I love to bake and so rarely find myself purchasing packaged cookies at the market. I do make exceptions, however, especially if I am stretched and need a sweet fix. Another exception is justified when I am in a store, and there are a lot of them these days, that carry two of my favorite treats from local wholesale bakery, Bisousweet Confections.
If you haven’t had a cinnamon doughnut muffin or an almond anise biscotti, beautifully hand-crafted by the Bisousweet team at their 5,000 sf bakery in Shirley, Massachusetts, you are missing out. They are absolutely scrumptious. Owned by Karen Collins, Bisousweet Confections offers an extensive line of specialty and homestyle cookies, brownies, rugelach, biscotti and doughnut muffins that are available at grocery stores, gourmet markets and cafes throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Big names such as Whole Foods, Roche Brothers and Market Basket are carrying Bisousweet products with plans in the works for distribution beyond the New England borders…
Complete digression, but while writing this post I am still thinking about a horrible dream that I had minutes before I got out of bed. Stay with me – it was about my Mom who many of you know passed away almost five years ago. It was one of those dreams you wake yourself up from to prevent it from continuing. Have you had one of those? Anyway, I got out of bed feeling so angry and dismayed. Writing now about cinnamon doughnut muffins and almond biscotti though, I feel as though someone has put a bandaid on my invisible wound.
Why? If you asked me what was my mother’s favorite sweet treat, I would answer without hesitation a cinnamon doughnut. She was a busy woman and if she was out and about and wanted a pick me up, she would have a cup of black coffee and a cinnamon doughnut from Dunkin. When I was young, my mother loved a breakfast cookie that was very similar to a biscotti made by Stella d’Oro. Anyone remember those? She used to dunk them in her coffee and they had a uniquely delicious flavor. I’ve been holding back on publishing this interview for a bit because I didn’t want it to be missed during March vacation time and maybe that was meant to be. Writing today has helped me to shift my mind away from that negative dream toward the much happier memory of my mother enjoying her sweets.
There is a point to that story about mind-shifting that you will hopefully glean from my conversation with Karen. It was the answer she gave to one of my questions that made her completely relatable. The other tie-in is that like her confections that can provide consumers with a giant proverbial hug, Karen also exudes a warmth that I found extremely engaging and that I hope comes across in the interview. I think it’s one of the keys to her success. She is also a wonderful combination of vulnerable and gutsy, honest, hard-working, intentional and nurturing. In addition to growing a business, she is a wife and mother to three children and three dogs. She has a passion for biking and a great sense of humor.
I was introduced to Karen by our mutual friend, Jane and although it was tough to nail down a date, we finally made it happen on a very snowy day at the bakery. Since it was a snow day, the bakery was not operating at full-tilt as Karen, who is the mama bear of her business, told her staff who couldn’t get there to stay home. But, we got a few shots of the goodies that were going into Valentine’s Day packages for delivery to stores.
By the way, in addition to running her business, Karen also writes a blog aptly named, As The Bread Burns. In that space, she writes about all kinds of life stories. She is a fantastic writer and you should check that out when you have some time.
I was thrilled to have a chance to meet and interview Karen Collins. It hasn’t been a straight or particularly smooth road for her as you will read. I am inspired by her story and I hope you are as well…
TKS: Thank you for having me to your bakery, Karen. Can you tell us about your background and how you arrived where you are today?
KC: Baking is something I have always loved to do. From a young age, I knew I wanted to go to culinary school and make my love of baking into a career. And yet when it came time to apply to college, it was made clear to me that wasn’t going to be my path. That was fine at the time as I understood my parents’ perspective and ultimately pursued a liberal arts career, starting at Northwestern and finishing my degree at the University of Vermont.
My first job after graduation was selling bread at a tiny bakery called Klinger’s Bread Company in South Burlington (Vermont). Part of my job was filling the cases with croissants and other items produced by the one-woman pastry department in the back of the bakery. I found that I couldn’t stay out of that room or her way. She had a young child at home, didn’t talk much and appeared worn thin. And there was me, young and eager, filled with recipes that I was so sure she would want to try (she didn’t). I wanted into that room.
So, I would clock out from my day and offer to help her out. I cleaned her piled high sheet pans or any job that needed to be done. We struck up a dialogue and I asked her a ton of questions about her specific job so I could gain an understanding of what she did. She eventually asked me why I was so curious and I told her I wanted to do what she did. She suggested I do just that.
For two weeks, I went into the bakery at 2 am and worked alongside her before my shift. And then one day, she just didn’t show up. I sat in my car in the wee hours debating what to do, and decided that I would get started and see what I could accomplish before we opened at 6:30 am.
