my cake and make the icing needed for the course. I’d pack up all my course supplies, kiss my baby girl goodbye and head to class. A mini mommy escape for a couple of hours combined with a rush of creativity was a perfect combination! I learned all kinds of basic cake decorating techniques from icing consistencies to buttercream flowers. It was the best! When I finished the course, I was so thrilled with my new skills that I signed up for the next 4-week course.
For the next four months, I went through all four Wilton cake courses. I learned how to work with royal icing, fondant, gum paste, and how to properly dowel and support a tiered cake. My fantastic instructor, Diana, was so helpful and supportive that I felt confident I was ready to add cakes to my repertoire!
Meanwhile, my family and friends had named my cookies “Jenny Cookies.” I started a family blog called “The Story of Us,” which was designed to document our little family’s day-to-day activities, outings, and marker moments. Not surprisingly, pictures of my cookies and desserts began to overtake everything else and soon required a blog of their own; thus Jenny Cookies blog was born.
As the months passed, the parties got more extravagant and dessert tables became my signature. I took it upon myself to ensure every single holiday, big or small, made an indelible impression on my kids.
Of course, the kids had a blast at these parties … but I’m not sure they had half as much fun enjoying them as I did creating them. I began to experience a rush of excitement every time Target or Michaels set up a new holiday display. I began stashing away Rubbermaid containers with purchases for future parties, just in case I had cause to throw an end-of-summer luau or back-to-school bonanza. Of course neither of my kids were actually in school yet, but, hey! It’s always good to be prepared.
When I wasn’t plotting out my next party, I began taking on custom orders. My “clients” consisted of friends or friends of friends—people who tasted my sugar cookies at a friend’s baby shower or who sampled a cake pop at a child’s birthday party. The orders were small—a few sugar cookie orders here, a few dozen cupcakes there, a cake every now and then. I had no intention of marketing myself as a baker or of building a catering business, but I loved making these creative little treats, so I happily obliged whenever someone asked.
Then a funny thing happened. More and more people began reading my blog and following my Jenny Cookies Facebook page. My children’s parties were being featured on top party sites like Amy Atlas, Kara’s Party Ideas, and Hostess with the Mostess. With more publicity came more orders from well beyond my circle of friends. I began making cookies and dessert tables for major corporations such as JC Penny, Microsoft, and Neiman Marcus. Based on demand, I started teaching occasional sold-out classes, demonstrating how to make and design Jenny Cookies. Every now and then, I considered opening a shop. But the truth is, I didn’t want to go into business. I wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom and make my confections on my own time. You could say I wanted to have my cookie and eat it too.
In 2010 my friend Kennedi attended a book signing for Tori Spelling’s latest book, where she gave the actress one of my cookies. No more than ten minutes after receiving them, Tori tweeted me to thank me for the cookies. I couldn’t believe it. A couple of weeks later, Tori asked if I would be interested in making a dessert table to be included in her new party planning book, celebraTORI . And just like that, I had my first celebrity client!
With just a couple of days’ notice, I did as much preparation for the dessert table book shoot at Tori’s house as I could. Running on almost no sleep, I arrived in Los Angeles with a suitcase full of painstakingly packed cookies and supplies with which to make the other goodies for the dessert table. The first thing I did upon arriving in L.A. was speed to the local Target to buy a Kitchen-Aid. Once back in the house I had rented for the next couple of days, I put the mixer to immediate use, making cakes, cake pops, and even more cookies until the wee hours of the morning. Harried, I had an impromptu meeting with Tori the next day to pick out a desk, chairs, and chalkboards to stage the dessert table. Then it was back to my little kitchen away from home to decorate and bake some more. I finished at 7 a.m. the next morning and by 8 a.m., I was packing up the car to leave for the shoot at Tori’s house.
My dessert tables were featured in celebraTORI. Before long, I found myself doing dessert tables for other celebrities, including Tiffani Thiessen, Lisa Rinna and Harry Hamlin, The Bachelorette’s Trista Sutter and The Bachelor’s Jason Mesnick. My dessert tables were being requested for star-studded events, such as the Emmy Awards and Santa’s Secret Workshop, and featured in national media outlets, such as People, the Huffington Post, and E!.
Although my unexpected business endeavor has blossomed in ways I never expected (or intended for) it to, much still remains the same. I bake in my home kitchen, with kids running around. I still consider myself a mom first and a baker second. And, most of all, more than fifty thousand cookies and hundreds of dessert tables later, I still get a thrill every time the idea for my next dessert table pops into my head.
Excerpts taken from Jenny’s new book EAT MORE DESSERT: More than 100 Simple-to-Make and Fun-to-Eat Baked Goods from the Baker to the Stars