From Hello Kitty skeletons to delicate pastel flowers, Kim Wong, ’98, can ice it all.
Wong built Sugar Shots, a custom sugar cookie business, from scratch in 2012 and has been enjoying sweet success ever since.
She grew up baking with her mom, but it was always just a hobby.
“I didn’t think it would ever be a profession of mine because I grew up in a pretty traditional Asian family where baking (as a career) wasn’t an option,” Wong said.
After graduating from Country Day, Wong majored in physiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She then moved back to Sacramento, working as a substitute teacher for six months before earning a teaching credential and teaching fourth and fifth grade at Foulks Ranch Elementary School (6211 Laguna Park Drive). Ten years later, Wong transferred to Samuel Jackman Middle School (7925 Kentwal Drive), where she works as a part-time health teacher.
All the while, she continued to bake—with varying success.
In 2008, Wong decided to bake a Dora the Explorer cake for her oldest daughter’s second birthday, but it was harder than she’d anticipated.
“I call it my ‘Dora Disaster,’” Wong said. “I ended up quitting in the middle (and) threw it out. I ended up making chocolate chip cookies for her party.”
But Wong didn’t let one mishap discourage her. She and a friend often baked and took cake decorating classes together; soon, Wong started making cakes for friends and family. Through watching videos and practicing, Wong learned the art of icing cookies.
Her baking friend, who did marketing for Chipotle before Wong opened Sugar Shots, encouraged Wong to start a business and offered to help promote it.
“I decided to make this a real thing because my friends and family were asking, ‘Do you sell these? Would you do it for us?’” Wong said.
Wong first obtained a Class A Cottage Food Permit, which “allows individuals to prepare and/or package certain non-potentially hazardous foods in private-home kitchens,” according to the California Department of Public Health. Permit holders must complete a food processor training course, perform sanitary operations and operate “within established gross annual sales limits.”
A Class A Permit allows direct sales to customers, while a Class B Permit, which is more costly and requires a yearly kitchen inspection, additionally authorizes sales to retail food facilities, such as bakeries.
About A Bite Bakery, which closed in 2017, wanted to resell Wong’s products, so she acquired a Class B Permit in 2016. However, after a year, Wong decided she had too much on her plate and returned to a Class A Permit.
“I (had) more demand than I (could) do myself because I’m a one-person operation from start to finish,” Wong said.
She shifted from selling specialty cakes, cupcakes and sugar cookies to selling only cookies in 2018 because with less room for mistakes, producing cakes was more stressful.
“You have one shot at it,” Wong said. “(Whereas) if someone orders two dozen cookies, I always bake three to four extra. If I mess up on one — not a big deal. I have a few extra to work with.”
Wedding cakes were even more nerve-wracking to make, she added.
“You’re dealing with the bride, (who) wants their perfect day,” Wong said. “And more (difficult) than the brides were the mothers of the brides.”
In 2017, because of her love of teaching, Wong began offering cookie decorating classes, which she said is her favorite activity. Classes cost $70 per person, and Wong offers them eight to 10 times a year. With only eight people, classes are personal and hands-on.
And it’s caught on with other bakers, too.
One of the owners from Freeport Bakery (2966 Freeport Blvd.) sent a cookie decorator to Wong’s class in December 2018. Wong, who grew up inspired by Freeport Bakery, said she nervously anticipated the visit.
“But once she was here, it was cool,” Wong said. “I asked her about what she does at the bakery, and she learned from me.
“I didn’t go to pastry school; I don’t have any formal training — it’s weird that people look to me for instruction. I’m all self-taught. So really, what do I know?”
Nevertheless, Sugar Shots has grown into a successful business, with Wong regularly baking 100 to 200 cookies per week. Demand dips during the summer and skyrockets during the two-week holiday season, when Wong bakes around 1,000 cookies total.
To communicate their frosted fantasies, customers contact Wong via email.
“(With) the internet, it makes it so easy for someone to say, ‘Well, I saw this online, but I also want to incorporate my colors or (the theme) of my invitation,” Wong said. “Or some customers will say, ‘I need birthday cookies. My son likes superheroes. Have fun.’
“Those are some of my favorite customers because they allow me a lot more freedom.”
After receiving an outline from the customer, Wong quotes a price based on the complexity of the design and the time the order will take.
When the order is confirmed, she takes a nonrefundable deposit of 50 percent of the cost, a practice put into place due to past experiences.
“Before, I would just trust that if they place an order, they’re going to come pick it up when they say they will and pay me when they say they will,” Wong said. “That works when you’re doing it for friends and family because they won’t cheat you out of your time and money.”
Thus, because Wong deals with strangers, they occasionally didn’t give her the same commitment.
But ever since Wong implemented the nonrefundable deposit, no one has canceled last-minute.
And just as her policies have changed over time, so have her cookies.