The owners were absentee, living in New York, and were excited that I had taken hold. The next phone call was to my parents when I announced with great joy that I was now a pastry chef. Dead silence ensued.
For awhile, my job continued to be a one person show. I learned by reading, trial and error, mistakes and a lot of burns on my arms. I knew very clearly that I didn’t have the knowledge that I needed, but eventually the bakery grew and I was able to hire people who were trained pastry chefs. They were able to teach me everything from how to make a simple syrup to a buttercream. I found the industry to be very supportive in that way.
I met my first husband at that bakery. He was a bread baker and wanted to open his own place. In 1998, we moved to Massachusetts and opened Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord with partner, John Gates. I ran the pastry department for about six years, a job that brought me great joy. My husband and I eventually divorced and I gave up my share of the bakery. After the divorce, I was suddenly home with my three children wondering what they ate! I had been so focused on the bakery that I was honestly out of touch with my real life.
I was busy parenting my children, but I was lost. I was mourning Nashoba and what had been my career to date. I didn’t think I had any skills that were transferable. I attempted a one-day training for an insurance sales job that was a bust as I knew it wasn’t for me.
Throughout this time, old customers from Nashoba were calling and asking if I could make cakes for their celebrations. So I did that, for free, out of my home kitchen because it made me so happy. At some point, I thought to myself that maybe I could be a pastry chef again, but it was a major mind shift because I didn’t have anything to do with the business end of Nashoba. I stayed in my lane in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure I could create a business by myself and yet my search for traditional pastry chef positions elsewhere never felt like a good fit.
In 2005, I started Babycakes & Confections. I made custom cakes, cookies, even tuna fish sandwiches out of my home kitchen. I had a website but wasn’t actively trying to sell myself. In 2009, I got a call from a member of my temple who works with the buyer at Idlywilde Farm in Acton, Massachusetts. She wanted to know if I could make desserts for the upcoming Passover holiday. I told her what I was planning to make for my family and that appealed to her. Then the sprint was on because I needed to find labels and packaging in time to fill the order.
The desserts sold well and they asked if I made cookies! So cookies became my focus. It was steady, repeatable and teachable, all of the things that the custom cake business wasn’t. All of a sudden, I was in the wholesale cookie business and immediately found a professional kitchen to work out of in Stow, Massachusetts. We were there for 3 ½ years before moving to our current facility.
As we started expanding, we got too close to another Baby Cakes Bakery that was in Quincy. I received a Cease and Desist Letter from them that was so traumatic. I was in business for a year before them, and had proof to show that, but neither of us had a trademark. It was a huge mental and financial ordeal for me. It was resolved, but at the end of the day I knew the best thing for me to do would be to rebrand with a new name.
It took me a year and a half to come up with Bisousweet so we were in a holding pattern for quite some time.
TKS: What is your typical day?
KC: Depending on what is going on, I either come in early at 4 am or “late” at 7 am. I spend the majority of my day on the computer to be honest. Entering orders and troubleshooting take up a lot of my time. I also spend a lot of time on human resource management, speaking with my kitchen manager and sales director. I leave around 6 pm, but just last night I was here until 8:30 pm. We are going through a big transition right now so there are a lot of balls in the air.
My goal is to put on my chef’s coat and apron once a week because that is my joy, but I haven’t had much luck lately. It’s only been in the past year and a half that I haven’t been actively baking.
TKS: Do you get to take any days off?
KC: The weekends. I am on a bike team and train as much as possible.
TKS: With respect to your career, would you do anything differently?
There’s a part of me that wishes I had more education in both the culinary arts and particularly in business. If I’ve learned how to bake by burning my arms, reading and trial & error, then I have learned how to be a business person the same way. But instead of burns I can put a bandaid on, I have had financial challenges that I needed to figure out how to avoid moving forward.
I think it would have been helpful to have had that formal training to make the road smoother. However, going down that bumpy road has made me more resilient and has helped me be a better, more creative problem solver.
TKS: What confection was the first Bisousweet?
The Linzer Heart.
TKS: Do you have a favorite?
KC: There’s something about a chocolate chip cookie that will always have a place in my heart. When I am at home, I always want to bake chocolate chip cookies. Having said that, our Ginger Molasses cookies are delicious too.
TKS: How far out are you planning?
