Janderyn Makris of Earth and Sugar on the Business of Owning a Bakery
Located in West Palm Beach, Florida, the artistic studio that is Earth and Sugar creates cakes and desserts with natural ingredients and absolutely gorgeous aesthetic. Founder of the bakery, Janderyn Makris, is self-taught and named her company Earth and Sugar "to represent [their] natural approach to confectionary creations."
From pursuing a career in marketing and consulting to becoming a full-time mom to then pursuing the idea of baking for a living, Earth and Sugar is a result of a journey that included taking many steps back and different approaches moving forward. She went from doing wholesale and providing product for coffee shops to deciding that building a brand for herself and her unique vision was the way to go.
Janderyn shares this journey to Earth and Sugar with us and all that comes with owning a business in the baking industry.
I know your passion for baking started when your nanny would bake pastries everyday. Could you tell me what about baking specifically caught your attention?
When I was younger it was just the ability to help in the kitchen and spend time with someone I loved so much. Later in life, my love for food was stronger and pastries were actually secondary for me. It just seemed like the easier thing to do at home, so I enjoyed delving into that and learning where ingredients come from. I didn’t really ever decorate or do anything artistic in the past. What I love the most in recent years is french pastries and reading about their process and the skill that goes into making them. The science part of it all is what caught my attention as I got older. Cake and pastry is more of a science than it is an art, without a solid and proper foundation you cannot turn it into edible art.
I’m aware you’re self-taught but what was that process of you learning how to design such beautiful and detail-oriented cakes?
When I started baking cupcakes I didn’t know much about baking cakes or how to stack them or anything like that. I am truly self-taught and learned most of all I know by reading books and watching instructional videos. At this juncture now, I’m taking classes with cake artists that I admire, such as Maggie Austin, so that I can learn new techniques and further my skill level.
I read that you left a career in marketing and consulting. Was baking at the time more so a hobby and you were pursuing something more traditional professionally?
I actually loved my career so I can’t say I don’t miss it a tad everyday. I left because our first child was born premature, so I didn’t have the option to go back once I left. I needed to be home with her and provide her the care that was required to ensure her health would stay strong and in an upswing. After a few months of doing that I needed something else to do other than just being a stay at home mom, not that it isn't the most rewarding and important work one can do in their life, but I wanted to be needed at another capacity as well again. Because I’m used to always going 120 miles an hour, I decided to start cooking and baking for my own social dinners and thought maybe I could do it for a living as far as events go. I realized I didn’t want to be cooking anything for anyone else other than my family so baking was the second thing that was left and I truly loved doing it.
After some time my husband suggested that I try and do wholesale. So that was my first sales campaign. I went into Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdale’s coffee shops. They took our product here locally for a few of their locations that were in the department stores. I kept that going for a year and it just became really redundant and it wasn’t something that was super profitable. Also, companies of that nature are looking for products to stay on the shelves for quite a bit and anything that’s baked really fresh with basic ingredients doesn't last more than maybe a day or two. So I stepped back two or three times in the last seven years and eventually found my way.
Would you say that that experience guided you towards making your own business that is Earth and Sugar?
What Earth and Sugar is today is definitely taking steps back when I really wasn’t committed to doing anything. I didn’t have much of a passion after that wholesale experience, so I took time off. My husband has always been the one to encourage me to do something entrepreneurial. I had the option to stay home with my children but I felt I also needed to do something else. When I came back I took a different approach and decided to build a name and a brand first with a product that was good but also different. At the beginning it was a struggle because people didn’t really take to my preference of visual aesthetic. It’s a style now that everybody loves and everybody sees but at the beginning five years ago that wasn’t something people looked at and said, “That’s a high-end, luxury cake.” where it’s very clean and styled with fresh botanicals. The third time, the approach was a little different and it worked. I mean who knew we would get the media attention we did, not only nationwide and across the world in German and Australian magazines and on Instagram, but receiving encouraging messages from other artists who are fans of our work from Jakarta and Europe blows my mind and fills my heart all at once.
So when would you say was when you really started self-teaching yourself these cakes and all these pastries and confectionaries? Was it when you were doing the wholesale idea or when you were thinking of starting your own brand?
