In Job Switch, Former Staffer Makes Whoopie

Posted July 20, 2010 at 4:54pm

Many a would-be culinary entrepreneur can wax eloquent about the subtleties of her product: the ingredients, the recipes, the hard-to-capture craft of it all.

But McKee Floyd is also versed in the more practical side of the business that she’s entered with the launch of Whoops!, a whoopie-pie bakery. In fact, she talks of branding, product development and real estate searches with the same zeal as she does her sweets.

The 23-year-old, formerly a legislative assistant to Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), left her job of two years in March for the wilds of small-business ownership.

Floyd, who until hatching the plan for Whoops! had never worked in food service, has big dreams for her concept. For now, she caters parties and fills large custom orders out of her Logan Circle apartment kitchen. In the next few weeks, she plans to finalize agreements with one or two retailers who will distribute her pies and nail down a temporary commercial baking space to rent. Her one-year business plan calls for opening a storefront location where customers can customize their own whoopie pies at a bar, choosing from a variety of cakes, icings and toppings.

Why whoopie pies? In a town glutted with cupcakes, whoopie pies — essentially two small cakes sandwiching a filling of frosting — are a novelty. Then there’s the frosting-to-cake ratio (“Way better than cupcakes,” Floyd insists). And, Floyd says, the interactivity that whoopie pies offer makes for a good business model.

Floyd is hardly the stars-in-her-eyes dreamer one might expect from someone who’s chucking a prestigious career for an unknown field. “This was more of a business decision than a love of the craft,” she says. “Although I do love it — I’d have to, to get up at 5 in the morning to bake.”

For one, the path she took after leaving Capitol Hill to pursue her vision was a highly practical one. Convinced she wanted to open a whoopie-pie bakery, the food-service newbie took a job at Sweetgreen, the fast-growing mini-chain owned by a group of Georgetown grads in their early 20s. The owners, she said, supported her idea and shared their own travails in the restaurant scene while putting her to work. Hard work.

She made salads, did dishes, rang up customers — generally learning all the un-glamorous aspects of the food industry while absorbing an MBA’s worth of lessons about building a business. At times, she says, the enormity of what she’d given up would hit her.

“I was mopping the floor, and I suddenly realized that three months ago, I was writing questions for my boss to ask [Treasury Secretary] Timothy Geithner,” she says.

She also took an unpaid internship at cupcake pioneer CakeLove, where she learned about commercial baking in a professional kitchen. When the eatery’s baker left in May, Floyd took the job, which she now balances with developing her own brand.

She approaches running a culinary business the same way that many Hill staffers do their jobs. “You have to know when to be in the weeds and when to call in the experts,” she says of both her time on the Hill and her current challenges. “I know just enough about small-business law, but I also know when to call a lawyer.”

The same maxim applies to her kitchen tinkering (ever-evolving, she notes) that led to the recipes that she uses. “I channel my inner LA in deciding when to pick up my Baking Bible and when to call a friend who has years of experience baking and can tell me, ‘Oh, you need to use another half-cup of baking soda.'”

Many colleagues and friends were taken aback by her decision to leave the Hill. “They were surprised because I wasn’t dissatisfied with my job — I loved it. It wasn’t like fin reg drove me away,” she says, adding that she considered moonlighting. “I just decided I couldn’t give the Congressman my all and focus on my business.”

Floyd’s business model is of a piece with other entrepreneurs, many also in their 20s and 30s, opening artisanal food businesses in Washington: food trucks, farmers market stalls and online businesses often provide a launching pad to more traditional brick-and-mortar establishments. Those innovators, she says, have welcomed her. Like the Sweetgreen owners, they have shared lessons and tips for starting out.

“The food community in D.C. is so cool right now,” she says. “Nine out of 10 times, if I reach out to someone, they’ll tell me, ‘This is what I did,” and ‘This is what I wish I had done differently.'”