Joy the Baker dishes on how she assembles success.
Q&A with Joy Wilson
When you look at her exquisite Instagram images of Neapolitan no-bake birthday cakes, mouth-watering Facebook photos of red velvet raspberry cupcakes and impeccable print magazine layouts featuring praline pecan apple pie, the first word that might come to mind is “perfectionist.” But you’d be wrong.
“I once dated a perfectionist who called me a ‘good-enough-ist,’ Joy Wilson, aka Joy the Baker, says with an easygoing laugh. And she totally owns it. “That's how I get things done. They’ve got to be good enough, and then we just move on.”
It’s a style that’s hard to argue with. After all, from her Big Easy bakehouse headquarters, Wilson oversees a flour-flecked empire that includes cookbooks, a magazine, a website and blog, a newsletter, cooking classes, a branded line of baking mixes sold through Williams-Sonoma and, of course, the requisite social media outlets (except for TikTok, but more on that later). And there’s always something new cooking. We caught up with Joy the Baker about how she got off the ground, who and what inspires her, how she deals with creative burnout and more.
How did you get started in baking, and how did that rise—pun intended—into a small industry?
I’ve always loved baking. My first jobs were all in restaurants and diners and coffee shops. Then I started to apply for back-of-the-house baking jobs where you don't need a lot of experience, you just have to be there reliably at four o'clock in the morning, which is a job skill in itself.
I started my blog in 2008 while working one of those jobs because I got off at, like, 1:00 in the afternoon and I had a lot of time. I was just trying to share the recipes that I was working on. I didn't approach it as if I was a definitive resource on baking. I didn’t have some big plan. I thought that I would eventually either start a wholesale baking business or open a bakery, but I found I loved the freedom of doing something that wasn’t brick-and-mortar. So in 2010, when I got fired from one of those restaurant jobs, I had two goals: First, I knew I didn’t want another job, so I needed to make a big step financially, like monetizing the website, but since I knew that wasn’t going to happen quickly enough to sustain me, the second goal, in my mind, was to publish a book.
It’s a big leap from simply having an idea for a book to getting one published. How did you make that happen?
I had to move out of the apartment that I had on my own and move in with roommates. I canceled everything nice. I had to pare my expenses down to be able to sustain myself while I wrote the book proposal, which took about 8 months, but eventually I sold it. I had a year to write the book, and at the same time I was updating the website, figuring out early social media and getting that train on the tracks. The book deal gave me some footing to work on Joy the Baker as a business, and over the years, it’s turned into a brand. Now I have a team of three, but it has always basically been me generating the work.
One of the arms of your business is your collaboration with Williams Sonoma. How did that come about?
It was a collaboration. We had long meetings where I’m going through my website and my cookbooks looking for the most popular recipes. They’re going through their categories looking at what sells best for them. We were trying to make the pieces fit. They sell a lot of breakfast mixes. One of my top recipes is a brown butter blueberry muffin. We found an alignment—let’s try that. Working with their food testers and food scientists, we’d put the mixes together, they’d send them to me, I’d test them over and over again, we’d make little tweaks … we went through maybe six different rounds before we landed.
Any advice to creators looking to make that collaborative leap?
Follow your gut! I’ve had reservations with other companies that wanted to align with me, that felt a little clunky, and that’s always a sign for me to cut and run. Communication styles and work styles are all part of it, and if it’s clunky in any of those ways, if creatively it doesn’t fit well, I would rather not do it.
How do you keep expanding your brand creatively? We’re looking at your Drake on Cake project and Let It Be Sundays blog.
Those are examples of where my creative energy takes me. Sometimes they are food-related and lucrative, and sometimes they’re just pure passion projects, which are ridiculous! Drake on Cake would fall into that latter category: I put Drake lyrics on cakes (laughs). I thought of that in 2015. I was dating a guy at the time who said, “that’s a stupid idea!” I thought, “hmm. Maybe it is.” But then I later dumped him, so I decided to give it a try, and people were weirdly into it. It got written up, it’s got a ton of followers, and I’ve had so much fun. I food-style each photo to have little hidden Easter eggs that spoke to other lyrics in songs. Drake’s a rapper, but some of his songs are so poetic and universal and clever. I’ve never tried to monetize it, it’s just something fun to do.