I definitely did a lot of research when I was doing the wholesale thing just to understand the basics of baking and where I was having some troubles. So I did learn a lot then! The part about offering cakes is that I didn’t want to do anything until I knew it would be perfect. I’m semi OCD, so I didn’t want to throw anything out there without it being the best that it can be. I knew I wanted to do wedding cakes when I came back. I would just call wedding planners and basically anybody who would try my cupcakes. I’d just go around giving away free cupcakes. One planner approached me and asked me if I wanted to do a photoshoot. I had no idea what she was talking about but she asked me to do a cake and I winged it. I would never do a cake like that again because it’s not the proper way of doing a cake but it looked great. From there we started getting some referrals and it went from there!
Would you say that your journey to developing Earth and Sugar was a leap or more so dipping your toes in the water?
I think in the beginning it was dipping my toes and then I would say in the last three years it was just a leap. It really grew a lot. For me, where I’m at professionally, I feel like I’ve done more than what some of my predecessors do in a lifetime of their career in baking. I’m happy where we are at. It’s definitely been a little fast and it’s always an adjustment and a struggle. I still have the same struggles as a person with a new business. They’re just magnified! Every year there’s always a way to be better, (at least that’s my philosophy on how we keep growing). It’s to grow the way we’re growing but maintain the product. In a bakery, that seems to be the one area where they fail the most. Even the ones that have been around for a long time you can tell when the product has changed from the beginning. I don’t want to ever get there. It’s the one thing that we have at work. I remind people that no matter what we have to be where I was by myself. Where each client matters as much as the last and where we can accept our failures with an open mind as much as we celebrate our victories.
Yeah I can see how maintaining the quality of the product as you grow and expand can be a challenge!
I definitely know that opening up locations more than what I have isn’t something that I’m particularly fond of. Everybody defines success differently and for me I feel like I’ve done enough in the regards to having a presence beyond our local reach. I don’t envision anything more other than continuing to do great work and be a part of our clients lives and creating alongside the industry partners we cherish so much. I know professionally, of course, I’m looking to learn more techniques! That’s more so where my eye is on rather than putting more stores out there short of entertaining pop ups. That’s not my particular goal and growth in that sense definitely depends on the owner.
We do have a secondary office in Miami, which I have for tastings and consultations only! The product still leaves our primary location in West Palm Beach. I think if we opened up another location it would definitely be in Miami because half of our work lies there and it’s an hour and a half south of us. The last two years have been very challenging for me because I’ve hired artists and also kitchen assistants that I must trust to maintain my vision and what we are known for. I have also learned that it is best to hire someone with more moral and less skill than more skill and less moral. In the end, technique can be learned but kind people with the best intentions reward your company in ways that can impact the future of your business overall.
In the pursuit of creating Earth and Sugar, if you feel comfortable sharing, what would you say is one of your hiccups that you experienced and how did you overcome it?
Gosh, there’s so many. For me, my greatest frustration came from trying to build a style that nobody was receptive to when I wanted to do it at the beginning. I had a lot of other local cake artists tell me I wasn’t going to make it and it wasn’t going to work. That baking from scratch at volume is not profitable and that it’s not how pastry chefs do things. Later I would discover how horribly inaccurate of a statement that was. A lot of people question my skillset. Even to this day sometimes if people don’t know who we are. It’s rare but it can happen. I still get a little pushback on the cleanliness of our product and why it’s so expensive.
One thing that I struggled with the most was pricing for what I needed to make on it. Also, in explaining that something that wasn’t so decorative and so covered in diamonds and lace was worth the price that I was looking to charge! What I’ve done now is built my reputation. I think we’ve been in enough magazines and blogs that our name in itself represents the value and that’s what I set out to do.
What would you say is or how would you describe this vision/style of yours that you entered the industry with and was against the grain?
I wanted it to be organic. I hated the word rustic. I hated it so much when people would say that about my cakes, it doesn’t bother me now so much. What I deem rustic and what somebody else deems rustic may be completely different. Sometimes people may not know the proper terminology. I think organic is what best describes our cakes because whether they’re modern or more traditional they’re always organic in nature. There’s an intentional placement of things. When working with placement of flowers, it’s not something that I’ve been taught or have learned. I’ve learned with cake artists that you can’t teach people to have an eye. They either have an eye or they don’t when it comes to working with flowers. That’s something that I’ve had a lot of success with!
How did you deal with all the lash back and negative criticism? Was it your confidence and belief in what you wanted to do?
I definitely had a lot of moments where I wanted to quit. My husband reminded me that when you’re setting up to do something different, people will always react negatively to what they don’t know or understand. He’s been my greatest cheerleader alongside my family, reminding me to be patient and that in time the sacrifices would pay off. And they did! I definitely put in a lot of time and money to do photo shoots and back into the business to be able to continue to do the work that I wanted to do. I also lost a lot of business because it wasn’t meant for me or people thought I couldn’t do it because they only saw one style from me. Now, I’ve learned in the last two years to put it all out there.
