Q&A: Christina Moffatt on turning her side hustle into a full-time business

Creme Christina Moffatt is the owner of Creme, a bakery/desert bar near downtown Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Creme

Baking desserts made her colleagues happy so Christina Moffatt kept doing it.

It wasn’t long until her colleagues would start paying Moffatt for her desserts. Enough work was coming in that she would file for a LLC and start Creme in July of 2010. Less than six months later, Moffatt realized Creme had become more than a “side hustle” and left corporate America to be her own boss, full-time.

Creme started as a one-woman operation and has grown to 14 full-time employees with a menu that includes custom cakes, cookies, coffee, tea and other treats for catered events. The evening dessert lounge offers specialty desserts and cocktails after 5 p.m.

We talked with Moffatt about leaving corporate America to start her own business, getting a business loan and growing that business. We asked her five questions to provide some insight into the starting, nurturing and growing a company.

Our Q&A is below:

Talk about starting the business and moving into a commercial kitchen

CM: We moved to the new location in January of 2011.

What surprised me most is when I went full-time by myself, my first day I was excited but I actually ended up being terrified. Because I walked into the kitchen and the realization hit me that it was just me, there was no HR department, nobody hooked up my computer system.

That was a surprise to me because I’m pretty much a march forward and we will figure it out type of person, then I was there and like what did I just do? And that first day I didn’t really have any orders because most of my stuff hit on the weekends and it was a weekday.

So I had to figure out very quickly what I was going to do, how to structure my days because I didn’t have a boss anymore.

So I taught myself quickly and with the help of mentors, how to structure my day. So I had this much time to bake and prep, this much time to check email. Because being in a kitchen I had to get used to not being accessible to email and just know it was ok to let it go. Especially not having a device around. Then making sure I was out networking and connecting with people. Making a plan to actually pursue that.

Describe the first 18 months…

CM: Facebook was the first thing we did but I pursued corporate work and not the typical wedding industry because for me that’s what I knew. I lived in corporate, I went out to my corporate contacts that ordered food, I knew held events or did gifts/retirement parties. I said here is what I’m doing, here’s what I’d like to do.

And then I have some really good mentors in the industry, so the owner of Court Avenue Brewery/Americana/Gilroy’s and then the owner of Zombie Burger/Centro. I reached out to those guys, they had no idea who I was and I said I’m going into this field and I need help.

And they are still mentors of mine today.

When did you know to make the decision that it was time to grow?

CM: Once we did the event for 1,000 people (November of 2010) and they ate our product, we exploded. People assume if you can produce 1,000 cupcakes, you are bigger than you are. But it was still just me and I had some family and friends help pull that event off.

So at that point, I had to hire somebody, so I hired my mom. She left her career of 23 years to join me. Once I hired her we were able to grow so much faster because she could be in the kitchen producing while I was out delivering and continuing to go after events.

Then we added another part-time person and quickly added another, so we had four people in this tiny little kitchen. The building owner came to us and said we’ve outgrown this space and gave us 30 days to find a new space. So we moved from our first small kitchen in the Buzzard Billy’s building, to a small kitchen by Graziano’s behind the baseball field (Principal Park).

A mentor of mine had said we could get the kitchen up and running in two weeks, and he did. Thank god. So we moved there in 2011 around September. Then it was a shift because we were able to take on full-time employees. It was the first time you could walk into our store and buy the product.

We were able to start testing cakes, bars, breakfast food, just to see what worked. Then we grew even quicker and started taking on wholesale accounts at that point.

We were only there for a couple weeks when we got a call that a bakery here had closed and if we would consider coming to Ingersoll. I looked at it, it was awful and ugly in here. This was an old bread store and when I walked in, I had always had this vision of doing a dessert lounge. I walked in and thought we could do that here.

That would have been October in 2011.

The biggest surprise for us was I ran my numbers, knew we could be profitable, but every bank turned us down. Seven banks turned us down because nobody understood putting a bar and a bakery together. I literally had people tell me it was a dumb idea.

It took us until April of 2012 to secure a loan. A bank in Slater Iowa did the loan.

We were working out of that old kitchen and I had figured, that if we don’t get the loan then we just don’t do the dessert concept and maybe Des Moines wasn’t ready for it. We just cranked away and the landlord said he would wait for us, so he sat on it for six months and just waited.

We were very lucky.

What growing pains did you experience?

CM: We opened our current location on August 3, 2012.

The biggest pain for us was going from a tiny team to a team of 14 basically in a month because we had to have servers on the floor. I didn’t know bar at all so I went and recruited somebody who did, but that was a large learning pain. I didn’t know how to order, I didn’t know how to track the employees on it, I didn’t know how to hire servers.

And just getting a team that had never worked together to gel right away, that was painful. Then we got open and it was exciting, but god awful at the same time.

Trying to explain to people what we were doing, Des Moines didn’t really get it for a while.

We talked about it so much, kept telling people bakery by day and dessert lounge at night. Children are still welcome. Our menu when we first started, we tried to rotate our menu at night every couple months. Totally failed, Des Moines likes what they like. So we went to the concept of rotating one dessert each month and keep the ten that everybody looks for.

Each year we review them so if something needs to be rotated out we can.

We try to use as many local ingredients as we can and the other thing is Des Moines does pull for the hometown hero. So a lot of our competitors have multiple locations around the state or are franchised.

But the biggest thing is that desert lounge, nobody else does what we do.

Was the hiring process, was that something you had experience with?

CM: When you are thinking about hiring employees, your employees are your business. This was brand new to me, I turned to my mentors for advice because they had long-term employees.

I profit share with my employees because I know that if I don’t have them, then I don’t have a business. So my books are open if they want to see what’s happening and then quarterly profit sharing.

I hired a little bit different because I feel like we can teach the technical skills, but we can’t teach someone to be a nice person. Either you have customer service or you don’t. And especially with the night piece, where I had never run a bar, I went out and recruited Starbucks employees because they are highly trained in customer service. I knew going into it a lot of things would go wrong, but if they could handle the customer service piece we’d be fine.

And that has worked for us, and they were able to train employees that came.

Creme
(Right) Christina Moffatt is the owner of Creme, a desert bar near downtown Des Moines