Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in The Forum’s ongoing series on Kid Bosses, in which kids and teens take the initiative to start their own businesses.
FARGO — Oh, the things people ask a cookier to do.
Last week, Katja Engebretson was tasked with transforming sugar cookie dough and icing into “Cloudgate,” the famous, bean-shaped, Chicago sculpture with a surface as slick and silvery as liquid mercury.
She would spend long hours producing 60 of these miniature “bean cookies,” improvising a “bean” shape by using an egg-shaped cookie cutter and then a witch’s hat cutter to give each one a perfect legume silhouette.
Then she topped each baked cookie with silvery frosting and sparkly silver glitter dust before stenciling each one with a miniature silhouette of Chicago’s skyline. The treats had been ordered by a woman who planned to bring a group of travelers to the Windy City.
Others might have panicked at the challenge of transforming cookies into abstract sculpture. But not Engebretson.
This 17-year-old isn’t one to get flustered in high-pressure situations. After all, she’s been decorating cookies since age 14. And her calm temperament is one reason why she’s currently undergoing the interview process to become a 911 operator in Fargo.
In the meantime, however, her cookie side hustle under the KJ Makes label has provided a nice revenue stream.
“I still love cookies and I’m still going on the business side of it,” she says, from the dining room-turned-bakery of her family’s split-level home in north Fargo.
Katja first started making cookies three years ago, after spotting some elaborate flood-iced sugar cookies on Facebook. She proceeded to teach herself by watching You Tube and videos on other social media. She produced perfectly suitable turkey cookies for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
For the next few years, she perfected her decorating techniques by bringing cookies to family graduations, gatherings and holidays. She also produced other sweet treats, like homemade marshmallows, chocolate-covered popcorn and a lemon meringue cake topped with a lemon meringue pie
It all started with a hedgehog
But last year, Katja decided to transition from baking for pleasure to baking for profit after she set her heart on buying an African pygmy hedgehog.
Just as she had done when learning how to decorate cookies, she did extensive research on the spiny little mammals so she knew exactly what they needed for optimum health and how she could find the most reputable breeders.
Over the next few months, Katja would raise $1,000 so she could drive all the way to Iowa to pick up the eight-week-old baby hedgehog she would name Thistle.
She did so by sewing and selling little fleece snuggle sacks, hammocks and tunnels for pocket pets like Thistle on her Etsy shop, KJmakesND.
“I’m still kind of in the start-up phase, but I have gotten some pretty good sales,” she says, while effortlessly piping gray icing onto the elephant cookies she’s making for her sister’s baby shower.
Katja’s prices are $4.50 per cookie, $12 for three cookies or $45 per dozen. It’s fairly standard for these intricately decorated sugar cookies, which can take up to three days to make, from raw ingredients to finished product.
Like most cookiers who use flood-icing techniques, Katja decorates her cookies with a thin royal icing which dries to a hard, smooth, glossy sheen. She then waits for the icing to dry completely before she can add details atop that.
From the dining room to the decorating room
With the help of her family, Katja has transformed their dining room into her cookie factory.
“It was better than her taking over the kitchen and the tables,” her sister Gabrielle, 15, volunteers from the living room.
“She’s committed, so we support that,” her mom, Andrea, adds.
Metal shelves holding cookie-making paraphernalia now line two dining room walls and there’s a giant Kitchen Aid mixer — big enough to hold four batches of cookie dough — which Katja’s grandfather, Marcus Paulus Speidel, had bought as “his last grand gesture for the kids” before he passed away in March, Andrea says.
There is also a work table, where she will sometimes sit until midnight, ensuring every petal is outlined and every line is precisely drawn on each cookie. Katja is a self-admitted perfectionist; besides, Andrea, says her daughter finds the repetition required to be soothing.
Even so, it can be demanding work, especially when considering that Katja deals with some health challenges. While still in middle school, she was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome , a condition that affects blood flow. POTS causes symptoms — usually lightheadedness, fainting and an uncomfortable, rapid increase in heartbeat — that can show up when standing up from a reclining position and relieved by sitting or lying back down. It can cause difficulty regulating blood pressure and affects multiple systems in the body.
Katja’s health issues meant she had to make some lifestyle changes like, for instance, switching to homeschool during middle school. (She earned her GED last spring.)
The condition can also cause dizziness and fatigue when she’s working, although “I haven’t fainted for a few years,” she says.
Family contributes to her success
Fortunately, she gets plenty of support from her family. Andrea, who owns a graphic design business, Giraffic, designed her daughter’s pleasingly pastel website.
Her dad, Ryan, has a business major, so is able to guide her business decisions. Gabrielle, who is also artistic, can be counted on to wash dishes from Katja’s stints of cookie-making and also helps out at vendor shows.
“I pay them with cookies,” Katja says, as they all laugh.
Thanks to collective brainstorming, the innovative Engebretson clan invented homemade stackable cookie trays from PVC pipe and fluorescent light covers to help Katja make the most of her limited counterspace.
“It’s really nice since we have such a small kitchen. It’s really nice to let them airdry without ruining the finish,” Katja says.
She can’t even eat what she bakes
The Engebretsons donate something else to Katja’s baking efforts: their tastebuds. KJMakes sugar cookies are a nibble of perfection: thick, soft, buttery and not too sweet — all the better to top with the necessary sweetness of KJ’s almond-flavored royal icing.
Even so, Katja has never been able to sample them herself. She’s gluten-intolerant. She can’t even handle the dough without wearing gloves because otherwise her hands get sore and cracked. So her family is always willing to lend a tastebud when needed.
“She can’t eat her own creations,” Gabrielle says.
“She’ll say, ‘Are you sure they’re good?’ And we say, ‘Yes, definitely,'” Andrea says. “It’s a family affair.”
Although Katja is hopefully eyeing a future as a 911 operator, she says she won’t abandon her side business.
Not yet, anyway.
“I love cookies, but cookies are just cookies,” she says. “I want to do something meaningful. But I won’t stop making cookies, that’s for sure.”
Find Katja’s cookies on Facebook at kjmakesND.