I mean... I may not necessarily put everything on my Instagram because I don’t love it and don’t feel it truly represents who I am. We do make cakes that aren’t my taste per say but there is also the important element of of running a business. If the client can afford it I also have to consider the constant reinvestment back into a Earth and Sugar. The philosophy is one for you, one for me! The “for you” is for the client and the creative stuff that I do and I like is for me.
Yeah I wanted to touch base with you on that because I feel like it’s a common struggle for creatives who turn their passion into a business. How do you balance staying creative but keeping that business mindset?
It’s very challenging. There’s a lot of pastry chefs that always ask me how I did it or how I do it (or anybody in the industry really, especially the event industry). I’m always honest with people. I hate the word balance because it doesn’t exist. It is an unfair label and pressure to put on someone. I believe that word does a disservice, especially towards a mom. For me, I struggle with timing, pricing, what we put in and what we don’t.
I would say it depends on the client and the time of the year. For example, sometimes I have a client where I get to a point where they repeat to me that they trust me and I’m also trying to earn their business but at the same token I’m trying to be helpful in the creative process. Then they continue to send back information of what they do and don’t want. You can only do that so many times until you get to the point where I did two days ago and wrote an email saying I wasn’t sure that I could be of further assistance. I literally was so blocked by how much back and forth and indecisiveness there was that I didn’t even know where to go!
The business part, I’m always honest in saying that when we grew, and we grew the way we did, it got to the point where I hated baking. I hated everything that came along with cakes. I pushed more paper and more emails for one order than anybody could probably imagine. I don’t do that many of them anymore, as I have an amazing production manager and that’s one of the heaviest duties of her position. But it involves many logistics and communication, copious amounts of ordering and processing. Just one simple cake is a two/three person job to execute until the end.
It’s definitely a struggle and I can’t honestly say I’ve found a way around that. I’m still looking for how to manage to turn it off. If I’m not here on a Saturday and my team is out delivering, I don’t go to sleep because I’m just always waiting for a call or a text. An anxiety and stress I don't wish upon anyone. The negative part that comes with volume is the fact that you’re not going to please everybody. It’s impossible. For me it’s this constant emotional roller coaster that I’m having to ride the entire evening. Even if I’m home I am not really all there, constantly hoping I don’t get a phone call until midnight or one o’clock in the morning when it’s cake cutting time. It's not because I question our product or my staff but because when you own something, it's your baby and it ends with you no matter what. Those are the parts that I hate and that I don’t think will ever go away. I don’t think you find balance. I think you just learn how to process things better.
That’s something I’ve noticed with creatives when they get into the business of their craft. The business aspect of it affects the passion that they initially had for it. So I was curious as to how it affected your passion for baking cakes.
I think that’s common for people who find success. I think that if you’re still in that little zone where you’re not so busy and you get to feel like you’re doing everything it feels great, then there comes a point where you have to run a business. You have to know where you’re going to be happy. I didn’t have to work and I don’t have to work today. I have the option of walking away without stressing about anything other than closing up the business and making sure everybody is financially satisfied. I think that when you really want to run a business that’s profitable and where you’re at a point where you have employees, their livelihood depends on you. You have debts or overhead and that stress is really difficult to process along with being creative and also dealing with the other package, which is people’s personalities and clients and how they treat you, speak to you, or do business with you. All of those you have to internalize because at the end of the day you’re the owner.
What’s something about the cake or pastry business in general that a lot of people aren’t aware of?
A lot of custom bakeries use mix. They don’t make them fresh and they sell them as a custom product. It’s less time consuming and less expensive in material costs. That’d be my number one shock because it’s dishonest. I also sadly have to still justify pricing changes that are most times affected by product costs, butter alone has doubled in the past year!
Nobody’s perfect. We’re not perfect. We still make mistakes here and there but we own them. It’s how we end with the client that makes the difference!
I feel like having a business where you’re an integral part of weddings and big, special events, you probably get to experience such rewarding and special moments. What’s an experience that you’ve had through your business that really stuck with you and became a really special memory?
I’ve had a few! Here in South Florida when they approved gay marriage, we did do one of the first ones in Boca and it was quite a joy. It was also good for me artistically because when they came to me they had tried all the other bakeries that were a part of the contract at their venue with no luck. One of the grooms said he saw us as really more rustic and wanted something very showy. So I asked him to show it me and it was like a chandelier in a cake. We did it and it was beautiful and perfect! We got to be a part of their special day. I’m a believer that love is love and I’m so happy I was able to participate in that.
