Cottonwood Heights • When orders for the llama cookie cutter began to spike, employees at the country’s largest manufacturer of metal baking shapes knew exactly whom to thank.
Georganne Bell — a Utah cookie artist, decorating coach and social media influencer — had just posted an Instagram photo of a decorated sugar cookie in the shape of the pointy-eared pack animal. The trendy treat, with its pearly white icing, feathery black eyelashes and a cherubic expression, instantly infatuated Bell’s 100,000-plus followers.
In the piping-hot world of American cookie decorating, Bell is one of the elites.
The 38-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident bakes custom orders for birthdays, church missions and other special occasions — commanding a minimum of $48 per dozen. But she also makes mesmerizing how-to videos on her LilaLoa website; creates signature cookie cutters for seemingly every season, event or pop-culture phenomenon; and regularly teaches hands-on decorating classes around the U.S. and abroad.
Home bakers — or “cookiers,” as they call themselves — look to Bell for guidance and inspiration, whether they are starting out in the hobby or have decided to turn their passion into a cottage business.
“Georganne is one of the gurus,” said Ben Clark, CEO of Ann Clark. The Vermont-based company has collaborated with Bell on several signature shapes from the popular llama head to a unicorn, lizard and, mostly recently, a turkey that customers are gobbling up for Thanksgiving.
“This whole hobby has taken off,” Clark said, “and when people want to learn how to do something, they want to learn from the best.”
Bell was featured last year in The New York Times, which estimated “tens of thousands” of American bakers consider themselves cookiers. “Some sell cookies to neighbors and friends,” the story notes “Others have turned their garages into commercial enterprises.”
No matter the level of involvement, it’s a movement that has been fueled through social media, televised baking competitions and CookieCon. The four-day cookie art convention brings together amateurs and professionals for classes and events and to display their best work at an extravagant “Sugar Show.”
Idaho Falls resident Karen Summers co-founded the convention with her husband, Mike, in 2012, after writing a blog and operating an online cookie supply shop.
The debut CookieCon, staged in Salt Lake City, attracted 200 participants, she said. Since then, the number of activities and attendees has steadily grown. The 900 tickets available for the 2020 event — which will be Feb. 26-29 in Louisville, Ky. — sold within an hour.
Bell is the 2020 CookieCon keynote speaker and featured instructor. She will be a draw for many attendees, said Summers. “It’s the combination of her personality and amazing skill. They are just this magic formula that draws people to her.”
The majority of cookiers are women, many of whom work in the home rearing children and who want an outlet for their creative talents, said Summers. These sugar warriors often bake and decorate into the wee hours, filling cookie requests for family, friends and paying customers.
Decorating is good medicine, too.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say it’s gotten them through hard times: the death of a parent, the loss of a friend,” said Summers. “It’s therapeutic on so many levels.”
The cookie community also provides a nurturing space for women, something often lacking in today’s competitive, divisive world. Participants teach one another and work together. Even top-tier cookiers are friends and share ideas and techniques.
Bell, for example, hosts LilaLoa’s Cookie Squad, a Facebook page where cookiers of all abilities ask questions, get ideas, receive positive feedback and challenge one another to try new stencils, lettering or airbrush techniques.
Like any hobby, cookie decorating requires practice — lots of it. Learning to bake a delicious cookie that holds its shape is important. So is mixing the meringue-based royal icing to the perfect consistency. Too thin, and it will run off the cookie; too thick, and it will be impossible to pipe around the edge of the cookie or fill in the middle — a process called “flooding.” Get it just right, though, and it creates the smooth canvas that cookiers need to showcase their artistic skills.
Meaghan House, the founder of The Sugar House Bakery and who also teaches decorating classes, said students often get frustrated when their first, second or third cookie doesn’t look perfect. “You’re not going to see improvement until you’re 100 or 200 cookies in.”
House has been decorating for years and will be teaching classes at the Pinners Conference and Expo on Nov. 1-2 at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy — “But sometimes even I have to rebag icing because it looks bad.”
Few are as successful as Bell, who said her home-based business brings in enough dough that she could support herself if she had to. But it also provides a flexible schedule for her family — which includes a husband and four children, ages 5 to 12.
Bell spends the slower summer months sketching ideas, taping instructional videos and assembling kits for the busy cookie season — which begins with Halloween and Thanksgiving, peaks at Christmas and stays strong through the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, Easter and graduation.
While Bell enjoys creating and sharing ideas, it’s the coaching she craves most. “It’s connecting with people and helping them discover a new skill,” she said. “Getting to experience it with them is still exciting for me.”
A Logan native, Bell began her cookie journey about 10 years ago by decorating cakes.
Moving to Colorado with her husband and then 9-month-old son — and knowing few people — she started watching cake-decorating videos on YouTube. “I was weirdly good,” she said in her own self-deprecating way, “at putting sugar and butter together in ways that were completely recognizable and mildly impressive.”
Her husband was later deployed to South Korea, where their apartment had an oven “roughly the size of an Easy-Bake Oven.”
Cakes now were out, she said, and cookies were in. She baked six at a time and experimented with shapes and colors and techniques. “I fell in love with cookie decorating,” she said, "and never looked back.”
Social media was still in its infancy, but Bell went online and found a handful of fellow bakers with whom she could compare and collaborate. “We started sharing how we did things and it kind of evolved,” she said. “Over time, we started bringing more people in.”
It’s only been in the past four to five years that cookie decorating has gone mainstream, But as people searched the web for decorating ideas and how-to advice, Bell was there with answers, having long ago perfected the craft and carved a presence.
“She’s been doing it the longest and over the years has developed her skill and ability to share information that doesn’t scare people,” said Jen Giancola, Ann Clark’s chief cookie enthusiast. “She breaks the process down into steps and makes it really user-friendly. That’s why she is so popular.”
With Bell already at the top of the game, every new idea, creation or technique she cooks up is well, icing on the cookie.