Hello! Who are you and what food business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Courtney McKamey, a bartender by trade, but a baker by blood. In 2015 I started a company using both sets of skills. The Cocktail Parlor is a bakery inspired by classic and modern cocktails. I strive to bring the renaissance of the cocktail industry to a new realm: the edible cocktail. From an Old Fashioned or a Negroni cupcake, to a Dark & Stormy or Rob Rose cookie or truffle, each resembles its cocktail elder in dessert form.
I create miniature cupcakes, cookies, full-size layer cakes, chocolate truffles, spirit dust, buttercream frosting, and popcorn, all with quite a bit of booze. I am always working on new products so you’ll see more in time! Everyone must be 21+ to enjoy our baked goods, but for the customer who is under 21, or uninterested in boozy desserts, I can always make a delicious nonalcoholic dessert for them to enjoy.
I’ve worked with several markets (Artists & Fleas, Shwick, Brooklyn Makers Market), sponsorships (Speed Rack NY, Whisky Wisemen, Jazz Age Lawn Party, Jazz Age Winter Ball, Jazz Age Tea Party, GANYC, City Meals on Wheels), industry events (Whiskey Washback, WhiskeyFest, WhiskeyLive), and liquor brands (WhistlePig Whiskey, The Dalmore, Bulleit, Crown Royal, Banks Rums, Highland Park, Four Roses, Virgil Kaine, Campari, Ford’s Gin, Hendrick’s, and many more.) With my experience and love for working with new brands and new people, that list is sure to grow.
I focus on the smaller, more finite details in an overwhelming industry. I find the hidden notes in spirits and liqueurs and translate those flavors into my baking. The one thing that I became so enamored with in the cocktail industry was that every cocktail was completely balanced.
An ode to that, every baked good I create is completely balanced and a pure emulation of the cocktail it’s inspired by. It is my goal to maintain the vitality and romanticism of the cocktail industry, one new confectionery at a time.
What are your ballpark monthly sales?
Starting a small business was the most difficult adventure of my life. Through the common blood, sweat, and tears trio I’ve been able to build my sales over the past 4 years to about $20,000 annually. This is all while still holding down two other jobs and maintaining an amiable social life.
It sounds easy enough, but the first three years were the hardest. I had only about $2-5,000 in sales, but I had spent a lot of money on incorporating the brand into an LLC, trademarking the name, general liability insurance, the rent of an industrial kitchen, digital marketing, business cards and all other paper marketing, and of course all of the necessary supplies. But that’s how most brands grow: slowly.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started.
I grew up baking with my mom and grandmother. As a teen and young adult, I constantly experimented with new ingredients to use in my baked goods. From chocolate avocado pound cake, to red chili chocolate chip cookies, I was always trying to push flavor boundaries to expand the dessert-eater’s palate.
One day in 2014 I was in my kitchen in Washington Heights baking molasses ginger cookies and I thought, “What if I put Rum in this… I should definitely put rum in this.” I grabbed my bottle of Gosling’s Rum and balanced the dry ingredients to meet the intensity of the liquid.
And thus, became the Dark & Stormy Cookie garnished with candied ginger and lime zest.
I took the Dark & Stormy cookies to a BBQ party with all of my coworkers from the cocktail bar I was working at during that time. They were a hit, so I kept baking and experimenting.
My next venture was turning one of my cocktails into a cookie: Heather & Peat.
The cocktail is a stirred variation of an Old Fashioned, made with Lagavulin 16-Year Islay Scotch Whisky, Great King St. Blended Scotch Whisky, Pedro Ximénez Sherry, Crème de Cacao, and Hellfire Bitters. The cookie is a Dark Chocolate Chip cookie baked with Lagavulin 16, PX Sherry, Smoked Paprika, and Cayenne Pepper.
By the 4th party with my coworkers I had the new cookie recipe perfected. One of the hostesses, Shelby, came up to me and exclaimed “You should sell these, they really are amazing”. Humbly shy, I said there was no way I could find a market for something like this. She grabbed my hand and said, “No, really. Start a company and sell these.”
