Some of you may remember me as the “other” writer of Lovescool. I haven’t written for many many months though, as I have been starting a business of my own. However, I’ve stayed very involved as Kelli has transformed her interest into a blog, then into a career (as a writer for Chocolatier magazine), and finally into a business (Amai Tea & Bake House). It’s been (what seems to me) as a long-time coming but in relative terms, the transformation has been brisk: just about a year ago, Kelli and I left our 9-to-5 jobs to work on our passions. There have been many ups and downs, and plenty of surprises along the way. But as an informed insider into the process of starting a bakery, I thought it would be interesting to write about my impressions.
It’s really not as easy as it looks. Kelli and I both come from very academic backgrounds, a masters degree each in Human-Computer Interaction. A year ago, when Kelli told me that she wanted to quit her day job and start a bakery, I thought “cool!” – a place where I could hang out with my laptop. In other words, I didn’t really think too much of it: bake stuff, then sell it – cake. It couldn’t be nearly as difficult or complex as designing computer interfaces for humans. I know much better now.
The baking is just one step of the equation, something that often takes many aspiring pastry chefs years to master. I know from our late-night tasting sessions that Kelli has spent countless hours in perfecting her recipes; but I think that she is a lucky one: a born natural (for those fans of Yakitate, a Japanese anime series, she has those “solar hands”). But even when something tastes good, can it be better? What if you changed the recipe a bit, added that, and did this instead? And from first-hand experience, even I know that after tasting your own creations over and over again, everything tastes the same. You have to get other people to taste stuff for you. Then refine, refine, and refine again with their feedback; nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever final. A family recipe only becomes a family heirloom once it has passed from generation to generation; and each generation seems to bake it just a bit different.
One thing that I know has been invaluable to Kelli has been her influence from those already in the industry willing to help her out. I can only imagine the countless invaluable tips she learned from Ayse Dizioglu while working at Polka Dot Cake Studio, or Tisch Boyle of Chocolatier, or the many other ones she keeps in contact with. But part of it is just how open she is to new things and new people, something that I myself need to work on always.
Kelli’s partner Kathryn is one of those “aha!” pieces to a puzzle. Amai Tea & Bake House would not be around if not for her. From finding a lawyer and an accountant, to incorporating the business, writing the business plan, and forecasting the financials, there is simply so much more that needs to be involved than that amazing-tasting batch of cookies. Kathryn is the sales and marketing wiz of Amai, the cold-calling expert. I really have no idea how many calls and visits she makes to places (not only in the city, but other countries as well!) just to see if they would sample some of Amai’s products. The speed at which the business has grown, from borrowing kitchen space, selling products online, to commercially-certified space, selling cookies by the pound to world-renown hotels is astounding to me. This is all because of Kathryn’s hard work. When Amai was just starting out, the goal set was for Amai’s products to be placed in Takashimaya’s basement Tea Store on 5th Avenue in New York City. It was one of those “where we would like to be in the end” types of visionary goals. A few months later, Kathryn informed me that the Tea Sweets cookie boxes were sold to Takashimaya and would be there in a month. I am extremely proud to see Kelli’s creation sitting on those shelves now.
And I guess I am that other annoying itch that you just can’t seem to reach. When not working on my other business, I am the Creative Director for Amai. In the beginning, even before the name “Amai Tea & Bake House” was chosen, I thought: just design a logo and slap it on those brownie bags. But whereas the taste is ultimately the most important part of the product, the packaging design and the experience it gives off is what initially draws someone to it. Now, with the help of two wonderful graphic designers (Ania Zimnoch and Pleum Chenaphun) and a very talented web programmer (Karen Tang), our team is designing product lines, collateral, and a new web experience. It’s a lot of work, starting from scratch and making the decisions as to what Amai really means and what we stand for (because if you don’t stand for anything, then you might as well just sit down).
So, Amai Tea & Bake House, which originally was just going to be a cool place for me to sit with my laptop, has turned out to be quite a bit different than I expected – much more complicated and involved than I would have ever imagined. But it’s also better than I would have ever imagined it being. I know that Kelli’s dream was always to create a place where people would get together – a community. And just think, Amai has yet to open up shop and already look at all the people it has brought together. I haven’t even named them all: Vanessa, who is the other talented baker in the kitchen, Marie and Queenie, who’ve helped with packaging, Colleen, with all her marketing ideas (and who let’s us borrow her car), and many others. Amai truly is a wonderful community already.
For those of you who are thinking of possibly starting a bakery (or business) of your own, is it all worth it? Well, I think the answer is dfferent for everyone. From my experience, I can tell you that the little successes that we’ve had so far feel far greater than any successes we’ve had working for someone else. The hours are long and the work is hard, but if happiness is the ultimate goal in life, let me tell you, I feel that Kelli is pretty happy.