Facebook: Elizabeth Falkner
Interview by Jessie Riley, Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon of FoodStartUpHelp.com
Jessie recently helped Elizabeth with the opening of her new Sicilian-style restaurant Krescendo. We visited her at the restaurant (364 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn NY) for this interview.
Jeff: You've had such a long rich history in terms of food. We’d like to talk today about the lessons you've learned from starting your own restaurants and other projects and what you’d do and what you’d never do again!
Kathryn: Did you first learn about food at home?
Elizabeth: My mom is a dietitian and a really good cook, so I didn't eat processed foods growing up. Being from Southern California, we had good access to produce and there was a general focus on healthy eating (and appearances).
Both grandparents from my mom’s side made candy! There was also a family farm in Missouri where my grandfather hunted quail and we learned how to pick vegetables, can foods and fish. I actually included a “food memory” recipe in my new book, Cooking Off The Clock, that reminds me of the earthy smell of picking corn in a field – Corn Soup with porcini mushrooms and cacao nibs.
Jessie: Originally you transitioned into professional cooking from working in film?
Elizabeth: I’ve now been cooking for 23 years, but I have a BFA in abstract, experimental film making, and painting. I was working in film when I started at a small café and I became the chef there a month later because I had a better palette than anyone else!
Kathryn: Who were your mentors as you learned the food industry?
Elizabeth: Traci Des Jardins and Mary Cech.
Traci Des Jardins took a chance hiring me to do the desserts at Elka after I had just a bit of fine dining experience. It was an early Pacific Rim restaurant with excellent food. I told her I could do better with the desserts. I realize now that my approach to getting that job was unusual! I had tried the desserts, and they sucked, with nothing more imaginative than green tea crème brulee. So I designed a menu, and brought in samples incorporating Japanese ingredients and using a bento box. I got the job, dessert sales soared by 60%, and I later went with Tracy to Rubicon.
Mary Cech taught me how to do chocolate work, pull sugar and build showpieces. I also learned what it was like to temper for 3 days straight without sleeping to help Jemal Edwards prep for a competition and then I started to compete myself – I was always going to break the rules!
Photo Credit: San Francisco Chronicle
Jessie: In California, you opened and closed two restaurants, Citizen Cake and Orson. How did you find your first investors?
Elizabeth: Robin Williams and some of the backers for Rubicon were some of the original backers for Citizen Cake and I raised about $30K with family and friends.
Jeff: How did you decide it was the right time to open Citizen Cake?
Elizabeth: I saw the writing on the wall: “Why are there no great pastry shops in San Francisco where people can get a really cool cake?” There wasn’t one anywhere, so I decided I had to open a pastry shop and fill that gap.
The first one, I managed really well for 1 ½ years, but it was in a remote and (then) seedy area where it was hard to get traffic. I was approached by other landlords to open another Citizen Cake and it was an opportunity to have a bigger audience. In the original location, the cakes were upscale and I was being bashed for “changing the neighborhood.”
I decided on a busier, more central location near my customers – but from the get-go it was challenging. I opened for $1.2 million during the silicon boom. It was 1999 and I had 30 investors, who all really believed in the project.
The lease was the most difficult issue, at first. The pastry shop and café got off the ground quickly, but I was hampered because one of the landlords owned a wine bar down the street and didn't want me to open as a restaurant after 6 pm.
Jeff: What was the biggest lesson you learned from that leasing process?
Elizabeth: We didn’t even touch any location with a complicated lease when Nancy Puglisi (owner of Krescendo) and I looked at restaurant locations in Brooklyn! It’s just not worth it.
Kathryn: What other challenges did you face?
Elizabeth: I opened a spinoff, Citizen Cupcake. In 2008 we opened Orson to have a commissary baking location for Citizen Cupcake. In 2010 I had to move the location of Citizen Cake because the landlords wanted to double the rent. Everyone was acting like I had so much money, but I couldn't pay double.
Unfortunately, I had been forced to remodel for $300,000, 2 years prior the end of the first lease because we had a bad floor. There was water movement under the ground of our location and the floor had rotted. We had to relocate and absorb those remodeling costs.
We found a great new spot in the heart of where our clientele worked. It was a former restaurant but it was trashed and needed gutting, so the build out took 6 months longer than it was supposed to. The space was “too big” for what we needed. The process was very hard on my personal relationships but everyone had worked so hard and we didn't want it to vanish, and I had put a lot of other people’s money into the project.
By then we had morphed into offering steaks and martinis at night so it wasn't only a pastry shop, but I don’t recommend running a pastry shop and restaurant on top of each other! For awhile it held together because I had a really great overnight bread baker for many years, my right hand pastry person who came with me from Rubicon (until she had twins), and a GM who knew about wines, and worked with good chef de cuisines who communicated really well about food stuff.
Then the economy crashed.
It was all “outside white noise,” and I didn't know how loud it was until it was all done. I was doing modern fine dinning and after the crash everyone only wanted comfort food. I just needed to stop.
Kathryn: How did you get involved in food TV? You've worked with both Food Network and Bravo, even though there is competition between the networks!
Elizabeth: It just sort of happened here and there. In 2005 I became Cat Cora’s sous chef, then I did 3 Food Network Challenges. Next I worked with Bravo as a Top Chef judge and I was one of a few people who talked to them about starting Top Chef Just Desserts. From there I did well in the Top Chef Masters, and Iron Chef started calling…
Jessie: Do you do your own promoting?
