Celeste Dolan of Celestial Kitchens

After fifteen years on a promising career path as a graphic designer, Celeste Dolan found herself at the job she had always wanted. Or so she thought. Despite her title as Assistant Creative Director for a new television pilot, Celeste grew unhappy with her daily routine of managerial tasks and after some time, found herself enrolling for cooking school. She’d loved baking ever since she was a child, but it was an industry in which she had no experience. Fortunately, a wedding cake designer was looking for help and Celeste signed on, quickly realizing her talent as a graphic designer came in handy when it came to designing wedding cakes. After two years of observing, learning, and gaining a client base, Celeste made the jump and opened her own baked good catering company, Celestial Kitchens.

The Everygirl fell in love with Celeste’s sugary confections at the West Elm/Etsy event a few months ago, and when we found out we’d be hosting a party at BHLDN for wedding week, we immediately sought her out to see if she’d whip something up for the event. Lucky for us she took the job, not only creating these darling sugar cookies in the shape of a wedding cake and ones with our logo on it, but she also designed the orange and yellow poppy cake and the all-white seashell cake for our wedding fashion shoot (both of which are shown here). The cakes exceeded all expectations, and we wanted to know more about how this entrepreneur got her start.

Today, Celeste Dolan gives readers and wannabe bakery owners the inside scoop about day-to-day life working in the catering industry, the hardships and benefits of running your own business, and the not-so-easy decision to leave a promising career and follow your passion.

Full name: Celeste Dolan
Age: 50
Year you started Celestial Kitchens: 2005
Educational background: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications; studied at Culinary Hospitality Institute of Chicago

When and how did you discover your passion for baking?
Both my grandmother and my mother were amazing cooks. My grandmother was the executive chef at a private high school and my mother was the consummate entertainer. Their love of cooking rubbed off on me from a very young age. My first cooking memory was when I was maybe 3 years old. I remember it was in the middle of the night and I was pulling out bags and bags of dry ingredients and dumping them all onto the kitchen floor, adding spices and then adding liquids. It was quite a mess. I also remember a time when I was hungry and my mother was not making my french toast fast enough so I took it upon myself to make it. By the time she got to the kitchen I had already cracked the eggs and whisked them with the cream, etc.

Before you opened up Celestial Kitchens you were a graphic designer for twenty years. What prompted you to switch careers?
At the time I decided to start cooking school I had just finished working on a television pilot for American Girl Television. I was promoted to Assistant Creative Director which I thought I wanted. Turns out not so much. The only thing I was creating were budgets and schedules. It was then I remembered that I had looked into cooking school years ago, so I went back and registered for school.

Can you tell us about the greatest rewards and challenges that came with this transition? Did you ever have any doubts about your decision?
I would say the greatest reward is being your own boss. The second greatest reward is being able to use my graphic design experience to create something special and delicious for people to enjoy. Any doubts I had would stem from financial concerns covering the monthly “nut” in order to get the bills paid. The food industry in not the easiest industry to make a living in. The hours are long, the work is hard, food and utility costs can cause havoc with your budget. So, at first I thought I had made a terrible mistake, but I realize now that I didn’t.

How did you deal with the financial hurdles of opening up your own bakery and pastry shop?
I currently don’t have my own shop. I work out of a shared use kitchen that I rent with other small food business owners. I chose this route because it is the best way to work out the kinks, establish a client base without the hassle and expense of opening your own shop.

What made you decide to turn your passion for baking and pastries into a career instead of keeping it a hobby?
While I was going to cooking school I took on freelance design work. The flexibility afforded me the time to go to school and make money to live on. The worked well until the dot-com bust and I was laid off. Then out of the blue I was contacted by a wedding cake designer looking for help. I decided this was the universe telling me to take the leap into the industry so I went for it. While I was there I watched and learned everything I could. At one point I was meeting with the potential clients for tastings and designing their wedding cakes. It was then that I decided to go out on my own and start Celestial Kitchens.

What advice would you have to someone struggling with this decision?
Advice I have for someone struggling with the decision to start their own business would be to have a little bit of a nest egg and have a realistic understanding about the costs of running a business in a particular industry. Do your research and talk to as many industry people as you can.