A month later I was talking with Zacapa Rum about sponsoring their upcoming National Rum Day event.
How Do You Develop Your Unique Flavors and Baked Goods?
Over time, I was able to take any classic or modern cocktail and turn it into a baked good. (No, Vodka Sodas and the like do not count.)
Take, for instance, a Negroni cocktail. Not only is it the hospitality industry’s most frequented drink of choice, it’s also a completely balanced cocktail as all ingredients measure equally to 1 ounce. That’s the main aspect I consider when assessing a cocktail that I’m going to turn into a baked good; balance.
- Is the cocktail balanced?
- What are the tasting notes I find?
- How is the flavor from start to finish? Does the flavor linger?
- How will those flavors translate through the composition of flour and sugar?
- Does the classic garnish in the cocktail also work as the garnish for the cupcake/cookie/truffle?
Once I answer all of these questions, I begin the experimental baking process.
I’ve come up with “base” recipes that I use for every new cupcake/cake, cookie, and chocolate truffle, that way the dry-to-liquid margins will always remain the same. Balanced.
Still imagining the Negroni cocktail as our example, I want to turn it into a Cocktail Cupcake. I start with my vanilla cupcake base recipe, and with the amount of liquid allotted for the recipe, I par it out evenly between Gin, Campari, and Sweet Vermouth.
The cupcakes bake, and I start the buttercream frosting. I also use my base buttercream recipe; however, I can’t use the equal amount of liquid ingredients. Fortified and nonfortified wines do not easily blend with butter and cream.
So, for every 3 tablespoons of Gin and Campari, there is only 1 tablespoon of Sweet Vermouth, otherwise the frosting will become coagulated. There’s a lot of liquid going into the frosting so I learned to slowly blend each tablespoon thoroughly before moving forward to the final 10 tablespoons of booze.
Once blended, I pipe the buttercream frosting onto each miniature cupcake. The garnish? Tiny orange twists would work, but don’t entirely exemplify the flavor balance of the cocktail, so instead, I created Campari Spirit Dust. Imagine bitter and boozy pixie dust candy. Now, the cupcake is balanced and a true dessert emulation of its cocktail elder.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Optimal customization is very important to me and my branding. I wanted a website that I could create from complete scratch and I was able to find that with the help of Wix as the platform.
I also wanted to create the business card and all other paper marketing items from scratch. With the help of Adobe InDesign and Vistaprint, I was able to create everything I needed. I have collegiate editorial graphic design skills, so I lucked out in this department. I highly recommend taking an introductory class in graphic design, especially if it delves into HTML in addition to the aesthetics of design.
I’m able to finance my business from working two other jobs. I work at a renowned cocktail bar in the West Village called Little Branch, and I’m also the spirits consultant and manager of a boutique wine & spirits store in the Meatpacking District.
I work over 50 hours a week, but my schedule stays flexible. I make less money than I could working a traditional 9-5 job, but I wouldn’t have the flexible schedule, or even the sanity and happiness, that I have now, so I’ve accepted the hit while I continue to build my company.
Loans? Not yet, and hopefully never.
Credit Cards? 2 that are nearly maxed out. However, they have a mix of business and personal charges on them. The personal charges on them are primarily medical bills, and since I’m a company of 1, it’s essentially a way of paying my 1 employee the cost of health insurance. (If you think about it in that slightly backwards way.)
Crowdfunding? I attempted an IndieGoGo. The initial donations I received were from close friends. There was something about it that didn’t feel right because the goal is to open a bar, so I stopped the campaign.
Related Reading: How a Culinary Grad Built a $26K/Month Pastry Shop
What has worked well for me are all of the sponsorship opportunities for brands in New York City. There are several annual events that I take part in as a form of donation to a reputable organization or cause, while at the same time spreading the word of my company, meeting the people behind various liquor brands, and talking with people from within the cocktail industry as well as other industries.
