She lost her baking business, but Kathleen King is back stronger and sweeter than ever.
- Posted on May 28, 2013
Can you imagine being fired from your own company, the business that you built from scratch and poured your heart and soul into for 20 years? That’s what happened to me.
I got my start when I was 11, selling my chocolate chip cookies at my parents’ roadside farm stand. I was running my own bakery in Southampton, Long Island, at 21. By the time I was 40, business had grown so much I was putting in 16-hour days.
I didn’t want to get burned out, so I brought in two partners to help with the workload. We each had an equal share of the company, and they teamed up against me.
First they wanted to substitute less expensive ingredients, like swapping out the all-natural butter for margarine in my signature recipe. I refused. They overruled me. From there things went downhill fast.
One day I showed up at the bakeshop and found my partners blocking the door. Then I was summarily dismissed. From the business that had my name—Kathleen’s—on the sign out front!
I had to stand up for what was mine. The case went to court. To me it was cut-and-dried: Yes, I’d made a naïve business decision, but clearly Kathleen’s should belong to me. Nevertheless the wheels in the legal system turn slowly, and the case dragged on.
My anger and frustration deepened. I didn’t know what to do with myself, not having a business to run, or even a job to go to. My parents saw my spirits sinking and tried to lift me up. “Sometimes it’s not about the work but about our faith that God will lead us to a better place,” my father told me one day.
I took a deep breath. Maybe it was time to let my faith guide me. My parents ran our family’s dairy, vegetable and poultry farm on Long Island and they taught us kids the value of hard work. At North Sea Farm, the day you learn to walk is the day you learn to work.
My brothers, sister and I pitched in with chores after school. I collected eggs from the chicken coop. Sometimes I’d help Dad harvest corn, trailing behind him with a burlap sack for him to fill with fresh corn. The work was fun. At the end of the day it felt good knowing I’d accomplished something.
Early one Saturday morning the summer I was 11, I was helping my father stock our roadside stand with vegetables.
“You are old enough to buy your own school clothes,” he said. “Why don’t you bake cookies and sell them here at the stand?”
I ran to the kitchen, got out Mom’s big ceramic bowl and wooden spoon and went to work. The recipe on the back of the chocolate chip bag called for eggs. I’d use the eggs from our farm.
Maybe I didn’t follow the recipe to a tee. Did a little more brown sugar get tossed in? Or was it a dash more vanilla? What happened in that mixing bowl turned out to be a sort of miracle, the start of my own secret recipe.
I carried a tray of cookies straight from the oven to the stand. “Those smell wonderful. How much?” a lady asked. “Six for fifty-nine cents,” I said. I put them in a bag and gave them to her.
“I can’t wait till I get home. I have to have one now,” she said. She pulled out a cookie and took a bite. “This is the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had!” I was more excited to hear that than I was to get paid.
Soon I had regular customers. I perfected my recipe—a thin, crunchy chocolate chip cookie that melts in your mouth, with a smooth, buttery flavor and a tinge of caramel. I made a lot of cookies—enough to put myself through college, where I studied restaurant management.
My mother saw a storefront for rent in the village of Southampton and encouraged me to go for it. Not long after I graduated, I opened Kathleen’s Bake Shop.
I’d put everything I had into my business. And now I wasn’t even part of it anymore.
“Hang in there,” my parents told me. They were the most positive people I knew, and their faith was a big part of it. It was good to be reminded that I could persevere because I shared their faith.
Thank you, God, for all you’ve given me, I prayed one night. For my family, especially, and for the success I’ve had. I don’t know where to go from here, but I know you’ll guide me. The next morning I felt lighter. I kept praying like that, and my frustration and anger faded.
Finally, after six months, the case was settled. I lost the business and the rights to the name Kathleen’s Bake Shop. But I still had my signature recipe. And the judge awarded me the Southampton store. Why shouldn’t I start over? I thought. And make it even better?
That’s exactly what I did. I developed a full line of cookies and other baked goods, tweaking every recipe till I got it just right.
Today my company, Tate’s Bake Shop, makes 50 million chocolate chip cookies a year. Still from scratch. Still from my signature recipe. (They’ve even been named number one by Consumer Reports and won me a SOFI award, one of the highest honors in the baking industry.)
I still work hard running my business, but it doesn’t run me anymore. I’m smarter and stronger and in a better place, in every sense.
Oh, and the name? Dad picked potatoes when he was a kid and got the nickname Little Tater. Also known as Tate, for short.
Try Kathleen's recipe for Star-Shaped Blueberry Shortcakes!
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Kathleen King is the founder and owner of the nationally acclaimed bakery Tate's Bake Shop in Southampton, New York, which prides itself on providing simple, all-American desserts. Learn more about her signature chocolate chip cookies and other delectables at tatesbakeshop.com. And check out her latest cookbook: Baking for Friends: Over 120 Scrumptious Recipes from Southampton's Favorite Baker.