How did you learn the ins and outs of running a business? Budgeting, filing taxes, marketing, web development, store planning, etc.?
A lot of new entrepreneurs have a tendency to want to be all things to all people and I was guilty of that as well. You’re so afraid to say no that you take on work that ultimately doesn’t fit your business or really isn’t a right fit. Eventually, I realized that taking on everything wasn’t efficient not cost effective AND I was hating every minute of it. So, after a few years, I slowly began to streamline Celestial Kitchens into what I really wanted to do. Instead of providing banana bread to the masses and plated desserts to restaurants I retooled my business. Using my graphic design background I focused on pursuing wedding cakes, special occasion cakes and decorated cookies for corporate clients and weddings. I still have a few wholesale clients that help me get through the lean and slow months like January, February and March.

Budgeting came fairly easily because of my experience in doing budgets as a graphic designer. Interestingly enough I found that when I was representing someone else’s company I had no issues handing a client an estimate and telling them it is what it is. When it came time for Celestial Kitchens to present an estimate suddenly it seemed different. I had to tell myself this is business, it’s not personal. the estimate is
what it is.

I know a lot of other sole business owners in the baking industry and I think that we all would tell you that the hardest part of running a business is the marketing. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all and it’s often best to leave specialized fields like marketing, design up to the professionals. With that said, Celestial Kitchens has just hired a marketing manager and are currently in the process of retooling the website, working on press releases as well as working on a portfolio of our cake designs.

Tell us a little bit about the process of opening up your shop. After you decided you wanted to do it, what was the first step you took to make it happen? Where were some of the biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Because opening a bakery from scratch was not a reality I searched high and low for a kitchen that I could share with someone. Chicago has a number of shared use kitchens which at this point works for our business model which is under going a retooling.

One of many challenges is not having enough hours in the day and learning how to delegate and give up control so that you don’t get burnt out on the thing you love most.

Because Celestial Kitchens does’t have a retail shop (I rely on weekly wholesale clients and special orders) the work load is very inconsistent. If there is no baking to be done then time is spent off site shopping, designing wedding cake and/or cookies for upcoming jobs, record keeping or researching new clients.

During Celestial Kitchens’ peak busy seasons a typical weekly schedule usually starts out spending Monday calling clients, confirming head counts for weddings and parties, creating the week’s schedule, shopping lists and shopping.

Tuesday fillings and frostings are made for the cakes, cookie dough is made, cookies are rolled and baked and all wholesale orders are started. On Wednesdays all the cakes are baked, royal icing is made and colored, cookie decorating begins. Thursdays are spent filling and frosting the cakes tiers, final details are applied to cookies, wholesale orders are finished and all sugar work is finalized. Friday is delivery day for wholesale accounts. The day is also spent stacking wedding cakes and decorating them.

Celestial Kitchens’ time spent in the kitchen varies day to day, week to week, season to season. Early winter months are pretty quiet and time is spent designing new signature cake designs as well as designing new cookie designs for the year ahead. We also conduct tastings for upcoming weddings and special events. From Memorial Day through Labor Day Celestial Kitchens produces a lot of special events cakes and cookies for graduations as well as corporate events. September through December is our busiest time of year with Christmas bringing the most orders. Although it is a lot of work, it’s also a lot of fun. People get so excited about our designs and I love knowing that

Celestial Kitchens is making their holidays just that more special. My dream is that Celestial Kitchens will become a holiday tradition for everyone for years to come.

How have you handled marketing for Celestial Kitchens since you began?
Until now, it’s all been word of mouth.

How has the bakery changed since it opened? Has your team expanded, or have you added any additional services or products since it began? In what ways would you still like to see it evolve?
Celestial Kitchens is in the works on some retail products. We’re still working out the kinks, packaging, licensing, photography, etc. More
details to come!

What advice would you have to other aspiring business owners, especially those in the culinary
Research everything. Take a business class. Talk to others in the field.

How have you coped with the long hours that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship?
If it’s what you love you will find a way to cope. Either by retooling the budget so you can hire some help or begging friends and family to pitch in. You just have to make it work.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you opened your own business?
How hard it is to make a decent wage. You really have to work a lot of hours.

What is one piece of advice you would offer your 23-year-old self?
Take a breath before you leap.