Over the years, Wong has constantly tweaked an online cookie recipe recommended by friends. Since most sugar cookie recipes contain the same basic ingredients — butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla extract, salt and a leavener such as baking powder — the ratio of the elements is what changes the flavor. While Wong enjoys softer cookies, they also need to be firm enough for rolling out and frosting.
She partly attributes the deliciousness of the cookies to the high-quality ingredients she uses, including a European-style butter (which has higher fat content) from Petaluma Creamery.
After making the dough using her industrial-looking, 20-quart stand mixer — able to make about 10 dozen cookies at once — she utilizes one or more of her approximately 1,000 cookie cutters on the rolled-out dough.
Some of these cutters lend themselves to multiple designs. A candy corn cookie cutter can also shape a construction cone and a pumpkin pie; an ice cream cone cutter can form a turkey head. Each cookie takes three to 10 minutes to ice, and a dozen regular-sized cookies usually cost $48 to $60.
Sugar Shots delivers to the Sacramento area; customers can pick up from Wong’s house in Pocket-Greenhaven, or her husband’s workplace near Country Day or in Elk Grove, where her daughters take gymnastics lessons. If there’s a large order, Wong delivers directly to the customer at no charge.
Country Day has ordered custom cookies from Sugar Shots a few times, starting in 2015 for its 50th anniversary, according to alumni coordinator Amy Wells, ’98.
“Kim is super easy to work with and has always been very generous to the school in donating to the auction,” Wells said. “Her cookies aren’t always cheap because they take a lot of time. Her stuff is really neat-looking, and it also tastes better than a lot of those frosted cookies (at other bakeries). She does some more unusual-looking cookie shapes that maybe you won’t find anywhere else.”
Since 2015, Wong has donated cookies to Country Day’s annual auction, and last year she donated a cookie decorating class.
“That’s one thing I love about (Country Day): because it is so small, there’s such a sense of community,” Wong said. “Even though it’s been so many years — it’s been 20 years since I graduated, which it doesn’t feel like — I love being a part of it.”
Pictures of her most recent Country Day cookies — red, banner-shaped cookies with “SCDS” written on them for the All-School Admissions Open House — can be found on Wong’s Instagram account, @sugarshots, which contains over 500 pictures and videos of her cookies and boasts 10,400 followers. In the beginning, Wong’s husband took photos of the treats with his Nikon camera, but now Wong uses her iPhone since he is usually at work.
“I didn’t grow up with social media, so I’m not the best with it,” Wong said. “But I know that (social media) is necessary to grow your business, especially now.”
In fact, Wong got a taste of fame from one of her Christmas cookie decorating videos in early December 2017.
“I was doing this Christmas tree cookie, and I really liked the way that the icing laid down on the cookie,” Wong said. “I’m decorating with my right hand and taking the video with my left, and then I post it to social media.
“The video pretty much went viral.”
Food Network contacted Wong and asked if it could repost her video.
“It totally made my day. I was like, ‘Yes, yes! You totally can repost it!’
“I kept looking every day. Christmas morning, I wake up to a gazillion notifications on my phone — all these texts from my friends that are like, ‘Your video got reposted by Food Network on their Instagram page!’”
Currently, the video has 87,500 views on @sugarshots, and in 2017 it garnered over 1.2 million views on @foodnetwork; Food Network even reposted it last Christmas, according to Wong, and the post again exceeded 1 million views.
However, social media can also be a challenge for perfectionists like Wong.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to make each cookie look exactly the same and perfect,” Wong said.
While it’s hard for Wong to see so many “perfect” desserts online, she said she has accepted that her cookies may not reach the Instagram ideal.
“Everyone has their own artistic style,” Wong said. “That takes time to develop. My first cookies were ugly. That was in 2009. It takes practice, and it’s OK if something is a little amiss. In fact, my kids love when it’s a little bit quirky.”
Wong added that it’s difficult not to take negative feedback personally.
“One lady was disappointed in her cookies, but instead of reaching out with a productive email, she was just like, ‘They were awful — they weren’t what I asked for,’” Wong said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ll give you a refund on those ones you didn’t like and a discount on a future order.’
“She didn’t respond at all. Really, she just wanted to complain.
“I do tend to take things personally because it is something so personal to me. I pour my heart and soul into the cookies, and I want the customer to be happy.”
Even though the job is stressful at times, Wong said baking is an escape from her duties as a teacher and mother.
“In the mornings, I teach middle schoolers, and they’re kind of like toddlers in that they need your undivided attention,” Wong said. “They ask you six million questions.
“What I love about baking is that I’ll turn on the music (with) just me in here,” she said. “No one’s asking me any questions. It’s a way for me to be creative and have some quiet personal time.”
Although she spends her personal time baking, Wong rarely indulges in the treats herself.
“Most of the stuff I make, I don’t even eat,” she said. “(But) the look on someone’s face when they get their order and they’re so happy with it — that’s really rewarding.
“Who isn’t happy with something sweet? It just brings everyone so much joy, which is fun.”
—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn
Originally published in the Feb. 12 edition of the Octagon.