Kathy Leskow is on track for world cookie domination. Her cookie business is fuelled by her love of cookies, her respect for good ingredients, and her belief in a quality product. These values shine through in her delicious products and the fact that her cookies were featured in Oscar swag bags! She has gone from a basement bakery to 2 store fronts and 9 farmer’s markets per week – 500 dozen cookies just for Friday and Saturday markets. If Kathy has one thing to teach us, it is that a keen business sense, a positive attitude, and a commitment to quality products can help a business grow exponentially.
Could you tell our readers a bit about you?
Hmmm, I grew up in Edmonton and now live in Sherwood Park with my husband Steve and our three kids, Kaitlyn (10), Jaida (8), and Davis (6). I studied business at NAIT and then got my degree at the University of Lethbridge, majoring in marketing. After University I lived in Tokyo for two years teaching english and exploring.
I am a planner but I am still spontaneous living the day to day. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I am a super positive person and trust that all will work out.
What did your life look like before you started Confetti Sweets?
Before Confetti Sweets I worked as a Conference Services Manager for Delta Hotels. One of my area of specialties was weddings and events which I loved. It was a dream job but after having my second daughter it was not a job that would offer a healthy work-life balance so I left to become a full time mom.
What inspired you to start Confetti Sweets?
I hate to admit it but I never set out to start a full fledged cookie business. I have always loved to bake and when I was at home with the kids and actually had time, I took baking classes. I then set out to perfect my new skills, and thus practised a lot. What to do with all these sweets I was making? Ah ha! I could sell it at the Farmers Market. And I did. I sold all kinds of goodies, and eventually I figured out cookies would be the best product to focus on. They are good for all demographics, whereas something like squares are more adult focused. They didn’t melt like my truffles did. They were more foolproof than something like tempering chocolate, and they were an everyday treat, unlike decorating cakes that were reserved for special occasions.
Can you tell us about the moment when you realized your business had grown from a home business to a full-scale commercial business?
My business had so many stages, and I if I had to do it all again I wouldn’t skip any of them! I started baking in my home kitchen and home oven. The year I started selling at the big markets (downtown and St. Albert) was when I had to expand. I bought a 20 quart mixer and commercial oven, set them up in my kitchen and away I went. I hired the neighbour to scoop cookies and it worked well but, boy, was that a lot of work! Baking until one am, then packing the vans, and going to market. It was exciting and thrilling, but exhausting. After two years of doing that, we built a bakery in my basement. It was certified by Alberta Health and I could then sell privately (you don’t need Alberta health approval to sell at farmers markets). I hired some staff to help me, invested in more equipment, and life was good. I considered myself to be a full fledged bakery at this time. After two years of this, I received notice that the county had a complaint of traffic at my house and they would be investigating. I was told I was only allowed one staff member at a time and I could continue on. This stopped my dreams in my tracks, but I wanted to work from home for my kids. I decided to scale back. This lasted two weeks. Apparently I am not someone that can scale back, haha. I started looking for space and within three months we were in a storefront. This was when I became a full fledge commercial business.
How did you learn to run your business? Did you take any courses? Did you have any mentors?
I have a degree in marketing and have always had an interest in business. I think back to my courses during many of the day-to-day challenges we have. I still have that interest and take whatever classes I can. Since Confetti Sweets started I have taken a handful of “start your own business” courses: CRA, WCB, social media, baking, and whatever other courses I can get my hands on. There are so many options in Edmonton! The Business Link has been a great help, along with Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, Continuing Ed, etc. There truly is so much support if you seek it out!
In addition I was very lucky to be part of the farmers market community because there are so many business owners with different ideas. Owen from Prairie Mills bakery was a big help when I starting up because he was a few years ahead of me. He gave me all sorts of supplier connections, and pitfalls to avoid. Gloria from The Art of Cake has always been a mentor to me for her baking skills. Someone I aspire to be like! And there are the businesses like Steve and Dan’s that I have learnt from as well. Watching how they do so many markets and manage their businesses was an inspiration.
What types of changes did you have to make to your business plan to grow it from a home business to a storefront business?
When I was home based, I focused primarily on the farmers markets. I did have some business out of the markets, but mainly from customers I met at a market. Moving to storefront with rent 12 months a year, I had to explore and pursue other customer bases. We now focus a lot on the corporate market and just serving those that need cookies year ‘round… which is pretty much everyone!