Let It Be Sundays started as a way for me to talk about non-food-related things on my food website. I was finding that I wanted to talk about things that were going on in the world but that didn’t have a place in a chocolate cake recipe. I started the Let It Be Sundays posts because that’s the day we all get to relax, even as self-employed creators. It’s inspirational, things I love, things that have made me think. It’s just my outlet of who I am and what I care about, to show that I’m a whole person and not just someone who deals with butter all day. It’s the most popular post on my site. It’s also polarizing, because not everyone thinks the way I do, so we’ve had some growing pains. Some people have felt alienated, even though I never would want that.
With so much going on and so many projects, how do you deal with creative burnout?
I think it depends on how you define “creative burnout.” Rarely do I feel like I’ve just got no cylinders firing.
But to me, creative burnout is when I’ve become super inefficient with my time or being super critical of myself and my ideas. That’s how burnout manifests for me. So, I have a lot of tools to get myself out of that.
Making other kinds of art is a big one. I do a lot of crafts, which my younger millennial friends make fun of. I’ll do macramé or tie-dye or go on a bender with air-dry clay. None of it is any good, it doesn’t have to be, but busying my hands, away from the computer, off my phone and outside of the kitchen really just frees up a lot of mental space for me to find creativity back in the kitchen—where it counts for money.
For example, tie-dying might inspire me to figure out how to do that with a sugar cookie. Even if it’s not in the front of my brain, it’s back there, starting to percolate. I also find that learning to do a new thing, or doing something that I’m bad at, like relearning how to play piano, it consumes your mind in a way that you aren’t able to stress about anything other than the thing that you’re learning.
I find that to get myself out of that burnout, I have to let my mind be completely consumed with something else. I can get that by learning a new song, or doing a craft, or doing yoga, or going running because I hate it and I’m not good at it!
You’re fully established on Instagram and Facebook, but nothing yet on TikTok. Why is that?
Not yet, and I know I’m late, for several reasons. Someone stole my name, so that’s annoying and it’s stunted my creativity there. But also, TikTok is its own world, and you have to get with the rhythm of it—and it changes so much. In the beginning, things were changing so quickly that if you missed the trend, it was embarrassing. But now there’s a little more leniency, so I’m going to create some videos and start to dive in. But I’ve just been quietly a consumer of TikTok to try to understand it. As a person who’s also a brand, I have to decide if I want to be Joy Wilson on TikTok or Joy the Baker.
TikTok is so casual. You have the ability to be more casual and less Instagram perfect. I think because of TikTok, the younger generation is going to Instagram and being, like, this is inauthentic, this is false, and they’re right. We wanted that a couple years ago, but that’s changing.
At the other end of the media spectrum, you’ve got books and magazines. Why print, and is that a good move for creators?
Print has been the right move for me. Ninety percent of what I do goes on the internet, and you can see it on your phone. But I was an English major. I love books. I love having something to hold. I know it will all come back around. People try to say print is dead, but it’s timeless. It’s always going to be with us, and I feel like it’s important—and satisfying—to create in that space. Print is more democratized now. There are so many self-publishing tools now.
Also, when I’m working with print, I’m working with such a larger team. There are editors, a layout person, salespeople… a team of people who work together, looking for mistakes … I love that collaboration that I don’t get in my online work. The critique that I get for my print work is so valuable, and you don’t really get that when you’re working by yourself hitting the publish button. The internet will kind of tell you but working with a real editor—they’ll let your ass know!
Joy Wilson is a baker, author and culinary artist. Her brand rules are super simple: be true to yourself. When Joy’s not baking she’s lost in a craft, music or simply something she loves doing. Joy’s world can be found in a diversified mix of platforms. Follow Joy:
Interviewed by Steve Root