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Banking on baking: Mortgage closer finds success with cottage bakery

Maggie Mae Swenson works by day as a mortgage closer, but, after business hours, she bakes and sells sweets through a side business called Maggie Mae's Sugar & More. Her "accidental" business has become so in-demand that, around Christmastime, when the cookie, cupcake and dessert orders are flying, she puts in another 40-hour workweek atop her regular job.

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Although largely self-taught, Maggie Swenson of Maggie Mae's Sugar & More has built a following with her cute cupcakes, decadent bars, holiday treat boxes, sugar cookie kits and mason-jar trifles. Contributed/Maggie Swenson.
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FARGO — At just 25, Maggie Mae Swenson may be the epitome of the millennial baker.

She taught herself to bake by watching YouTube videos and Pinterest in her spare time. She has a natural comfort with social-media marketing and an entrepreneurial spirit.

And her sweet treats reflect a whimsy and on-trend aesthetic obviously influenced by the likes of food blogs and Instagram: Cupcakes garnished with petite tacos (actually Oreo cookie halves stuffed with green-tinted coconut for lettuce and orange-candy-sprinkle “cheese”). Single-serving trifles in cute mason jars for a farmhouse-chic wedding reception. A pink princess cake peppered with edible gold leaf and topped with perfectly matched pink macaroons.

Swenson’s artistry and eye for detail are especially impressive when you realize she is a cottage baker. She turns out all these elaborately iced cupcakes, decadent apple cheesecake bars and sugar cookie-decorating kits as a side hustle — after working full time as a mortgage closer at Bell Bank.

Her business, known as Maggie Mae's Sugar & More, happened mostly by accident. The Fargo native grew up with a mom who was a good home baker, but she didn’t have much interest in the pastime until she started college at North Dakota State University. Intrigued by the clever baking ideas on Pinterest and looking for a hobby to call her own, she began trying various recipes. Many of her skills came from exploring Pinterest sites, watching YouTube and following tutorials by Courtney Rich, the self-taught home baker who has built a cookbook-selling, podcast-hosting, merch-selling empire known as Cake by Courtney.

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Contributed/Maggie Swenson.

When Swenson started posting the baking projects she made for friends and family on Facebook, her followers oohed and aahed. Then they asked if she took orders.

Self-taught or not, Swenson’s baked goods showed a charm and finish that got them noticed.

“People actually wanted it so I thought, ‘I guess I’ll make baking my thing,’” she says, with a laugh. “It was a happy accident.”

That “accident” has become so in-demand that, around Christmastime, when the cookie, cupcake and dessert orders are flying, she puts in another 40-hour workweek atop her regular job. One holiday season, she found herself baking 2,000 cookies on a single weekend.

It’s enough to make Swenson worry that the non-commercial GE stove in her south Fargo twin home might conk out one day. Yet it keeps on baking, showing a quiet tenacity not unlike the young baker who operates it.

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Contributed / Maggie Swenson.

From Grinch-y treats to gooey bars

In 2019, not long after Swenson had started her business, she got a big break. At the time, she was in the same CrossFit class as David Reid, owner of Radiant Homes.

Reid invited her to be a demonstration baker in one of his homes, which was featured in the annual Parade of Homes materials.

It was not only fun to work out of a beautiful, high-end kitchen, but the experience also gave Swenson a boost of confidence when she needed it.

“It mostly helped me personally turn the corner of going ‘all in’ on my business and making my business a bigger commitment in my life,” she says. “I would say that’s when I started experimenting, doing specials, creating new menu items and really dedicating a lot of my extra time to the business.”

Although COVID would soon descend, Swenson stayed as busy as ever. Her cookie-decorating kits were a hit with homebound parents who were desperate for activities to keep their kids busy.

The kits — containing 12 homemade sugar cookies, three bags of frosting, three kinds of sprinkles and instructions — sold for $25.

The sugar cookie recipe came from her grandmother, who she had never met because she passed away from breast cancer. “It was so nice to use her recipes. I felt like it helped me get to know her better,” Swenson says.

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By using Google forms on her Facebook site for orders and offering curbside pickup from her townhome, Swenson was able to offer relatively contact-free delivery.

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Contributed/Tomi Dawn Photo.

Last winter, the orders never stopped for trendy hot cocoa bombs. "I don't even know how much cocoa I still have left in my pantry," she says, smiling. "It's ridiculous."

Other popular items have been Swenson’s special holiday boxes, in which customers can order a box of assorted, decorated cookies for Christmas or Valentine’s Day. They range from $30 for a small box to $90 for a large size.

Young people looking to offer something new at bridal showers and weddings will order her individualized trifles, available in flavor-combos like pumpkin mousse-toffee crumble or lemon-blueberry.

Swenson also has decorated cupcakes to suit practically any request. One of her satisfied customers is Kelly Hieb of Fargo, who praises Swenson's personable nature and willingness to help when Hieb finds herself in a bind for baked goods.

Most recently, Swenson made rainbow cupcakes with pink frosting for Hieb's young daughter. "Her work is always exactly as I want it," Hieb says. "The cupcakes were in fact a perfect rainbow when she bit into them. It was amazing."

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Contributed / Maggie Swenson.

More banking, less baking

For Swenson, the big issue hasn’t been getting enough business; it’s been making sure she doesn't get more than she can handle.

Swenson is asked all the time if she would ever turn her side hustle into a full-time business. “I go back and forth on that,” she says. “Some days, I’d really like to, but some days I think, ‘This is exhausting.'”

In a way, she believes reserving her baking to a side pursuit is the ideal compromise: She still has a guaranteed income and she doesn’t need to make a big investment in a brick-and-mortar business. “It’s kind of nice from that aspect, to have something to fall back on if you have a slower month,” she says.

One wouldn’t think the world of closing costs would have much in common with the world of cupcakes, but Swenson says otherwise. “I feel like, with the mortgage world, I’ve had to be very organized, so I’ve tried to kind of spill that into my own business,” she says. “Because you have to stay organized or it gets to be a bit much.”

Swenson says her planner is her “best friend,” and each week, she conscientiously blocks out time for work and her baking orders so she has time to spend with family or friends.

Swenson knows she can call on her family for support when she needs it. Especially her mom, Mary, whose early influence as a baker must have made an impression. Each Christmas season, her mother helps Swenson fill Maggie Mae’s holiday assortment boxes by baking the “Pretty Bars” — M&M- and chocolate chip-topped, almond bark-drizzled bars with an oatmeal crust and a gooey caramel layer.

“She’s an expert at those,” Swenson says.

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Contributed/Maggie Swenson.

Swenson also says her mom “has been a saint” when it comes time to face the inevitable aftermath of baking: a sink full of dirty dishes.

“She’s been a trooper at helping me with dishes,” she says, laughing. “Seriously, I think if I had to do all the dishes every time I baked, I would not be doing it anymore. That’s the worst part.”

Find Maggie Mae's Sugar & More on Facebook .

Maggie Mae's suite of sweets This cottage baker creates sweet things that range from fun and whimsical (see: Grinch cupcakes) to sophisticated and polished (like her special-occasion cakes).

Related Topics: SMALL BUSINESSBELL BANK
Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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