Photography by Hana Nguyen ’17
You might reach for a cookie to satisfy your sweet tooth, but some of the frosted treats on social media look almost too pretty to eat. Last summer, Hana Nguyen ’17 began crafting these kinds of elaborate confections and accepting pickup orders from the public through her Instagram, @hanamade.cookies. The Dallas-based multimedia developer told me all about this sweet side hustle.
Tell me how you got started making cookies. Did you always have an interest in baking?
I definitely wouldn’t call myself a baker. I baked here and there growing up. You know, on Instagram, you always see these cookie decorating videos. And I would watch them all the time. My whole Explore page ended up being cookie videos.
I majored in graphic design; I love working with my hands. There was something I missed, because my full-time job doesn't necessarily allow me to be that creative. So, when the pandemic hit and I was trying to figure out how to occupy my time working remote, I was like, ‘I think I can do cookies.’ I just invested in the tools [and] followed a bunch of the cookie people that I liked. What’s great about Instagram is that everyone shares everything. So that’s where I learned everything that I know.
You knew — sounds like quickly — that you’d be able to sell these cookies to strangers. What gave you that confidence?
I would make cookies for my co-workers and they would love them. I made them for Christmas 2019. I think that was my first batch. I made cookies for my sister’s COVID wedding, and they loved it. So I got a lot of good feedback and spent time trying to perfect my recipe. I had my boyfriend taste iterations of it and finally found one that worked and was consistent every time.
How many orders do you take in the average month?
A typical week for me lately has been around 10 dozen cookies. But I’m trying to scale back this summer to maybe half that, just so I keep my sanity!
What kind of orders do you get the most?
I would say lately a lot of bridal showers. I don’t think I’ll ever turn down a wedding shower if I have the availability for it. Lots of baby showers, engagement sets, bridesmaid proposals — I love all of that. And then the typical birthdays and kid themes.
Can you walk me through your process? How long does a typical batch take?
Typically, a client will fill out my order form, and I tell them to be as specific as possible — if they want to send inspiration photos, color palette, that all helps me when designing the cookies. I don’t have a fancy iPad or anything yet. I know a lot of cookie people do, and that’s probably something I want to invest in one day. I just sketch out my ideas [and] pick out the cookie cutters that I want to use, which has been another obsession. I just keep buying cookie cutters because I’m like, ‘I might need a lawn mower one day — you never know!’
I have to plan because I don’t have a lot of space. So, either Sunday or Monday is usually when I do all my baking. If I have time, I’ll also mix all my icings that day, which probably takes the most time. Then the fun part is the decorating. The rest of the week, after I get off work, I do all the details. A typical dozen takes five to six hours.
What’s the most difficult design you’ve tried?
For me, florals are super hard. I know a lot of cookie people have cake decorating backgrounds, and so they’re super comfortable using different piping tips. Before I get an order that has florals in it, I have to watch all these videos — YouTube videos, Instagram videos. That’s something I’m still learning. A lot of cookie people have tutorials online and classes you can buy. So that’s something I want to look into.
And what’s been your favorite?
I think my favorite is one I did for Christmas. Sometimes when I don’t plan a set as much, I end up liking it more. That kind of happened with this set. It had red, blue [and] green. There was a snow globe and a snowman. And that might be my most liked photo on Instagram, actually.
How do you balance running this company that you’ve started with your job as a multimedia developer for Southwest Airlines?
It’s definitely hard. I’m trying to get better at saying no when I’m booked. But working from home helps a lot — just having my lunch break where I can sketch out ideas or text people back. I don’t think I’d be able to do this if I was going in full time. One thing that was good coming out of the pandemic is that I was able to explore this hobby.
I think I’ve become more efficient over time. Now I know how long an order will take; I can plan accordingly. And that just comes with practice.
You studied visual communication design at Notre Dame. How do you think that time at ND prepared you for this adventure, if at all?
Oh, it definitely did! I think it’s helped me have an eye for what would look good on a cookie — the layout, [the] text. I don’t think if I was a senior in college with that major I would think I would be using it for cookies. But it’s definitely helped. Even just picking color palettes that I think would be pleasing to the eye: That all came from my graphic design background.
You recently hit 14,000 followers on your Instagram. Did you ever expect that you would have that kind of publicity?
No, not at all. I mean, I never set out to gain followers or anything like that. To me, this was always just a side hustle. It was just a page that I was going to make so that if friends or family wanted to order from me, they could see my portfolio.
I remember hitting 200 followers, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’ But it just took off. I think people really gravitate toward the reels that I make.
What’s your advice for other Domers who want to try making cookies?
I would say nailing down a recipe is the most important part. Because even if your cookie doesn’t look that great, at least it’ll taste good. And people still pay for that.
What I did was follow a bunch of people that I admire. And they post all the time about tips and resources — even just what piping bags to use — and that will save you so much time. I think there’s just a wealth of knowledge online.
Interview by Erin Warwood, a writer currently living in Chicago and studying magazine journalism at Northwestern University.