Sometimes you just have to have faith and trust
What was the biggest challenge you encountered when growing your business? How did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge was when I had to move into a storefront before I thought I was ready. Luckily I found some bakers that were ready to retire and I was able to take over their lease and buy an equipped bakery. Still, other than working at a pizza outlet when I was a teenager, I had no experience running a storefront. I learnt fast and learnt a lot.
My other biggest challenge was delegating. When I was home based, I personally mixed every batch of dough. There is so much that can wrong – over mixing, too much salt, forgetting something etc… And the worst part is you can’t tell from looking at it. When we became a storefront, there was so much that fell onto my plate, I could not keep up. I had to delegate, and that included teaching others my recipes and trusting them to do it the way I expected. Sometimes you just have to have faith and trust and that is how I overcame that challenge. I am still pretty picky with the way things are done, but I have learnt to delegate. I’m pretty sure my staff think I am very good at delegating, haha.
Don’t rush it, but do it when you are ready. Expect to be there all the time, so make sure it is your passion.
You have a pretty big team that helps you have a presence at 9 farmer’s markets across the city. What traits do you look for when bringing in team members?
We have about 15 girls on our team right now and it peaks at 20 during market season. Most are part time. We do 9 markets per week – 2 Wednesday, 3 Thursday, 3 Saturday, and 1 Sunday in Calgary. In terms of staff – friendly, outgoing, chatty, hardworking, reliable and smart are what we look for. When I interview I get a gut feeling as to whether someone will fit in or not and I follow my gut a lot. We are a really close team, like a family, and that remains important. I feel as though I am a good leader. I try to teach the team the ‘why’ of what we do, not just the ‘how’. I also like everyone to be cross trained. The one selling you the cookie, also makes the cookies, so they know what is what. They take pride in what they are selling.
How do you coordinate having so many booths at various farmers markets? How many cookies do you bake for a typical weekend?
I really feel like I am a coach getting ready for Saturdays. We bake about 500 dozen cookies on Friday for Saturday markets. It is quite a production! Someone (not me, haha) is in at 5am to start baking, and we finish baking around 5pm. Then we have night staff to come in a pack the cookies. Everything is done on spreadsheets so we know what to bake and pack for each market. We use checklists and load each van for each market. It is all finished by around 9pm, and staff are back at the bakery for around 7 to take the vans to market.
You have done a fantastic job of ensuring your cookies are made from quality products. Do you have a company philosophy that you follow to stay true to your product?
Our recipes and ingredient brands have not really changed from the beginning. Processes have, but the cookies remain the same. Sadly we have had to raise our prices to keep this up but it is a product we can be proud of. It’s the ingredients that make the taste. The Madagascar Vanilla that adds that extra flavour. The butter that make the texture taste like Grandma’s baking, and the Callebaut chocolate with the higher percentage of cocoa butter that adds the deep chocolate taste.
Your cookies were featured in the Oscar swag bags. How did you get connected with the Oscars? Do you have any interesting stories about your Oscar experience?
That was the most exciting time of my adult life! We were approached to have our cookies at the CCMA awards in Edmonton. We decided to do it – it would be fun – and they were a hit! The organizers were Matt and Mark Harris from Storage Wars who also have a business doing these swag bag parties. They are the nicest guys around and we kept in touch after the CCMA’s. In September they asked us to be part of their Oscar’s gifting suite, and we jumped on it. We did it mostly just for fun, and that was our goal all along! One of the girls that works for me, Heather, loves the PR side of everything, so she took the story to the media and they loved it. We were in the Journal, Global, CTV, and a handful of magazines. When the story was featured our business went crazy. We had lineups out the doors, and could barely keep up with production. It was awesome. Our time in LA was just as exciting. We staying on Rodeo Drive at the hotel where the event was being held. We met so many people at the party and the best part was they all loved our cookies! My favourite person was Jason Hall, the gentleman who wrote American Sniper. Such a nice guy and so cool to see him up for an Oscar the next day. On the day of the Oscars, we shmoozed our way into an Oscar viewing party at the Roosevelt hotel across the street from the Dolby theatre. It was incredible. I’m not much into celebrities and that lifestyle, but for those few days we felt like we lived the dream.
Can you please tell us more about ‘Cookies for a Cause’? What motivated you to reach out and help this cause?
We have good friends with kids the same age, in the same school and activities together. Their little boy Joshua, now 10, was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when we was about 6 years old. My heart broke for the family when we was diagnosed and I wanted to help. There are so many good causes and diseases but this one hit close to home. If we can prolong this little boy’s life that would be amazing.
My business had so many stages, and I if I had to do it all again I wouldn’t skip any of them!
We love that you are constantly giving back to our community. What is your philosophy behind this? Do you have ideas for future outreach projects that you are currently working on and would like to share with us?
My parents instilled in me to give back in whatever way I could and I have taken that to heart. We are always donating something or another. Our leftovers to Cookies for a Cause, or the Food Bank (some markets have the Food Bank pick up extra food at the end of the day – an awesome idea!), or the shelters, when we have a lot of leftovers or cookies that don’t make the cut for whatever reason. We also donate to events that are raising money for various causes. I am really a softy and have a hard time saying no. I also really believe in karma. I think I have been so extremely lucky in this business venture and part of that comes from using my cookies to do good in this city.
How do you balance being a mom and running a busy and demanding business?
Actually I am very lucky. I was able to work from home when the kids were little and now I am able to bring the kids to work with me. They actually like coming to the bakery with me. I think having the flexibility to do that means the world! I also couldn’t do any of this without my husband’s help. He is very hands-on with the kids and the business when we need help.
How do you come up with your recipes? Are they family secrets or did you develop them yourselves?
No family secrets. My mom loves to bake and cook, and I have learned a lot of techniques from her. Her number one rule has always been “only use butter!” When I want a new recipe, for example, double chocolate cookies, I will choose about 10 recipes and make them all. Then I will critique, put the ingredients on a spreadsheet, compare, and start over. Then I involve everyone in taste testing, and I listen to their comments, but in the end, it is my taste testing that is the deciding factor. A new recipe is quite an ordeal for me because I don’t want to sell it until it is perfect. The wastage in this process drives my mother crazy, but don’t worry we give the extras to the shelters!
You are known as the “cookie lady” around town but is there anything else you would like to share with us that our readers might not know about you?
I love to bake but not cook. If I had to choose a different career, I would be an interior designer. Oh, and I love pink, haha!
I try to teach the team the ‘why’ of what we do, not just the ‘how’.
What type of advice would you give to someone looking to make the change from a home business to a store-front business?
Don’t rush it, but do it when you are ready. Expect to be there all the time, so make sure it is your passion.
What have you seen in farmer’s markets during your travels that you wish you could bring to Edmonton?
More sights and smells! In the Edmonton markets, producers make their products and bring it to the market to sell. I visited the Los Angeles Farmers Market last year and producers set up shop at the market and sold it from there. You could watch bakers making bread and selling it fresh from the oven. Instead of food trucks there were permanent food booths where you could watch chefs sauté a dish and serve it piping hot. Still the street food vibe, but all on the ground level. A BBQ vendor roasted his pork in front of you. Can you imagine the fresh bread smell if Prairie Mills was baking at the market, or if Big G was BBQing? That would be awesome.
Some of us market vendors did a New York Farmers Market trip last year and they had some interesting things as well. They had buckets of pickles and the customer chose what they would like and it was bottled right there. Kind of like my cookies but with pickles. They also had a program where lower income families could purchase food with food stamps at the market. That was an amazing program. The one thing I didn’t like though, was they were food only markets. No crafts and jewelry and all that fun stuff. That is the enjoyable part of the market to me.
What is essential for you to keep energized for the day?
Where do you see Confetti Sweets in the next 5 years?
World cookie domination! Just kidding. Trucking along as we are. Hopefully a few more cookie stores popping up to serve our sweet tooth customers. I plan to still be doing farmers markets.
What do you love about Edmonton?
The farmers markets! I sit on the Alberta Farmers Market Board and the farmers market environment we have here is so vibrant. We have so many markets, with so many vendors who home-make products.
What is your favourite restaurant or coffee shop in town?
I’m not much a of a foodie because I am a really picky eater. My all time fav restaurant is Earls (I know, I know, it’s a chain) but they make everything from scratch and I can taste the difference. I also love Tres Carnales for Mexican, and Ragazzi for Italian.
If you have to pick a favourite place in Edmonton to take a breather, let loose, or to soak up the city, where would it be?
Visiting Whyte Ave is always a good time and brings me back to me youth 😉 Every Saturday in the summer we go camping to one of the close campgrounds around Edmonton to truly relax. It is a much needed break. I take every week during market season, and always a good time with family. Oh, and shopping. I love to shop.
What are you currently excited about? What’s next for you?
We are opening a new store this month in Terwillegar! It is in the same space as Prairie Mills Bread and we are partnering up in terms of bakery space. I think it will be awesome – two local market businesses focused on fresh quality product in one space. Can’t wait!