For example, Speed Rack is an all-female bartending competition that takes place in various cities around the country, and even the world. The regionals always kickoff in NYC and I am a proud Local Sponsor, three years running. I join the floor with various liquor brands pouring delicious cocktails and explaining their brands as I sling delicious boozy cupcakes, all for breast cancer charities.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Marketing for a new, small business is incredibly difficult. It’s not always the nice photos, or even the concept that gets your page moving. It takes time, consistency, and unflawed content. There have been times that I’ve accepted the help from a social media marketing firm, but saw absolutely no change in my following or engagement, and ended up feeling taken advantage of with $700 of extra debt.
I’m still working on the Marketing and PR side of the business. Taking photos of the desserts and posting about them comes easily to me, but learning the algorithms of the various social media platforms and then trying to manipulate those algorithms feels overwhelmingly false.
So, I’ve just continued to simply post when it makes sense to post, follow who I like to follow, and like the photos I genuinely like. My base following is small, but I’m proud that I can name each one of them and also reach out to thank them, whether the gesture is in cupcake form or in text.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The future looks like cocktails aside cocktail-inspired desserts; French Press coffee; teacups with ornate spoons; Cocktail Truffles paired with Single Malt Scotch Whisky; proper wine and beer that’s artisanal yet affordable; vintage-inspired aprons, bar-themed comic books, but most of all, comradery and a sense of home.
The next step for The Cocktail Parlor is to open a bakery, coffee, and cocktail bar that will supply various niche retail items, boozy baked goods, specialty coffee until the late evening, and high-end cocktails paired with the adjoining baked good to present a harmonious synergy.
In the bar, it’s all about the pairing of the two while enjoying a beautifully intricate experience within a cocktail-centric atmosphere. It is essentially where dessert enthusiasts and cocktail enthusiasts converge.
When the time comes and I find the right investors and/or partners, The Cocktail Parlor’s ultimate goal of a bakery and bar will be bringing in at least $1.6 million in annual sales. The bakery bar will be located in Manhattan, most likely the Lower East Side.
Cocktails will be $15. Cupcakes will be $3. Pairings will be $18.
Coffee will range from $2-$6. Baked goods (sweet & savory) will range from $1-$8. Retail items will range from $5-$50.
With an opening budget of $500,000, the number reflects the cost of rent for the first 6 months, construction, permit fees, taxes, décor and utilities, bar functionality, liquor costs, food costs, employee payroll, and working capital.
With our opening budget, we’ll be able to open up the bakery bar of dreams.
Through starting the baking business, what have you learned?
New York City is huge in all of its 12 miles of Manhattan labyrinth wonderland. At times I feel like I’m being sucked down into the depths of hell through the path of a sewer. Other times I feel like there are plush clouds aligning themselves under my footsteps guiding me to a heavenly light. In my first 5 years living here I learned the way of the land.
Once navigation was understood, I spent the next 5 years growing my company and navigating the streets to optimize my sales. What I mean by this is that I learned to place my company in the right events and markets after doing the necessary research and after participating in a few failed marketing events.
I learned, on two separate occasions, that having my desserts on the menu at a bar or restaurant was actually not the best idea. It seems like a perfect fit!
“A cocktail bar wants to sell my boozy cookies to their guests? The opportunity sounds amazing!”
And at first, it did seem amazing. But after the first big article came out, there were too many issues. The cookie plate was one of the few aspects of the bar mentioned in the roundup article and that in fact really upset the bar manager.
There also wasn’t any clarity that The Cocktail Parlor is a specific company/bakery supplying the cookies, despite its ambiguous name, the lack of clarity made the article nearly useless.
After payments were late, and even nonexistent, I stopped delivering the Cocktail Cookies. I later found out that they were already taken off of the dessert menu, however I was never told and cookies were still being accepted.
