Sunday, May 15, 2011

Getting started: Chicago Food Blogger Bake Sale

My first investigative activity!

In an attempt to scope out the local blogger/baker competition, my friend Colleen and I headed to the Chicago Foodie Blog Bake Sale at the Poison Cup Wine and Art Boutique in Lincoln Park. More than twenty local food bloggers made goods and volunteered at the event, which was a part of the larger Great American Bake Sale, an event  that organizes bake sales across the country and donates all proceeds to Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry, whose goal is to end childhood hunger. No better excuse to buy excessive amounts of delicious baked goods and over-indulge on sugar than knowing the money goes to kids without food (does that seem ironic to anyone?).

The Poisin Cup was a small, cozy boutique that nicely housed the long table full of decadent sweets. Colleen and I made a few passes just to soak it all in before deciding what we wanted to take home. I was impressed with the sophistication of most of the items; not a plain chocolate chip cookie or anything mix-based, which is probably not surprising if these are the works of Chicago's top food bloggers. It was interesting to see others' variations of some of my more popular items, such as PB&J bars and raspberry brownies, as well as things I've never even thought to make, like pinwheel cookies comprised of flavors like cotton candy, blueberry pancake, and chai tea.

I ultimately walked away with cookie dough truffles; a blueberry scone; a raspberry cheesecake brownie; a carrot sandwich cookie with cinnamon cream cheese filling; espresso and chai pinwheel cookies; and a s'mores cupcake. Taste results:
  • Cookie Dough Truffles: AWESOME. I've tried making faux-cookie dough (has to be egg-free) for a brownie recipe before but felt it nowhere near resembled everyone's favorite guilty pleasure; typically lots of butter is used, which gives it more of a whipped texture, nothing like the crumbly, chewy, sugary grit of raw cookie dough. This truffle, however, nailed it. Luckily I don't have to keep experimenting, as the blogger posted the recipe on her blog, In Good Taste.
  • Blueberry Scone: Just meh. A little dry, and the dried blueberries just didn't pop like a real blueberry would.
  • Raspberry Cheesecake Brownie: ..... Hmmm? Sorry? Was I supposed to be doing something? Writing what I thought of that brownie? My apologies...lost my train of thought because I was DREAMING of how insanely perfect that brownie was. Semisweet chocolate brownie, almost as dense as fudge, topped by fluffy, rich cheesecake, with drops of fresh raspberries baked in. It's taking every ounce of my willpower to not devour the monster in one sitting, with the image of myself keeling over in yoga later as my main motivation.
  • Carrot Sandwich Cookie: Sounds great on paper, especially since carrot cake is my absolute favorite dessert. However, it definitely left something to be desired. While the cookies were moist, they could have used a little more sugar and spice. And the cinnamon cream cheese frosting was delicious, but you know the filling is sparse when you can barely taste it in comparison to the somewhat bland cookies.
  • Espresso and Chai Pinwheel Cookies: Really like the chai cookie. Lovely spice flavor, with a slight milkiness that mimicked the popular coffeehouse drink well. Espresso was also a spot-on imitation, with the bitter coffee flavor coming through the crumbly cookie.
  • S'mores Cupcake: beautiful presentation, with the torched fluff topping reminiscent of childhood burnt marshmallows. Below the torched, piped fluff was dense chocolate cake, sitting atop a graham cracker crust and secretly hiding a softened Hershey kiss. Very clever and very delicious. I’d like to try making this, but perhaps with a graham-flavored cake – the chocolate cake may be slightly overwhelming if you are not the world's biggest chocolate fan.
Two things surprised me about the event. One, I thought the prices were ridiculously cheap, especially for charity. Apparently some of these bloggers did not get the common-sense memo that you can charge an arm and a leg when charity is involved. That s'mores cupcake I just mentioned, whose presentation was worthy of any fine bakery and came packaged in a cute pink box with a windowpane top -  guess how much? Those who got the memo would guess $4-5. Wrong. TWO DOLLARS. All my loot in the picture: $25? $30? Wrong. FIFTEEN DOLLARS. I almost wanted to give them more money, as I felt like I had just robbed them. 

The other thing that surprised me was the lack of marketing many bloggers did. I am not sure if some have no interest in selling their goods, either as a side or main business, but if that is the case, the rest of my commentary is moot. However, judging by the cute packaging efforts, among other details, that some bloggers took, I think some definitely have side businesses, so I will proceed.

Some had good business sense. Contact information was available via business cards, both on the table or tied to the goods, and stickers on the packaging. One blogger even had the cutest labels I have ever seen: they were little picks that she stuck into the tops of the cupcakes, with the name of the cupcake flavor printed on the label just above a little saying (see right - a little blurry, unfortunately). Very clever. However, many items had fabulous presentations and NO information on the creator. What was worse was that many bloggers were nowhere to be found, so I could not even ask who made it, how they made it, about their blog, etc. Being a successful baker is more than just creating delectable treats; it also demands a good business sense, which, after scoping the scene today, I realize is not innate. However, I believe I have it, and have started to catalog the items I need arm myself for success. I will need a distinguishable logo; pretty, unique packaging; stickers or some sort of identification for the packaging; and business cards, to start. I need to develop a good marketing strategy as well, especially utilizing social media, which means....wahh wahhh... I have to get a Twitter account, something I've avoided since it became popular. Also should probably get over my annoyance with status updates...

If anyone has suggestions about marketing strategies, packaging/presentation, etc., please comment or email me!


Beach said...


Great to see you blogging away and starting up this new "venture" if you will...I think it's awesome when someone gets involved in something they love and follows it up with hard work to see it come to life.

A couple blogging/social media tips: it doesn't matter what industry you're in -- people want to be connected with other people who do 2 things: put out great content and know what they're talking about. For this blog that would mean writing tips on how to make some of these creations at home, industry news/updates (like you mentioned already), anything that is going to solve the problem that people have with respect to baking/creating awesome deserts. Over time you'll become the respected authority in your niche, and people will gain more and more trust in what you have to say, and the direction you go....and we all know what happens when we trust a brand, a person, a product/service, etc. - we BUY and then we tell people all about it! I believe in you, I believe in your cupcakes, cakes, brownies, cookies, etc. - can't wait to see this thing take off!

Sidenote: also excited about you baking our wedding cake(s)!


kc said...

Nicole, let me first say that if I didn't live 450 miles away I would be the first to volunteer to taste test some of your treats. However, even though that's not going to happen this sounds awesome!

I don't have any great blogging or business tips like the esteemed Stephen Beach before me, but just wanted to say that I'm sorry you have to give into the social media giants (I've been holding out myself) and I wish you the best of luck. This will be a very cool venture, and I can't wait to keep up with how it's going.