What would happen if you were told that your dream job was no longer a possibility? Perhaps you would feel dejected. Or maybe even a little worried about future prospects.
But when Chris Welch, a First office at a major American airline, received some unwelcome news about his career, he refused to panic. Instead, Chris found a way to turn a talent for baking into a burgeoning business.
When COVID-19 struck the aviation industry in 2020, United Airlines were forced to let go of thousands of loyal flight crew in a bid to cut costs. While some pilots saw their careers paused for the foreseeable future, others, unfortunately, lost their jobs. Chris, who was placed on furlough and had to look elsewhere for a way to support his family, turned his attention to baking and, as a result, cultivated a successful business.
It could be said that Chris, who hails from a piloting family, was born to be a pilot. His roots in aviation date back to 1942, when his grandmother first soloed a Taylorcraft single-engine monoplane. Since then, many relatives have headed for the skies and Chris is the 14th member of the family to receive a pilot license.
Chris says: “It’s our family business. As a teenager here in the US, I soloed an airplane for the first time on my 16th birthday and received a license on my 17th birthday. Then, I just went from there to [becoming a] flight instructor while I was in university. [After that], I was hired by one of the regional airlines for flying little turboprops.”
Chris, who has 25 years of piloting experience, recalls his first experience in the kitchen, over 20 years ago. At the time, Chris had been furloughed by a regional air carrier due to disruptions following the September 11 terrorist attack.
He explains: “After I was furloughed, the only job I could find was in Kansas. But I didn’t know anybody there. My mother gave me a cookbook for Christmas that year and I started baking because I had nothing else to do.”
After several attempts, Chris noticed that his skills were improving. “It was always a hobby,” he says. “And I got better and better at it.”
As time passed, and the industry began to recover following 9/11, Chris made a return to aviation.
Before the pandemic struck, Chris enjoyed a successful piloting career flying international routes for United Airlines. However, when the freeze on global travel was issued, Chris was grounded. During this time, Chris once again turned his attention to baking as a way to pass the time. Furlough was filled with long and frustrating days, which encouraged Chris to take his hobby more seriously.
Chris says: “I [had] always wanted to own a bakery and, when the pandemic started, I kind of knew that, either way, I wasn’t going to be flying for a long time. But I wanted to make the best use of this opportunity, so I looked at starting a business.”
He continues: “Many pilots in the United States have side businesses because we have a lot of spare time. It’s a very interesting industry where you can be on top of the world and then, in the next minute, [find yourself] without a job. It means a lot of us like to have side businesses. So, during the pandemic, I immediately [started trying to find out] what kind of business I was going to have.”
It was his young daughter who inspired thoughts of turning baking into a business.
“Once, when I was driving around the town, my daughter told me that when she grows up, she wants to own a cookie shop. It was the motivation that I needed.”
Initially, Chris began baking cookies solo. Now, he manages a team of 12 employees at his own bakery, Aviator Cookie Company. His standard cookie recipe comprises three simple ingredients: butter, sugar and flour. But the business boasts 40 different flavors.
He says: “We sell a lot of cookies. A lot of [the] ones that could be found in the market are mass-produced with preservatives and they might be a couple of days old. While ours are fresh every day. We don’t put any added preservatives in any of them. Also, they’re all my recipes. I like to get really creative with the recipes and come up with cookies that no one had ever had before.”
Chris notes that the business soon became far busier than he had anticipated. Since opening Aviator Cookie Company, demand has increased and he has built up a loyal customer base. “I’ve been open for three months and almost paid off all my investment in the business, so it will be profitable after that point.”
He smiles, before adding that his company branding was created while he was longing to be back in the sky. “I just kept thinking of aviation-themed cookie names with my friends and family. And [Aviator Cookie company] was the name that stuck.”
Not content with an aviation-themed name, Chris has also ensured that his bakery is synonymous with the skies by incorporating a rare 1955 Beech Twin Bonanza wing as part of its interior.
He says: “The wing is from a Beech Twin Bonanza, which is a pretty rare airplane over here in the United States. It was abandoned at an airport and a simulator company bought it for the fuselage. However, I was able to take the wing for free, so we painted it and it’s now my countertop.”
So, what are Chris’s plans for the future?
While busy building his business and taking care of his daughter, Chris has not lost the passion for his original profession. Chris notes that there are signs of an international recovery.
He says: “I think [the recovery] is happening right now, at least for the US to Europe market. We have been recalled to flying status and we have full schedules. So, I think the recovery is beginning now.”
But even though a return to aviation remains a priority for Chris, baking will also always have a special place.
“I have numerous employees set up that are going to be managing the baking business while I will be off for pilot duties and I also plan on opening additional locations in [the] area.”
He adds: “I wanted to make the most of this time [during the pandemic] because we, pilots, travel a lot [and] we [are] gone from our family and friends. So, I really wanted to make the most of this time because I may never get the opportunity to be home as much as I was. So, my advice for everybody who [is waiting] for their take-off would be to just enjoy the position that you’re in right now because you might not get to spend that time again.”