Organizing Theory & Artistry

Lessons from the Fall Festival Bake Sale

Every once in a while we all have to learn something the hard way—by making a million mistakes and suffering a big fail—but in the process gaining invaluable insight. For me, this fall’s learning experience has been the “fall festival bake sale.” It has taught me lessons not only about bake sales but about work, committees and life in general.

If you are a woman, if you have children in school, or if you are involved with a charity that needs to raise money from time to time, you are at increased risk of being asked to participate in a bake sale. Now, if you are an excellent cook, you may rub your hands with excitement at the prospect or perhaps hang your head in grief knowing exactly how much effort this will require. If, like me, you are not much of a cook, the bake sale causes confusion along with a grand but unrealistic plan.

To make a long story short, my “simple” and “easy” project turned into a ridiculously lengthy project that turned out “cute” but not necessarily successful. It might be a keeper of an idea for my limited cooking ability but it definitely needs some refinement in the execution.

The original plan:

Last year’s festival offered lots of small, individually wrapped treats that sold for about $1 each. I remember moms last year bringing in lots of elegantly wrapped candy apples and the like. My plan was to take this “Monster Paws” idea from Family Fun but make it even easier (and healthy to boot) by using plain popcorn and raisins. No real cooking, just cute packaging. Cater to the health or weight-conscious crowd. Easy. Done.

The reality.

Discover that popcorn will be offered for free at the fall festival so I need to use something else. Discover that the ingredients for trail mix (yogurt-covered almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.) are not cheap (go heavy on the less expensive organic banana chips). Discover that washing and drying disposable plastic gloves as recommended in the project instructions, is a lot more difficult than it sounds and that the drying process could take days. Discover that people have varying opinions about whether disposable plastic gloves are safe to use with food. Discover that the gloves I had were not the clear plastic type in the picture and looked unappetizing when filled with food. Discover that trying to sew your own gloves out of two layers of plastic wrap does not work. Discover that sewing one layer of plastic wrap to a sheet of paper to create gloves works but takes time. Discover that, once sewn, stuffing food down the fingertips of the “gloves” is difficult and takes time. Discover that plastic wrap breaks more easily than you imagine. Discover that this project was neither quick nor easy.

The bright side of this whole experience, however, was that it provided a good reminder of how to handle an unfamiliar situation. With lots of baking experiences ahead for me this holiday season (Thanksgiving, Christmas cookie exchange, etc.), I hope to use these lessons to improve my cooking and reduce my stress level.

5 Tips for Organizing Yourself in an Unfamiliar Situation (and Bake Sale!)

1) Ask the organizer to clarify the end goals of the project. In my case, it turned out that the organizers were intending to offer a variety of items and prices, from individual treats to more expensive whole pies and big plates of cookies and cupcakes. There was no need to organize my project around the most time consuming option–individually wrapped treats.

2) Clarify exactly what you are expected to do (and not do). The bake sale organizers were willing to wrap up the final products for you and seemed to prefer this so that they could maximize revenue from the sale by grouping items into more expensive sets, coordinate all the packaging to present a unified bake shop and improve the appearance of the less-well-made treats. Now, it would have been enormously helpful if this information was specified on the initial request for baked goods, but I can see how it might be difficult to word some of this on the general notice that was also going to prospective bake sale buyers.

3) Estimate your time commitment to participate and budget your time appropriately. For some reason, it never occurred to me to do a simple calculation like the following:

Minutes per treat * Quantity needed = Total time commitment

For example, if you were intending to do an elaborate decorated cookie or cupcake that would take say “just 5 minutes” per item to decorate and package and you wanted to provide 2 dozen of these, you are looking at 2 hours. Add in shopping time, baking time, interruptions due to other responsibilities, etc. and this could easily escalate to 4 or 5 hours. If you are an experienced cook, you already know this. If you are still learning, it is best to double all of your time estimates to be safe.

4) Estimate your expenses and shop early. Had I started earlier on this project, I could have shopped online and bought in bulk for my pricey trail mix ingredients. I might have also been able to find food safe gloves.

5) Do a quick test run or sample–especially if you are running behind on time. Since, in my mind, I assumed this was a super-easy project, I did not test it ahead of time. Had I taken a second just to wash and dry one of the gloves right when I decided on this project, I might have changed my mind and pursued a different packaging option. As I was working, I wasted a lot of time sewing bad prototypes instead of stopping periodically to test to make sure I was still on track. Any time you see a cute, “easy” project whether on Family Fun, Martha Stewart or someone’s blog, assume that there could have been a lot of false starts and a lot of work to create the finished product.

With regard to this bake sale specifically, here are the takeaways I should remember:

1) Contribute something flexible. Make something that can be sold individually or grouped. Cookies or cupcakes are natural candidates.

2) Don’t spend time on packaging that can’t be changed easily by someone else. Time and time again when I am participating in group situations, I find that the issues people care the very most about are issues of appearance. There is always someone who wants to dictate the final appearance. If you are not the person in charge, assume your packaging will be changed in some way.

3) Whenever possible, emphasize unique, high quality goods. The organizer of this bake sale seems to be subtly pushing people to up their cooking skills. They offered prizes for the best contributions, for example (which went to a chocolate ganache cake made by someone’s grandma and cupcakes made by a mom who is also a professional baker). Despite this, there were numerous contributions that appeared to be Pillsbury slice and bake cookies or cake mix cupcakes. Realistically, moms of school-age children may not be the prime candidates to make elaborate baked goods, particularly since they are short on time and their children may not eat them anyway. Nonetheless, there might be easy alternatives for the non-cooks among us. I could up the wow factor in my trail mix, for example by adding some unusual ingredients or flavors.

What are your bake sale tips? How would you improve on my trail mix idea? Do you see any lessons from the bake sale that translate into other areas of your life? Please share in the comments.

P.S.  In the spirit of planning ahead for Thanksgiving, you may be interested in Apartment Therapy’s 20/20 home cure – 20 days, 20 minutes per day to change your home.