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How to have a successful bake sale

Thursday, October 05, 2000

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The bake sale is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Mom. Clubs raise money for charity, school bands buy instruments and sports teams raise cash for uniforms -- all with profits from the sale of home-baked goods.

Any way you look at it, bake sales are a win-win fundraiser. The sponsoring organization makes money for special projects and the customer picks a delicious yummy at a modest price. But profitable bake sales don't just happen. They must be planned and organized.

Jane Mengenhauser is an expert on the subject. She is the author of "Bake Sale Bonanza," a how-to booklet on organizing bake sales. As a journalist, home economist and military wife, she has worked as a food writer for newspapers all around the country.

"I've written about bake sales everywhere, from suburban groups in clubhouses to church halls to military bases," says Mengenhauser, who is now retired and lives in Alexandria, Va. "As a reporter, I'm trained to notice details and ask questions. At almost every bake sale, I was aware of the mistakes they made and missed opportunities they didn't take.

"In 1987, I had breast cancer," she continued. "When the chemotherapy was over, I needed to throw myself into a project. I decided that writing about bake sales would be the best thing I could do. The women who run bake sales need help with organization and tips, I thought, and I can help."

So we made up a list of questions, and Mengenhauser gave us some answers. Her tips are easy, achievable and well-tested.

Q. Let's get it over with up front. What are the biggest mistakes?

A. Resistance to change. Anytime you hear women saying, "But that's the way we've always done it," you know the bake sale will have the same people running it in the same place and in the same way. What that means is that standards are static, there are no innovative ideas and profits are well below what is possible. For the bake sale to be a resounding success, the organizing committee must be open to new ideas and fresh concepts.

Presentation is everything, and having an unattractive display is another mistake. Putting out bad food, too.

Q. How important is planning?

A. It's crucial to the success of any bake sale to lay the groundwork. You do not simply call a list of members and ask for donations of cookies and cupcakes.

Q. Where do we start?

A. The most important decision is to choose the right chair, leader or whatever head-of-committee name works for you. Choose her with care, because she will oversee the event from start to finish. She should know how to delegate duties and not fuss over every detail. Most important, she must be a diplomat and be able to work with others. She will form a committee who will oversee donations, publicity, sales workers, cashiers and cleaner-uppers.

Q. Are there different kinds or themes of bake sales?

A. The most popular is the Donation Sale, where club members contribute food they have made, packaged and delivered to the sale site.

The Volume Sale is one where the organization decides what members will make and provides recipes to the cooks. The club treasury might provide funds for purchasing ingredients. Only two or three foods usually are offered. Examples of these foods might be Holiday Breads or Candy.

Within those sales, there are themes that work well. Season's Best could be an annual event made with seasonal goods. An All-Cookie sale before the holidays works well. A Chocolate Festival limits all of the goodies to chocolate cakes, candies, sauces, cupcakes, pies and so forth. At a traditional bake sale, a "Chocolate Only" table is usually a hit.

Q. Can you give advice on when and where to hold a bake sale?

A. You know what the real estate people say: Location, location, location. Choose a site that is heavily traveled. And time it for when traffic is the highest. It is not written in stone that Saturday morning is the best time for a bake sale, even though that may be the most convenient time for the members. Think profits, not what's easy on the group.

Check with the zoning and health departments to see if it's legal to hold your sale on the site you've chosen.

Be sure you have permission to use your site and get that permission in writing. Keep a copy with you at the sale.

Consider piggy-backing your sale with another group. Maybe there's a flea market, bazaar or festival that always draws a crowd. The addition of your booth or tables would be win-win for both groups.

Know your customers and tailor your sale items to them. If there will be lots of children, or senior citizens for that matter, be sure to offer a good proportion of small portions of food such as single cupcakes, snack packages or a half-dozen cookies.

Q. How do we set standards for donations from our members without hurting the feelings of non-bakers?

A. This is touchy, but lopsided cakes and burned cookies have no place on your sale table. It may take a few years, but know your cooks and ask them specifically if they will bake something special. Non-bakers can contribute their time in other ways, such as serving coffee or being a cashier on the day of the sale. And there's nothing wrong with asking for a donation of cash instead of a cake. The idea is to make a profit for the group.

The variety of donations should not come as a surprise on the day of the sale. Try to solicit a variety, and ask members to let the chair know in advance what they would like to bring. There is such a thing as too many brownies and too many chocolate chip cookies. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.

Q. Is there a Top 10 list of favorites? And is there something they all have in common?

A. Donations should be things that either can be eaten on the spot or those that can be carried home without accident. Food should travel well and be easy to divide.

These are perennial best sellers: banana bread, pound cake, cupcakes, cookies and bars, carrot cake, homemade doughnuts, muffins, fudge, jellies and jams, caramel corn, seasoning salts, candied apples, popcorn and almost anything chocolate.

Supply a clipboard and pencil so customers can write requests for next year.

Never throw away broken cookies or survivors of disasters that can't be sold. Break up the cookies or cake further, put the pieces in a napkin-lined basket and offer them as samples.

