Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Making Cupcakes Is Not For Wimps

I said in the previous post that launching our cupcake business has been a learning experience. I thought I’d go into just how much of an experience in this post.

I will first state that starting your own business, even such a small one, is scary. The risk here is small, just a hundred dollars or so, and our time.  Still, the fear can keep you from persevering if you let it. It's something to get past.

It seems like making and selling cupcakes would be a fairly simple operation, but when the government gets involved, it gets complicated really fast. This is done on purpose to discourage people from competing with “established” businesses. I know, I know. Government claims that regulations are for your “safety”, but they really exist to limit/stifle competition. Approximately 30% of our meals are eaten at restaurants, where 80% of food contamination occurs. This means that a very high proportion of food-borne illness happens in a regulated environment, while most food prepared at home is much safer. Yet the state wants all food sold to the public to be prepared in the far-less-safe commercial environment. Makes perfect sense, right? So ends the political rant.

The state requires that baked goods made to sell to the public be made in “certified” kitchens, which the state must inspect for compliance. The requirements for a home kitchen are fairly simple, except that there must be no pets in the home whatsoever, at any time. This eliminates a lot of home kitchens, including ours. No, we are not about to send our cats up the river.

There are some really great organizations that offer time in certified kitchens for an hourly rate. The difficulty is that they are all at least an hour’s drive away. The one we use is in the county to the north. It has very reasonable rates and is available most of the time. It is in an old church field house. It has a very bumpy, cratered parking lot. The county Sheriff’s Department washes their cars right next door, just steps away. The community room in the field house sees a lot of use, and makes for interesting listening as we bake away in the kitchen. It is by no means fancy, but the eclectic mix of old and new works like we need it to work. That’s all we ask.

The community kitchen has a lot of good equipment and plenty of room to work. Nonetheless, we need to bring a lot of our own equipment, supplies, and utensils. It’s a lot to pack up, unload, repack and load in one afternoon. My big Kitchen Aid mixer is he-e-avy. I hope it survives all this use (abuse?). Sure, there is a mixer at the facility, but if we used just one we’d be there all day and night.

The kitchen is reserved for a certain amount of time, and you have to get everything done within that time slot. Our home test runs did not prepare us for the reality. Once we’ve done this several times, we’ll have the timing and routine down, but for now it’s a bit of a struggle. We’re still working it all out.

Mind you, I’m not whining here. I’m just trying to relate what goes into making a hundred or so cupcakes for sale. It’s exhausting, but energizing at the same time.

Our first time at the community kitchen, it took us two-plus hours longer than we anticipated. Lucky for us, there was no one waiting to use the kitchen after us. It’s one thing to do a lot of baking at home over the course of an afternoon or evening. It’s a far different proposition when you’re on the clock.

The kitchen has a commercial convection oven. No wimpy fans blowing around air here. Nope, this fan blows the batter into strange shapes and crooked cupcakes. (Luckily, icing can hide most mutations.) Through several rounds of trial and error, we have hit upon the right balance of on/off to keep the nice round domes people expect to see on cupcakes. (Thank you Yahoo Answers!) It is necessary to turn the preheated oven off for the first half of the baking time so the batter can set, then crank up the oven (and fan) to finish.

Once the cupcakes have all been put into the oven, the icing must be made. Add the confectioner’s sugar to the butter slowly, or you end up with an explosion of powder. I speak from experience. Once the cupcakes have cooled sufficiently, (Use those big freezers!) it’s time to decorate. Small pastry bags are fairly easy, but the big ones take some muscle.

It would all be fairly simple if there were just one flavor, but customers like a variety to choose from. This adds to the time considerably. Both cupcakes and icing freeze nicely. We have determined the best course is to alternate flavors weekly in the baking process. We can assemble a variety each week from the different batches. This way we don’t drive ourselves crazy.

Once the decorating and boxing are done, it’s time to clean up. Really dragging at this point. Trying to remember everything. Hope I didn’t miss something. Pack up the cars, and head on home.

Tomorrow we sell, but that’s another post.