KC: It’s a good question. Let me start by saying that this is a hard business to be in for sure. And it has been difficult doing it largely on my own. There is both joy, but also weight in this field. I am responsible for the quality of life and livelihoods of 14-16 people, making sure our food is safe and the business stays afloat. Sometimes, I wonder if I am the best person to be doing this at all! But I am determined to make the business successful and am currently feeling very optimistic, much lighter and dialed in.
TKS: What shifted?
KC: I am working with a business coach who does energy healing and I think I’ve had a complete mind shift. I had been so focused on what the business wasn’t, that I couldn’t see what it actually had become.
It was a total disconnect. It didn’t matter how successful it looked on the outside, on the inside I only felt like a failure. I needed help gaining a new perspective on what we were accomplishing and my role in helping make it happen.
I joined this business group and it’s all about shifting your mind. I have been working so hard but it has paid off because I am now seeing myself differently. I am able to tell myself that I am competent to do the tasks of a CEO. The work has made me more confident that I can run this business and I am turning that around by helping others in food businesses that are further behind me as well.
TKS: Who are your mentors?
KC: My father is my business mentor. He is one of the most patient people I know. He is very restrained so when something goes well and I get an exclamation point from him, I am like a Labrador that has dived into a bag of cookies!
My middle brother is also one of my mentors. He owns a business in California and checks in on me every other day to give me the gem of the day.
I recently met an individual who is in the food industry and has taken me under his wing. He has been incredibly generous with his time and knowledge.
I should also mention Mary Ann McCormick, the founder of Lark Fine Foods as one of my mentors. At some point, I needed help and got desperate. I emailed info@ to so many cookie companies and she answered. She was hugely supportive of me.
TKS: What impact does social media have on your business?
KC: I love social media because of the community it can build. I am an extroverted introvert. While I am often alone out here in Shirley, I don’t feel alone because of social media. It’s something that you have to figure out how to be friends with, however.
It’s easy to look left and right and think to yourself that you are not keeping up. But with my work around mind shifting, I have made peace with that and consciously put stuff out there that feels authentic to who I am. The conversations that happen because of that really light up my life. So, I love social media for the community experience and resist doing the hard sells. By not doing hard sells, it makes me really think and come up with more clever ways to get our message across.
TKS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
KC: The best advice I’ve been given wasn’t spoken to me. I think it was learning from how my father handles things. Strive to be as good of a listener as possible, to be patient and to not always control every single thing. I’ve also learned not to immediately react, but rather to hear someone out and think about what they are saying without formulating my response while they are talking. I think this helps me form the connections that have allowed me to build this business and maintain a loyal group of employees. Hand in hand with that is treating others respectfully. It’s not one way. I will always meet someone more than half way.
TKS: What advice do you offer to your staff?
KC: I have a lot of young people working for me so I literally advise them on everything from dating and when to see their physicians to budgeting their money and issues with their parents! I also advise them on the importance of education and encourage them to go back to school when appropriate as some are here during semester breaks from college. I may have missed my calling as a therapist! We are like a big family here, celebrating birthdays and eating meals together.
TKS: Would you mentor others interested in opening a bakery or baking company?
KC: I am happy to share my story with anyone so they can do things differently!
I love this industry and it brings so much joy and comfort to both those producing and consuming the food. What we do adds to the culture and traditions that families celebrate.
TKS: Is there a philosophy by which you live?
KC: I want to be constantly moving forward.
TKS: What do you do to unwind?
EK: I ride my Peleton bike. I also get great joy from spending time with our 3 dogs that I adore. I am passionate about running and biking and of course, I love to cook. On snow days when we aren’t working, I love to bake at home.
TKS: Do you have a favorite cooking tool?
KC: My scale and disposable gloves.
TKS: Your favorite indulgence?
KC: Ice Cream
TKS: Favorite restaurant or cuisine?
TKS: What about yourself would surprise a teenaged Karen?
KC: That I like myself. That I am actually doing what I want to do which I didn’t think was going to be possible.
TKS: Please finish this sentence. Karen Collin is…
KC: Karen Collins is a work in process.
TKS: Is there anything you’d like to add?
KC: I think it’s really important for people to find a career that doesn’t feel like work. There have been times when this business has been very stressful. But at the end of the day, I truly love what we are creating and the ability to share it with people. It fills me with such joy. When I think about my kids, that’s what I pray for their lives as well. I want them to find that. I think it’s so important. You can only sustain something that isn’t a good fit for so long before it crumbles.
Above are the biscotti ends which are not packaged for sale. I was the very happy recipient of a few of these to take home with me along with a box of confections that we happily enjoyed.
Thank you to Karen Collins for sharing her story with us here on The Kitchen Scout!
Until next time…
Links to past Conversations: