Just as a baby’s first Christmas receives a special spot in the scrapbook and on the tree, a bakery’s first holiday season can distinguish it from the burgeoning crowd of cupcakes, cookies and confections.
Finance manager by day, Michelle Olszewski has been offering her cookies as collateral at client meetings and regular office hours for years. When coworkers, friends and family went bonkers over her sweet and tangy strawlemon cookie concoction last year, Olszewski said, “Why don’t we do this? It would be fun and people already love it, so let’s extend it. Let’s make it into a real business.”
Hey! Sugar’s cutely named staples include the award-winning Strawlemon (strawberry bits in a lemon cookie), Choc3, (triple chocolate), PC Toasty (gluten-free pineapple macaroons), the Boyfriends (chocolate chip, vanilla and walnut), and Aloha (pineapple, coconut and macadamias in a snickerdoodle). She tests new recipes at home, then spends her Sundays baking big batches at Kitchen Chicago, a commissary kitchen that rents space by the hour to startup food companies.
Hey! Sugar began, in Olszewski’s words, as a super-casual enterprise. Shortly after launching the website last year, she was swamped with gift orders—6,000 cookies to be exact. “For a gal who thought she was doing this for fun, I thought, ‘Wow, okay, how do I do this?'” She even asked Daily Candy, an online city guide that discovered her perhaps a little too soon, to delay writing about her: “You gotta wait! The website’s almost done, but you cannot write about me!”
They eventually did, and with that publicity and the support of her personal career network, which to her surprise is fairly extensive, her online bakery business took off. She pored through how-to public relations books with an “I can do anything!” attitude, but Hey! Sugar outgrew its one-woman cachet.
In addition to a rotation of friends, Olszewski enrolls the voluntary assistance of her brother, grandmother and a young woman named Amanda from Daily Candy. Her boyfriend has also been a huge help, she says, measuring and scooping, until the day he announced, “I hate scooping cookies.” Now he arrives for the last baking hour to clean up and wash dishes. “I don’t know what I would do if I did this all by myself. It’s so much of a help,” says Olszewski.
Because Hey! Sugar currently runs solely online, the gift-order aspect of the business is its specialty. From predetermined assortments to custom cupcake orders (seriously, she will create a new flavor for that Mexican-Lebanese fiesta you’re planning for New Year’s), Olszewski’s personalized dedication shines in her gift boxes.
“Customers don’t get to come into a shop, see everything, smell everything,” Olszewski explains. “I want it to be a special experience when [the baked goods] arrive. I put real thought into the packaging. I realize I can just put cookies in a bag, seal it and be done with it, but if you can’t pick out the wrapping, I should do a good job of it for you.”
This year, Hey, Holidays! assortment consists of two dozen cookies—eight each of Cranberry Starlet, Minty Choc3, and I Heart Ginger—wrapped in pairs to seal their freshness, all cozy in a ribbon-wrapped and jingle-belled box.
“I love flavors tied into the things we all eat during the holidays. Everyone is flipping out over the ginger cookies,” says Olszewski. “That’s my absolute favorite part of this first holiday season. It’s exactly why I started this.”
Customers aren’t limited to the holiday special: anything on the menu is fair game, but Hanukkah orders must be in by November 27 and Christmas orders by December 17. Olszewski will take a break to celebrate the holidays in her Californian hometown—”I will not be baking on vacation”—so any order placed between December 18 and January 2 will be baked and shipped on January 3. (Kristine Sherred)