Related Reading: How I Started a $75K/Month Vegan Cookies Business with My Mom
I was shocked and felt a sense of honor that the Cocktail Cookies were wanted on the menu, but I knew in my heart of hearts, and later my gut, that it wasn’t the best idea to converge brands in this way. I had a feeling that my brand would get lost in the branding of the bar they were hosted at. And that is exactly what happened.
The moral of the story? Always listen to your heart as well as your gut and follow the logical path that your brain shows you.
What are the tools you couldn’t live without in your business?
Have you tried making a meringue without an electric mixer? I have. I gained what felt like 2 pounds of muscle in my right forearm from hand-beating the frosting for over 30 minutes and was useless the rest of the day. I have a handheld electric mixer and my beautiful ice blue
KitchenAid stand mixer, both of which I couldn’t live without.
Seen here: KitchenAid Stand Mixer
With its help I’m able to make meringue frosting with ease, various bread doughs, multiple cake batters, cookie dough, and so many textural experiments.
Being a very small company means that buying wholesale products is almost near impossible. Packaging is expensive, and most wholesale packaging companies require you to buy a minimum order of 1,000-10,000 units.
Where would I store all of them without a proper brick and mortar?
How could I afford 14 different packaging variations with a $1,000+ price tag for each?
Luckily, I’ve found a few websites for all of my packaging needs that offer minimum orders of 100 units at a time, which is much more my company’s speed.
- BRPboxshop has aided in all of my cupcake, cake, cookie, truffle, and popcorn cardboard packaging needs.
- For glass bottle packaging, Specialty Bottle comes to the rescue.
- For all non-edible items such as candle boxes and apron boxes, Uline actually fits the bill.
- For everything else, I go straight to Webstaurant.
Being a small business can be tough at times, but the support of other companies who understand wholesale prices for small orders have saved me completely.
What have been the most influential books in your life?
This is a bit unexpected I think, but I actually don’t find much inspiration from cookbooks or baking books. I find inspiration in creative nonfiction or fantasy fiction.
My favorite author is Clarice Lispector. I have every book of hers on my bookshelf; pages tattered from constant reading, with various lines highlighted and underlined to remember and come back to. One of the lines that has always stayed with me is:
“We ourselves are on the journey. In the matter of living, one can never arrive beforehand. The via crucis is not a detour, it is the only way, one cannot arrive except along it and with it. Persistence is our effort, giving up is the reward.
One only reaches it having experienced the power of building, and, despite the taste of power, preferring to give up. Giving up must be a choice. Giving up is the most sacred choice of a life. Giving up is the true human instant. And this alone, is the very glory of my condition.
Giving up is a revelation. – The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector
This paragraph strikes me so strongly because it’s one of the most difficult feelings that we deal with as humans; the idea of giving up. We naturally fight for the things we love and the things we believe in. But there’s a very important difference between fighting when the fight is the right move to make and learning to let go. Learning to let go is the beginning alleviation of giving up, and it is more than acceptable to give up on the things that aren’t working, to give up on the jobs that have plateaued, and to give up on the people who haven’t earned your love.
In a business, I believe this is one of the most important things you can learn. Life is shorter than we really conceptualize, so learning when to give up on the things that are no longer working can help make time for the things that bring you joy and create that powerful feeling of building.
Advice for other food entrepreneurs who want to get started?
First thing’s first: Create a business plan. It’ll show you and others the trajectory of your business. Business plans change over time, so don’t worry if you find yourself occasionally editing—that can be a great thing!
Don’t purchase anything before you have an actual itemized budget and have done the research for the things you may need to start or to run your business.
Move slowly so that you can make decisions wisely.
Don’t get wrapped up in compliments; Balance your ego.
If someone offers a favor, whether it be money or an event space or whatever it may be, respond gratefully but take the offer with a grain of salt. Most of these offers seem genuine, but have very little follow-through.
Kindness in every aspect of your life is the most important quality you can contain and maintain over time.