The other one would be this young woman in her early thirties and we had been asked to donate a cake. We don’t donate freely anymore because it’s not what we like to do too much. It was a vendor friend of mine who asked if I would donate a cake to a mom of two who was dying of cancer and was getting married to solidify what they had before she passed away. So we did get to do their cake and she passed away shortly after.
Wow. Yeah I felt like you have had experiences like this that were so special!
Yeah and there’s a lot. There’s girls who don’t have their dads or are in the process of losing their moms or dads while they’re in the process of planning their weddings. There’s always a lot of special, significant moments but those two stick out the most.
Would you say it’s things like that that are so rewarding that keeps you going and outweighs the stuff that isn’t so fun about the business?
Yeah! When I get calls or sit down at a tasting, I get girls who say they knew when they got engaged that I’d be doing their cakes before they picked any other vendor and that means the most to me because usually cake vendors are the last people. For girls to say that to me, it reminds me really why I do what I do. There was one very sweet girl who had a baby shower and she had told us that she had had three miscarriages and finally this pregnancy was going as planned! All she had asked her mom for, the one thing that she wanted, was an Earth and Sugar cake. I felt so touched by that and really, really appreciated that. Those are the clients that really make up for everything that you have to go through.
I got teary eyed hearing that!
It’s emotional! It’s very emotional! Like when people tell us they give up a photobooth to have one of our cakes... It’s sometimes the people with less money that value what we do even more. I respect that so much and really honestly appreciate it. It really helps me continue moving forward.
That’s so beautiful!
What would you say are the three biggest lessons you’ve learned in your Earth and Sugar journey that perhaps you’d like to remind yourself of in the future?
Never do business with friends if you really like them and want to keep them!
Sticking to your gut and not letting your fear of losing traction and value to be able to work with people. It’s going with your gut when something tells you to say no or it’s not worth the effort financially or artistically. If there’s not going to be a gain there in those two areas it’s just to learn to say no. It’s something I’m still working on! When you learn to say no to people at the right time, when it's necessary, it works in your favor.
Lastly, I would say be honest about what you’re willing to give up to get what you want because, for me, I had to give up a lot of my family time. My children were very small when I started. To this day it’s very difficult. There are days when we are in season and I don’t see them at all because I've left before they're awake and after they've gone to bed. Again, this is where I stress how important my amazing husband has been in this journey. My parents, oh my beautiful parents. They are invested in ways that are not monetary, but equally as impactful. Is it worth it? I don’t know, it’s not something I can answer right now, but right now I think that I am investing in their future and the future of all those who work here. I’ve learned to be friends with moms who support me, mom-preneurs and overall lovely women who are supportive in teaching me that it’s not often how much time I spend with them but that the time I do be of emotional and spiritual value. You’ve got to own what you’re going have to process and it’s very difficult.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own bakery?
There’s so many! I think that that last answer carries into this. Remember what you’re willing to sacrifice. Doing your homework on pricing and how to structure an actual business is really important because the problem with creatives and artists is (and that’s why there’s that old saying about starving artists) that you don’t really know how to value your work! The value of your time on emails or phone calls or going to meetings, the gas in your car, the paper you’re printing, the meal you aren't sharing with your family... all of those things actually do matter! Obtaining the knowledge on what really covers all of that and seeing if it’s something you really want to do as a business or a hobby.
I would say for me, and this is almost an industry thing that I continuously hear, is to be respectful of your peers by pricing accordingly! When you undercut the market, what it does is all of those people that started out like you in the beginning, they most likely have staff like I mentioned before that they have to be responsible for. They make a living by working for us. I have to provide for them and charge a certain amount to do what we do. I have to continue to do it that way and also pay my employees, so of course our cost is going to be higher, but it’s to respect that by not being so severely low that it starts to change the market trajectory on pricing because it can actually sink another business that started off just like you did!
Your favorite cake! What flavor is it and what does it look like?
It’s always going to go back to my nanny. She literally makes the best cakes and still uses a teacup to measure, she refuses to use measuring cups! She makes this vanilla sponge and does fresh whip cream with berries and peaches and soaks it with a little bit of rum. It looks very homemade but it’s delicious! I don’t like pretentious things. I love decorating and designing them but for me personally I just love something that’s delicious and takes you back somewhere that makes you happy. So that’s my most favorite cake because she’s the one who makes it and nobody else makes it like her.