• Chad

Interview with Dawn Johnson of DJ's Sugar Shack

Here's our interview with Dawn Johnson of DJ's Sugar Shack! She shared some delicious vanilla and sea salted caramels for our Southside/Girdwood box. We talked about how she finds inspiration, me maybe taste testing for her (Haha, I could only dream), and more. Here we go!

Start by telling me a bit about yourself and how you started DJ's Sugar Shack?

DAWN JOHNSON: I am originally from New Orleans. I came to Alaska for a summer job in Denali and 18 years later I'm still here. I was never really big on cooking or baking until I moved to Alaska. Maybe I missed the Southern food? I started baking more and more and found that I really enjoyed decorating cakes and cupcakes. For a long time I was testing recipes and making desserts for friend's birthdays and parties. Over time I started getting requests for custom cakes and cupcakes. About 5 years ago I started doing festivals in Girdwood. One year I made a batch of caramels for my booth and people loved them. About a week later I received a wholesale inquiry on the caramels. And it just seems like things have taken off business-wise from there. At this point the baking and caramel making are still a side project but there is still the dream to make it more of a full-time gig eventually. 

That's awesome! There's just something special about Alaska for sure and it's crazy how time flies. It's got to be a great and validating feeling when your friends are specifically requesting that you make something for their special event. You mentioned that you started doing festivals in Girdwood about 5 years ago. Was that friends saying, "Hey, you should do this," or was it something you just decided that you were ready for?

DAWN: I'm sure that someone put the bug in my ear a bit before I actually decided I was ready for it. It seems like people always have opinions on what you should do with your business when you do something like this. :)

Oh yeah, I totally know what you mean. It's definitely nice to just be able to go at your own pace though. So as far as baking, you said that you didn't like it as much to start. What was it about baking that made you realize that you actually enjoy it? Just the process?

DAWN: It's not so much that I didn't like baking as much as I just never really did a lot of baking and cooking at all before I moved to AK and was on my own. And yes, going at my own pace has been crucial with this. It's really allowed me to figure out my market, develop my skills and most importantly, it's still fun and doesn't feel like work. I can also pick and choose what projects I want to take on.

Ah, that makes sense. And I know what you mean about keeping it fun and having that control. It’s really great for motivation. Of all the things that you’ve made for people over the years, what has been the most fun to make?

DAWN: Oh, that’s a tough one but I think my favorite things to do are kids cakes. They get so excited when they see their cakes. It’s so sweet. These are probably two of my all time favorites. (She sent me a couple of pictures.)

Oh, wow! Those are so cool! I used to watch quite a bit of Winnie the Pooh as a kid. I can definitely see how watching a kid be super happy and excited about their cake could totally make your day. When you come up with new products, flavors, etc., where do you get your inspiration from? For the caramels as an example. 

DAWN: I spend a lot, way too much, of time looking at and reading baking blogs, scrolling Pinterest and Instagram, etc. to get ideas for flavor combos and decorating ideas. Whenever I travel I like to stop in cupcake shops, bakeries, coffee shops, etc. to see what others are doing. My friends and family are constantly sending me ideas as well. Sometimes the "you should do this" is actually a good thing. ;) The original caramel recipe is something I found in a candy making book. I tweaked the recipe a little bit for a while to get the flavor and texture I liked. Once I got that part down I started thinking about other flavors I could do. Most of the flavor ideas have been inspired by my personal taste; like I really like caramel in my coffee so why not make an espresso bean caramel?

Very cool! And that makes a lot of sense about using your own personal tastes. It's one of those things where of course you can't be the only one who likes caramel in coffee. :) You mentioned before that the baking and whatnot is a side project with the hope of turning to full time eventually. Do you have any tips for balancing your time when it comes to doing something like this on the side and still having time for everything else?

DAWN: Time management is a still something I struggle with from time to time. Most of my caramel clients are retail shops with very busy summers. I'm pretty fortunate that my work schedule is very flexible and I work 4/10s. But in the summer, my days are pretty much calendared. I find that having it all laid out in writing somehow keeps me on track.  

I know what you mean about the writing. If I didn't calendar things, there'd definitely be a struggle, or more of one anyway. As far as your caramels, do you have a personal favorite or does it just depend? What about out of your cupcakes, cakes, etc.?

DAWN: My favorite caramel is the Vanilla Sea Salted. I think it's the sweet and salty combo. I think I mentioned that I love to throw the parts that I cut off the caramels from the overflow when pouring into molds into my coffee. I made some caramels for Christmas gifts that had a little bit of cayenne in the caramel and then were poured over a pretzel bacon crust. They were amazing. Because of the crust, I couldn't pour them in molds and had to do more hand cutting than I normally do. I probably ate 1/2 the pan. I wonder if a cayenne caramel would be as good without the pretzel bacon crust to balance it out...

Cake-wise right now, my favorite flavor is almond with blueberry/lemon curd. I could eat all the curd with a spoon. 

Even better that the one that we get to share with everyone in the box is the Vanilla Sea Salted then! As for the cayenne caramel, if you ever need someone to test a version with and without the crust, I'd be happy to help. :) And that cake sounds amazing. Amazing and dangerous actually. I'd probably have to hide all my spoons. I saw on the website that you do weddings and other events. If someone wanted to book you for something, what's that process like as far as options and how they would go about choosing what they wanted?

DAWN: Ha! If I decide to do a test batch, I'll let you know. :) If someone wanted to request something for a wedding, event or party, it generally starts via email. Most people have a basic idea of what they want. I might make some suggestions on flavors and design. If someone sends me a picture of a specific design they want, I try to explain that I will use that photo as inspiration but I'm not a big fan of completely copying someone else's work. I like to add my own style to my work.  Once the flavor, design and size issues are hammered out, I'll work on a quote. So far I have been pretty fortunate with my clients understanding that custom cakes do not mirror grocery store or other mass produced treats pricing. I'm in a couple of groups with other professional bakers and they have so many stories of people that not only do not get the work involved but also get nasty when the bakers are not budging on pricing. Fingers crossed that I never have that type of experience. 

That makes a lot of sense as far as putting your own spin on things. Your style is unique, and I imagine it's important that that shows through. And I hear you on some people not getting how much work is involved. It blows my mind sometimes that people don't understand that a custom creation is going to be more involved and more expensive. I'm glad to hear that your experiences have been really good with that so far! With The Bear Box, what was it that interested you and made you want to be a part of it?

DAWN: I may have mentioned that my first wholesale client for the caramels was Alaska Artisanal. They do gift boxes that feature Alaskan-made foods. They are pretty popular around the holidays. I send a couple to my family each Christmas and they love it. Anyway, when LeeAnna contacted me about the boxes, I checked it out and thought it was cool that the boxes also featured products other than food. Alaska has so many great artists/artisans and in my experience not many people outside of Alaska realize that. And of course having the caramels featured in the Bear Box is an opportunity for me to reach more people and potentially gain more business.

That's awesome! There's definitely a ton of great crafts, artists, etc. around our state, and spreading the word about them to many people as we can, especially those out of state ones, has been a big driving force for us. We're happy to have you as a part of it! The caramels were definitely a big hit in our house. Are there any final thoughts that you'd like to share with us that you haven't been able to mention yet? Or any wisdom to share?

DAWN: No final thoughts, but I would like to thank you for featuring my products!

And a big thank you to Dawn for wanting to be in our box and sharing those awesome caramels with us! If you're craving something sweet or need something for an event, check out her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook.