***The Thursday Interview is a showcase for creators, innovators, troublemakers, small business owners to share news and insight about the creative impetus and inspirations behind their latest project, launch or business.
This week, we spotlight small business owner Matt Swanston, the wonderful man who has brought the St. Louis staple Gooey Butter Cakes to the East Coast.
Name: Matt Swanston
Business Name: Gooey&Co
Motto: I believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and I am all about dreaming big and seeing things you thought could never do come to life.
How long were you living in NYC before you decided to introduce deprived New Yorkers to Gooey Butter Cakes?
The idea for Gooey&Co came just 6 months after moving to NY in 2004, when I saw something in my local bakery and thought it was Gooey Butter Cake. I quickly realized that no one in NY had ever heard of it. I joked that I should start a company that specialized in it, but wasn’t really taking myself seriously. Then, about three years ago. I decided to really go for it and started recipe testing and sourcing local ingredients because I wanted to make my Gooey Butter Cake the best it could be. We officially launched the company at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn last April and 60,000 “gooey bits” later are just now coming up on our one year anniversary! I am so thrilled that we have been so welcomed into the artisanal food community and that people love the gooey goodness as much as I do!
Describe the journey from deciding to create your own recipe to your first sale.
I knew that if I wanted to make this special cake and sell it in NY that doing it from scratch was the only way to go. (The St. Louis recipe that mom always used involves cake mix and margarine.) I also knew that it would be the best it could be if I sourced real ingredients locally and so I took to the farmers market in search of some great stuff. We use Ronnybrook Farm butter and Hawthorne Valley Farm organic buttermilk which I think gives the cakes their fluffier texture and real butter flavor. It took about a year and a half of recipe testing, and sharing with my work friends over and over, until I felt like I got the original recipe down. We all knew when I had hit it just right and it conjured up some old school memories of eating Gooey Butter Cake as a child. Once that recipe had figured itself out, the others fell into place a little bit easier and by the time I created our fourth mainstay flavor, the Gooey Banana Cake, I felt the first batch was pretty much perfect.
When I found out that Gooey&Co had been accepted into the Smorgasburg market, it became all about logistics and figuring out where and how to bake 1000s pieces of cake every weekend. After finding a commercial kitchen rental and building up a team of actor friends to help, including my fiance who has worked for free, we went into opening weekend last April with about 1,200 pieces of cake and sold out! What a rush and amazing feeling to know something I created was so well received!
How does being a performing artist connect to your life as a small business owner?
I started performing when I was about 5 or 6, so I naturally just felt comfortable in front of people and never had a problem spouting out all my creative and crazy ideas growing up. I wrote plays and created a theater in the basement and sold tickets. Going back to that life motto, that anything is possible if you put your mind to it, just fueled any and every idea that I had. I think growing up this way just taught me that if I had an idea and I wanted to see it through, that I could do it. I am a character actor and generally get cast in roles that require multiple characters. The only way to have fun with that is to just keep trying new things until you find the character that fits. You can’t get to the good stuff without trying lots of variations. Small business owners have to tackle their businesses with this kind of energy. It isn’t always going to work out the way you think and not every idea is a winner. But trying and failing is better than not trying at all. I try to always remember that because I am also an over-thinker and need to remind myself that taking action, even if it doesn’t go right, is better than thinking about it over and over again.
I noticed immediately that you choose to use ingredients from suppliers such as Hawthorne Valley Farm and Ronnybrook Farms, to name a few. Why was that important to you?
I love seasonal ingredients and highlighting what is fresh at the market. I look for quality and real flavor; no additives or unnecessary ingredients. I also love to support the local guy and take pride in supporting local farms and small businesses. Ronnybrook just can’t be compared to any other. Their “beyond organic” approach to dairy gives the butter a freshness and real flavor that you can taste. I mean, you can’t make Gooey Butter Cake without some frickin awesome butter right? Hawthorne Valley is an organic and biodynamic farm in upstate New York and make their buttermilk with whole milk. You just can’t find that anyplace else. It adds the right tang and fluffiness that the cakes needed to give them the lighter edge I was looking for! The relationships you create with your local producers add value to your final product. There’s pride and passion in there for what we’re all doing, working together to make great things, that absolutely has to translate into the food itself and the experience of sharing it with others. Who doesn’t love to eat things that make them feel good, right!?
As a small business owner, what are your go-to resources for managing your business?
Hmmm, this question is really important, and I don’t totally have a perfect answer. I am always looking for more ways to organize and manage my business better. I will say I couldn’t do it without some important standbys; the Square App for taking cards at the booth and managing sales, PayPal for all my online invoicing, and Quickbooks for all the number crunching. And even that list doesn’t sound too organized to me because I know I can streamline all those things into one place, but this is what works for me at the moment. I also could never get things done if I didn’t have a great team of friends and my fiancee to bounce ideas off of and to help me get everything done. If anything, I rely on them the most.
What would you like to say you achieved during year two for Gooey&Co and Matt Swanston and these delicious cakes?
This year we are expanding our menu at the booth, adding more flavors and toppings including ice cream and mini ice cream floats! I also really want to see Gooey&Co take the leap into some retail locations. Smorgasburg has done amazing things for us and will continue to do that, but this year it is time to also expand beyond just the weekend market and get our cakes into some specialty stores and select coffee vendors. Our cakes are perfect with a cup of coffee and I would love to see Gooey nestled in with some of my favorite roasters in the city. I would also love to see us make the move to a more permanent kitchen space that allows us to bake more frequently without the added rental costs, which can add up quickly. I want to expand but do it in a way that we can maintain product integrity and keeps our costs in check.
What’s your favorite Gooey cake flavor?
Well, I have to always stand by the Original Gooey Butter Cake. it is our signature cake and will always be the first I recommend to Gooey newbies. However, there is a really soft spot in my heart for the Gooey Banana Cake [VC: That’s my favorite!]. It is just too perfect for this style of cake and it makes me so happy every time. I find even people who say they aren’t big on bananas love this cake. I call it our secret weapon because our regulars come back for it!
This is your chance to shout out everyone who helped you get through Gooey&Co year one. Don’t be shy!
First, I have to give my largest amount of gratitude to my fiance, Eric, who has listened to all my frustrations, excitement, and everything in-between at any and every hour of the day. He is an incredible listener and has offered up so much of his time to help in the kitchen, at the booth, and with every idea I throw his way. I could not have started or continued to make Gooey&Co run without his patience, understanding, love and support!
Second, all my friends who have jumped in and helped. I cannot do it alone and I have had some really talented and wonderful friends by my side to get me through it. I also really want to thank everyone at Smorgasburg for accepting Gooey&Co with open arms and to our Gooey regulars who keep coming back for more. This market and these people have helped to shape the company and have provided Gooey&Co with the platform to do so. This first year has been truly incredible and I cannot wait to see what else is in store as we go back outside for our second season starting April 4th!
Okay I know I’m inspired to eat more Gooey cakes and keep spreading the word about Matt’s growing business. Here’s how you can sample and support Gooey&Co:
Spring/Summer 2015: Smorgasburg, Brooklyn
Gooey&Co returns with a new expanded menu on April 4th and 5th
2015 Kickstarter campaign – Gooey&Co will be crowdfunding to move into a permanent kitchen space
Visit the Gooey&Co website for details.