Q. Should we use labels? And what should be on the label?

A. An information sheet should accompany each donation. It should include the name of the dish, who made it, how many servings it makes and the approximate cost of the raw ingredients. It should also include any dietary information such as the type of nuts used and if the baked good is low in fat, sugar-free or dairy-free. For instance: Pineapple Cake, made by Mary Smith. Contains walnuts. Serves 12. Cost of ingredients approximately $4.85.

Workers can then make pricing decisions whether to sell the cake whole or cut it into slices. They will customize a label, and use a felt tip pen for easy reading. Customers with dietary restrictions will be grateful for the extra info.

Discourage donor cooks from using cake mixes, but if they do, label the baked goods honestly.

Q. What advice would you give to the donor cooks?

A. Use disposable pans where possible or clearly mark your container with your name. When cutting bars, keep the sizes even. Irregular pieces are hard to price. Clever packaging will make your food more tempting. Yarn bows, colored sprinkles, pretty paper plates and lace doilies all add visual appeal.

Q. What about pricing? Is there a rule of thumb?

A. Price for profit. Charge what the traffic will bear. Check prices in advance at bakeries, local stores and even other bake sales to see what the going price is for items.

A $10 price tag on a cake may seem too high. But that amount can be realized by dividing the cake and selling slices. To make change easily, charge in increments of 25 cents. Keep it to a quarter, half-dollars and dollars.

On the day of the sale, assign a separate staff of volunteer workers to handle the money, with a single person in charge. Workers handling food should not handle money during the sale.

Q. What about instead of pricing each item, asking for a donation on each item sale?

A. That's a very iffy proposition. Some people will be generous, some won't. There's no way to estimate what the sale will bring in. This is a bit lazy on the part of the committee.

Q. Are other edible items appropriate on the sale tables?

A. "Saleable edibles" is a good label for today's bake sale food. In addition to cookies, cakes, pies and breads, there is a market for herb blends, seasoned salts, jams, pickles, snack food, granola and flavored teas. This not only broadens the appeal of your sale, it gives the non-bakers a chance to participate. Some people do not eat desserts and it gives them a chance to buy something.

Q. Can we ask for donations outside the group?

A. Yes. That can give importance to the sale. Ask local restaurants, caterers and chefs to donate one of their specialties. Be sure to ask for their business cards or menus to be displayed and mention them in all pre-sale publicity. Label the goodies with the names of the donors marked prominently. Sell the goodies by the portion to maximize profits.

Unless a bakery's product is sensational, don't try to sell bakery food, even if it's donated.

Q. How do we get publicity?

A. Work at it. Choose the publicity person with care. She should know the ropes. There are lots of free avenues of promotion. Be familiar with deadlines, then send news releases to newspapers, church bulletins, club newsletters and local bulletin boards well in advance of the sale. Design easy-to-read flyers to post in libraries and supermarkets. Make posters. And consider every member of your group as a marketing person who should talk up the sale to just about everyone they come in contact with. In every case, stress what the sale profits will be used for. Often, sales are made just because buyers are sympathetic to the cause.

Q. How important are decorations?

A. You want the tables to be pretty without overpowering the food. A red checked tablecloth is always bright and cheery and can be dressed up with red tulips, geraniums or poinsettias, depending on the season. Keep the setting neat and wipe up crumbs promptly.

Q. What are some essential non-food props to have on hand?

A. A microwave oven would be sensational if there's a place to plug it in. It's great to warm chocolate chip cookies, heat up a coffee cake or make popcorn.

Be sure to have lots of plastic bags, carry-out containers and shoeboxes for larger sales. You need napkins, paper towels, sponges and water, knives and spatulas, plastic wrap and metal foil, labels and felt-tip pens. Brainstorm with the committee to make sure all details are taken care of.

Make a shelf behind the sales areas for "layaways," if a customer pays for a cake, say, but wants to pick it up after doing some shopping.

A big pot of coffee is always welcome for both workers and customers who want to sip and eat goodies on the spot.

Q. Late in the day there will be unsold items. What's the best way to deal with slow movers?

A. Mark down the food at the end of the day. But make new labels. A mark-down on a blouse is one thing, but on food, well, it's psychologically bad. Be sure the tables are clean of crumbs and smears and the food is just as attractively packaged as it was early in the day.

Food can be combined into a basket, then raffled off for a low price. Any remaining food can be donated to a shelter or soup kitchen, but be sure to have that information in advance.

Q. What are responsibilities when the sale is over?

A. Clean up. Leave the site in better shape than when you arrived. And say thanks to everyone -- volunteers, managers and sales people. As soon as a financial accounting is available, make the numbers known to the organization, and be sure to remind them what the profits will be used for.

Q. How can we avoid making the same mistakes next year?

A. Keep records. Have a notebook and take note of what sold and what didn't. Jot down what you wish you had or had more of. Jot down the pros and cons of the site. Add comments from customers, comments of the committee. Then pass on the notebook to next year's Chair.

To order "Bake Sale Bonanza," by Jane Mengenhauser, a 33-page how-to paperback on organizing bake sales, send a check to The Patchwork Press, P.O. Box 7302, Alexandria, VA 22307; $5.95 plus $1.50 postage and handling. It includes guidelines and hints, checklists for setting up the space, cost analysis forms, sample news releases and recipes. Everything you need to know.

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