By CARL E. FEATHER
The nostalgic image of Jan Plants and her older sister Kathy Fassett was made decades ago, when they were around 3 and 6 years old, respectively. They are wearing matching dresses and smiles, but Kathy admits that beyond the camera lens, their relationship wasn't as sweet.
"We were typical sisters," she says. "My mother used to say we fought like cats and dogs."
That sibling rivalry has given way to harmony and a business venture the sisters hope will take them well into retirement: Sisters Cookies, a Limited Liability Corporation that bakes cookies for all occasions.
Jan is a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School and Kathy works at the Ashtabula County School Employees Credit Union. Their business is an evening, weekend and summer vacation sideline that grew out of their shared roots and passions for baking.
Their grandparents, Mary and Ed Babcock, owned a restaurant in Saybrook Township. Their parents, Jean and Ken Babcock, had a store. The paternal grandparents, along with their maternal grandmother, gave the women a legacy of good cooking and baking. Their parents taught them independence: Because the parents worked late at the store, it was often up to Kathy and Jan to cook dinner.
"I got to give them credit when I think of some of the meals we made and they were willing to eat them," Kathy says.
Both Kathy and Jan attained reputations as bakers in their family and were called upon to make the cookies and other desserts for special occasions. About 14 years ago, Kathy happened to be talking to a friend who mentioned that her son was getting married and she just didn't have the time to bake all the cookies they'd need for the reception.
"I told her 'Hold that thought,' and I ran home and told Jan," Kathy says. After a short conference, the women decided they'd be willing to take on the task, and they baked the cookies for their first wedding.
Since then, they've supplied cookies to many other wedding receptions, Christmas dessert tables, anniversary parties and other special events. Last Christmas, they baked more than 600 dozen cookies with help from family and friends.
With graduation and wedding season just around the corner, they're gearing up for another round of serious baking.
After years of testing the waters, they took their business to a new level about 18 months ago and formed a limited liability corporation (LLC). They saw the move as essential in our litigious culture.
"That was one of the things my husband was concerned about," Kathy says. "The attorney suggested we do that. It protects our personal assets."
With all their paperwork in place, the women were ready to start advertising and taking orders beyond their family, circle of friends and co-workers. All they needed was corporate logo. They looked at some stock art images, but nothing seemed to captured what their business was all about. Then they came across that childhood photograph, which seemed a perfect icon for their home-based, sister-owned business.
Baked to order
They work with their customers one-on-one to help them select from a list of 15 popular cookie varieties, such as lady locks, French wafers, mini pumpkins, vanilla crescents and the classic chocolate chip. But if a customer has a favorite recipe, Jan and Kathy are willing to give it a try. Or, if there's a cookie a client likes but it's not on the list, Jan and Kathy will research it and locate the recipe. Just try to convince the bakery at the big box store to do that for you.
Jan and Kathy say their service is also set apart by the fact they make everything from scratch using the best ingredients - real butter, for example, rather than shortening. Many of the grocery store bakeries use frozen cookie mixes and do only the final step.
"Ours are not mass produced, all our dough is homemade," says Jan. "If you want the homemade taste and don't have the time to bake it, we can do it. It's not boxed, it's not mass-produced."
They also take pride in the presentation of their product. They'll put the cookies in a box or arrange them on a platter with a paper doily.
After experimenting with different pricing structures - by the pound, by the type of cookie - they settled upon a simple, consumer-friendly rate: $4.50 per dozen, regardless of the type, including their cheesecake and pecan varieties.
They bake the cookies in the kitchen of the former Harris Memorial Presbyterian Church, which merged with West Prospect Presbyterian to form Trinity last year. The church is equipped with a commercial grade oven that allows the women to bake 16 trays of cookies at a time rather than four in their home ovens.
Kathy says they started using the church kitchen several years ago and have given the church a donation to cover the utilities and depreciation on the equipment. With the church up for sale, they worry about what they'll do when it sells. Their hope is that the new buyer will be willing to continue to rent the kitchen to them as needed.
Working full-time jobs creates a challenge at times, but the sisters have worked it out so they can prepare dough at home and then hold marathon baking sessions.
"We split it up, however it works for us," says Jan, who, as a teacher, can pick up the slack in the summer months.
Family often comes out for marathon baking sessions so they can quickly fill the large orders. Freezer space at their father's house is pressed into service in November as they accumulate enough cookies for Christmas delivery. "By the end of November, the freezer is full," Kathy says. They always pad their orders so there are enough cookies for the last-minute requests and the family Christmas dinner table, as well.
The women hope their cottage business will continue to grow so they'll be able to transition into it full time once they make the move to retirement.
"When I do retire, it won't be to sit around," says Jan, who's taught for 32 years. "I'll have my cookie business going."
By CARL E. FEATHER