Sweet Disposition’s Linda Marie Thurston and Karen Nash, winners of Coastal Style’s Best Bakery category, share the ingredients for their successful business
Is there anything in the whole wide world that can match the aroma of a really good bakery? We sure as heck don’t think so, which is why we paid an oh-so-sweet visit to Karen Nash and Linda Thurston of Sweet Disposition in Selbyville.
How and when was Sweet Disposition born?
LMT: When Karen and I worked together at Fager's Island, way back before the turn of the century, I was permitted to cultivate customers of my own. These were people who were planning their weddings at the Coconut Malorie or folks who enjoyed their desserts in the restaurant and needed a special-occasion cake for home. Karen was the manager for the Lighthouse Club and Edge Hotels. These guests enjoyed Tea breads that were served in their rooms, and when they’d expressed an interest, they signed on to a mailing list that gathered them together with others who purchased gift baskets and cookie tins by mail order. One guest convinced her husband to send these gift baskets to clients of his as a thank-you gift, and so, corporate gifts were a spinoff from that. Seeing that I was getting buried a little, Karen approached me about teaming up, and that was when Sweet Disposition became a partnership.
KN: I knew that Linda made the best-tasting and most beautiful cakes, and I knew that I could run a business, so it seemed like a good idea. I have always enjoyed cooking and was never afraid of a little hard work – and here we are, 10 years later.
What do you consider your specialties?
LMT: That's like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. All of the desserts we produce shine in their own way. That could be mainly because different clients have their go-to desserts or their spouse's favorites. We have restaurants we service who say they have patrons who will only come in for dinner if Devil's Own is on the menu, and there are trends, like cupcakes. We have one local customer who has a standing order basically for every Saturday. She even brings her own special cupcake holder to transport them. Customizing the decoration of the cake with detailed artwork has become something to boast about since Kim Roberts came to work here. She really can draw almost anything with a pastry bag! Billy Nayden, our delivery man, is also responsible for several specific tasks in the day-to-day production. The top item on that list is our Buttercream. It is key to more than half of what goes out our door every day, and he has become the expert.
How does your business change during the holidays?
LMT: As soon as the fall wedding season seems to be slowing down, the process for holiday preparation begins. EVERYTHING changes for this time of year. Our menus, our shopping lists, our client list, the packaging, the work stations and assembly lines are moved about — all to accommodate the changes in a 6-to-8–week span. The UPS truck stops here every weekday to pick up gift boxes. This is the only time of year that we make cookies. When all of our neighbor businesses are dark and quiet, we are all still here like five (slightly slave-driven, sometimes cranky) Christmas elves. Last year we were able to add Mary Ellen Gasior to our team. Her cookie-baking and bow-tying skills got her in the door, but her productivity has kept her with us year-round.
How would you describe the dynamic that exists between the two of you?
LMT: This will sound corny, but it is exactly the way I feel about our partnership: If Sweet Disposition were a piece of music, Karen is the tempo, and Linda is the melody. The lyrics can change or the mood or style can be drastically opposite, but without the tempo and melody working together, the music stops.
At what point did you realize baking would become your life's work?
LMT: I think I can go out on a limb and say that both Karen and I feel most at home in the kitchen, regardless of whether we are working or playing. Once we decided to begin this venture, the commitment was made, and that's that!
How have your creations evolved over the years?
LMT: I really don't think that our product has changed much at all. We have tried to maintain consistency as a rule. We have learned to do each task more efficiently; I know we have learned from our mistakes along the way!
Where does your inspiration come from for each new project, and do you find it difficult to constantly reinvent yourselves?
KN: We do try to offer new products and flavors but don't always conform to each and every new trend that pops up. Our menu is quite large as it is; our staff is small; sometimes adding new things can be difficult. Taking special requests from customers has often resulted in a new cake; for example, the addition of peanut-butter buttercream as a choice of icing on our chocolate cake has garnered some very big fans. Each and every menu item has a big fan, and removing something to make room for a new creation is hard to do.
How has the industry changed over the last 10 years, and how do you envision its evolution over the next decade?
KN: I address this below, but television shows have certainly created some clients that are looking for over-the-top cakes. By this I mean two- or three-tiered cakes with elaborate detail in decorating styles for functions like first birthdays and baby showers. We love to create these cakes; it is so fun to try new things and custom-design cakes for the oh-so-varied tastes of the public. I can see the bigger and more elaborate cake trends continuing in the future and look forward to meeting the challenge that they present.
What's been the most challenging project you've worked on over the years, and how did it turn out?
LMT: No matter how careful you are, accidents happen. Not often, but they do. Last fall, we had a wedding cake that was very large and decorated elaborately. The delivery was slightly outside our usual range, and when we were five minutes from the destination, I had to stop suddenly in heavy traffic. We heard the thud, and both of our hearts sank. Although we knew exactly what happened, we stopped to confirm that the entire four tiers had slammed into the backseat. We had less than three hours to drive 40 miles back to the shop (safely), salvage what was not too damaged and start over with the extra cake (luckily, the right flavor) in the refrigerator, plus we had to recreate the same elaborate décor. That being said, we still had what was in our minds a very treacherous trip ahead of us. We arrived at the reception site and snuck in the kitchen entrance just as the wedding party was walking in the front door. We vowed to take all precautions to never have to go through that again, but I can say proudly that we shine under pressure. In fact, correcting a mistake or compromising to make the customer happy is a skill we consider to be a high priority.
Has the advent of baking shows on television brought you more business? Has it also brought unrealistic or unfair expectations from clients?
KN: It certainly seems that part of the cupcake craze is a result of television baking shows. People do come in with some wild ideas about cakes that they saw on TV. The main problem is that they have no idea how expensive those cakes they see on TV are, and most are not willing to pay that much.
What gives you the most satisfaction about your work?
KN: I find it extremely satisfying when we receive feedback from happy and content customers. To have someone call and leave a message that the cake they had was the absolute best thing they ever ate makes all the hard work worth it. We also enjoy being almost a part of our customers' families. We do the bridal shower cake, then the wedding cake, next comes the baby shower and then the first birthday, and it continues from there. Watching the families grow and come in for all of their special occasions is pretty special.
LMT: It makes me feel great when we have a client who swears that a recipe of ours reminds them of something from their childhood, made by their mother or grandmother. I recall one lady this spring who spoke with tears in her eyes over our vanilla cake. It was very touching.
What is your favorite dessert to create?
LMT: I would have to say wedding cakes are my
favorite to make, due to the way they tend to reflect the client's personality. No two brides are ever alike.
What bit of advice can you share with the do-it-yourselfer who wants to take their baking to the next level?
KN: I would say don't be afraid to work hard, start simple and build your way slowly. Consistency is a major key in any food-related business. The product has to taste and look the same each and every time, or you will end up with some very disappointed clients. That being said, keep in mind that letting your clients "custom-design" their own cakes is important. We have a book with pictures, but each cake is different, depending upon the party theme, the recipient's hobbies, etc. But the most important thing is that you actually enjoy the process of baking. If you regard it as drudgery, you'll probably never be very good at it.
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