Before she won TLC’s The Next Great Baker, Food Network’s Chopped and the New York Cake Show, Ashley Holt baked as an escape from her day job. “Baking was my escape from an industry that was making me miserable: modeling. After a long hard day of being told I wasn’t good enough, I would go back to my tiny little two-bedroom apartment, which I shared with nine other models, basically all starving themselves, and bake cookies.”
She quit and went to culinary school, but the financial burden of attending forced her to stop. While many others might have given up, Ashley decided to teach herself. She’d come home after working her two full-time jobs and watch YouTube videos, falling asleep with cookbooks in her hands. “I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a F-up or a failure and just do it. So I did it.”
Now, the business owner, cake artist, TODAY Show food stylist and brand new mom of one has created cakes for brands and celebrity clients like Justin Timberlake, Nickelodeon, Harrods, Billy Joel, Fendi, BuzzFeed, Martha Stewart and Padma Lakshmi, to name a few. Here, she shares how she overcame her fear of failure, why she chooses HoneyBook, a client management software for small businesses, to manage her custom cake business and what it’s like working at the TODAY Show.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hi! My name’s Ashley Holt and I live in Brooklyn, New York. I have a custom cake shop called Sugar Monster and we create the coolest cakes for the coolest clients. I also work as the Lead Food Stylist at the TODAY Show. I’ve been in the food industry for 10 years and in the television industry for five years. I’m also a brand new mom to my baby girl Chloe!
In your role on the TODAY Show, you work as the lead food stylist. What does that mean?
We are the magicians behind the curtain. For the TODAY Show, I work with chefs and turn their recipes into a segment that is suitable for 3-5 minutes of live television. I make sure the chefs have everything they need to pull off a seamless, perfect segment and, along with my phenomenal team, make their food look incredible. Every job is different though, especially if it’s scripted or print work. Generally speaking, we aid in creating creative and compelling food content for a variety of platforms. It’s not just about having the idea either, it’s about knowing how to productively and efficiently execute these ideas, usually on a very tight budget and on a very quick turnaround.
What were the biggest challenges you faced early on in your business? How did you deal with it?
The biggest challenge hands down is just taking that leap of faith and trusting yourself. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with all of the things you don’t have or don’t know. I let my fear of failure scare me for a while and then eventually I said ‘screw it.’ If I fail, at least I tried. I read countless books to help build my self esteem and I consulted a lot of friends who owned small businesses to get their perspective of the do’s and don’ts and then I kind of just jumped in, knowing I would kick some serious a** trying.
I let my fear of failure scare me for a while and then eventually I said ‘screw it.’ If I fail, at least I tried.
What did modeling teach you that you apply to your current career?
I’ve had sooo many jobs throughout my life and no matter how lame the job may’ve been, I’ve learned something along the way. Customer service, branding, product development, team building, leadership, how to treat people and, especially, knowing the kind of boss I didn’t want to ever be.
You’ve said you firmly believe “we are capable of teaching ourselves anything we are passionate enough about.” What did that process of self-education look like for you?
After running into issues getting financial aid or a co-signer for my second semester of culinary school, I really had no other choice but to quit and teach myself. I was so hungry to learn and knew I was completely capable. I went from job to job learning as much as I could. Each job was bigger and better than the last.
I was working two full-time jobs, coming home and watching YouTube videos of things I wanted to learn. I’d fall asleep with cookbooks in my hands, only to wake up so exhausted, but excited to start all over again.
If you have the hunger and the fight you can truly be unstoppable. Self-doubt can really hold us back and limit our possibilities so much. I think it’s super important to be somewhat oblivious to all of the things that could go wrong and what may not work out and attack whatever it is you’re striving for like ‘I’m going to just do this and I’m going to be f-ing awesome at it.’
Love yourself and believe in yourself wholeheartedly. We are all going to have self-doubt. When that happens just crank up a song you love, dance your heart out and change that mentality.
What is your favorite kind of baked good to create and why?
I really love making pies. It’s such a labor of love and they make incredible gifts. They’re so nostalgic to me. So simple yet so hard to perfect. There’s so many varieties for whatever mood you may be in and to be honest, as much as I LOVE making cakes … I get kiiiiinda sick of them sometimes.
What’s the craziest confection you’ve ever created?
One of the projects I’m most proud of is this chocolate sculpture I made of my face. I sat at the end of my kitchen island with a pair of calipers, a mirror and countless selfies and hardly moved for 2.5 days. I didn’t shower and barely ate. I was completely obsessed. It changed the way I look at faces, the angles and shadows I see. It came out so cool and I never knew i was capable of creating to that skill level. You can really surprise yourself if you just give it a shot!
You’ve mentioned it took about four years to find your design style. How would you describe it? And what did you do to find it?
This was the hardest thing for me! I always knew I wanted to have a product that was recognizable and unique to me, but I had no idea how to bring that to life. It wasn’t until I just stopped looking at other people’s work and doing the designs I liked that it just morphed together. All of our cakes have a personality, edge and sass. People take things way too seriously, especially in this industry, and I think it’s fun to shake it up some. We’re dealing with cake here, let’s have fun with it!
Are there any trends in the baking world that you’re really loving right now? Why?
To be completely honest, I feel so out of touch with what’s hot right now in the baking world. Which is shocking considering I work at the top news program in America. However, I’d like to see jello art make a comeback. That’s a skill I never taught myself and I’m sooo impressed by it!
You’ve said that 90% of your business comes from Instagram. What are your top 3 tips to help other small businesses replicate that kind of success?
Instagram is such an incredible tool! Things have changed a lot but it’s still incredibly helpful.
- Find awesome people to collaborate with and just be yourself. People want authentic, vulnerable humans.
- Create a community, respond to DMs and comments, be involved with other accounts and use those hashtags! It’s so crazy how many amazing things have come from using a simple hashtag or tagging someone in an image that they should see.
- Post quality content but don’t overshare. Stay on top of current trends and jump on hot topics when you can.
What’s your favorite HoneyBook feature?
Hearing the ‘cha-ching!’ on my phone because that means mo’ money in tha bank!
How did you hear about HoneyBook? What led you to try it out?
My assistant actually told me about HoneyBook. She came to me from another small cake shop in the city and thought I could benefit from it. She has never been so right before! I was constantly trying to keep my head above water and stay organized—I was so paranoid to have something slip through the cracks. Once I got my HoneyBook account set up I could instantly sleep better at night.
Once I got my HoneyBook account set up I could instantly sleep better at night.
How do you use HoneyBook? Any top tips?
I can’t imagine running my business without HoneyBook. It’s so user friendly and customizable.
I love that you can set up automatic reminders when your clients email so they’re never waiting around.
I love that you can create templates for a quick and easy follow-up after the event to check in.
I love the bookkeeping. I clicked on my bookkeeping at the end of last year and it showed me around $1500 in outstanding invoices from past orders. Without HoneyBook those invoices probably never would’ve been paid and I would’ve possibly forgotten about them because I constantly have a million things going on.
I also love the fact that I can personalize every invoice to match the theme of my clients’ events. It really helps you to stand out by taking that extra step to show them how much you value their business.
It’s also great how it’s integrated directly into my website and my calendar so I’m constantly connected.
Everything is in one place so never again will I have to search through a ton of emails to catch up on a conversation. All i have to do is scroll.
Oh! And the concierge team at HoneyBook is 5 star. They are always there to help out and respond to you in lightning speed.
I can’t say enough good things about this platform. HoneyBook has truly been a life and business saver.