Elizabeth: I have worked with PR people in the past. Right now I have a TV agent. You have to have an agent to do television– but it’s a Catch 22 situation. You need a show to get an agent and vice versa. But I talked to Tom Colicchio and he helped find an agent for pitching me to Magical Elves (production company).
Kathryn: Your second cookbook has just been published?
Elizabeth: Owning the bakery, I had been approached for many years to have a cookbook, and decided to write the first one (Demolition Desserts) because I wanted to document my recipes, since my cooking style kept moving. So I wrote Demolition Desserts in 2007. This fall, Cooking off the Clock was published (Random House).
Kathryn: What motivates you to do the TV shows?
Elizabeth: What I love about those shows is what I love about teaching. I love the discovery of new ingredients, and what can be done with them. I also studied film production, so I love seeing how the scenes are shot, and the story telling that is edited together.
I also like “the game,” and going from being the “underdog” in the first The Next Iron Chef series to being the “scary chef” to watch in the second year!
Jeff: How did you decide to open this style of restaurant in NYC?
Elizabeth: For any concept development, my approach is to ask: what makes sense to pursue? You have to look at openings, not just jump on a bandwagon.
I had been talking to Nancy Puglisi, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and I was pizza obsessed. Nancy wanted to come back to Brooklyn and I said: I’d help you with that. We have a simple menu; people just want pizza, pasta and cocktails.
There once was a lot of Sicilian cuisine in Brooklyn but fewer restaurants are around now, and the cuisine needs some resuscitation. I look at the recipes and determine what someone else can do with it – relating to food like a Californian, and make the style my own. So there will be some Elizabeth-style in whatever it is I wind up doing.
Jessie: Are you an owner of Krescendo?
Elizabeth: I have some equity, but I don’t want all the responsibility any more. I have too many other projects in my head I would like to do. And I don’t want the investor and operational responsibilities all by myself. When you are the only person responsible for everything – it’s a whole lot of self-pressure. I don’t want to let anyone down.
Kathryn: What do you think so far about being in New York City?
Elizabeth: I am still getting used to the short growing season in NY versus California. I’m starting to work with some farmers directly, like Blooming Hill Farm.
Jeff: What advice would you give someone entering the food industry?
Elizabeth: Have stamina and perseverance. Stick with it and do not give up. You have to give 100% and kick some ass. Continue with it for 10 years and you will become an expert.
This is a very physically demanding job – it’s not strictly the hours, it also mentally demanding. I love working with a team of people, but it takes a lot out of you. You have to give other people responsibility, and they have to follow through. You need some balance in your life for longevity in this business – and time to go to the gym.
Jessie: I know you have a lot of projects going on; what’s next here for you, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: I will be offering pizza, pasta and pastry classes at Krescendo, using our Matador pizza oven! People can contact us at Krescendo to enroll (718) 330- 0888.
Interview with Philip Crouse and Laura Smith
Cup & Compass
With Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Jeff: Hi Philip and Laura. Tell us how you started with Cup & Compass?
Philip: I founded the business about a year ago. It started with a passion to create a natural and lightly sweetened horchata. I didn’t grow up with horchata and only discovered it a few years back while visiting my girlfriend in Philadelphia. I was fortunate to have worked for a few food companies before starting my own. I quickly brought on Carlos who was a classmate of mine in business school. He had restaurant experience so brought a different perspective than my own.
As we continued to learn more about the beverage industry, we identified a larger opportunity in the dispensed beverage category in fast casual restaurants. It was really then that our mission was born to provide a wholesome alternative to the soda fountain. I approached Laura at the beginning of 2012 to help out on the Finance and Operation side of the business. She left her Wall Street career to join us full time in May and we couldn’t be happier that she did!
Carlos, Laura and Philip of Cup & Compass
Laura: I worked with a few start-ups before and I have a passion for the natural food industry, health and wellness. Cup and Compass married my passion for healthy food with my business background. We have a lot of complimentary experiences from our diverse backgrounds which come in handy given we are currently doing all the sales, marketing, manufacturing, delivering, finance and operations for the business!
Kathryn: Can you tell us about your current product line?
Philip: We partner with fast casual restaurants and a talented group of tastemakers to develop customized products for each restaurant’s customer base and menu. Only basic, pure ingredients are used and we lightly sweeten our products with organic cane sugar. We are currently in 2 Mexican taquerias where we offer a Hibiscus Lemonade and a Horchata. We will be introducing Limeade shortly as well.
All products are handmade, in-house.
Philip checking the temperature of the Hibiscus Lemonade
We manufacture at the Organic Food Incubator in Long Island City. We do all of the manufacturing ourselves! We work there once every week or two, but as our demand grows we can increase our time commitment via the incubator’s shift schedule. We can make about 150-200 gallons in a shift.
Note: read about Organic Food Incubator and Bad Ass Organics in our earlier blog entry on “Creating An Organic Incubator Kitchen” at www.foodstartuphelp.blogspot.com
Jeff: How long is the shelf life you’ve been able to create?
Philip: It depends on the product. Our horchata can last three months before the taste starts to change noticeably. The Hibiscus Lemonade lasts longer. It does have to be refrigerated after it has been opened though.
Kathryn: You install a dispenser near the soda fountain at a restaurant? How does that work?
Laura: We manufacturer the beverages and package them “ready-strength” in 2 ½ gallon bags with a dairy hose cap. Our dispensers are made specifically for our packaging. We have a fantastic design team that retrofits each of the dispensers so that it really stands out at our partner stores. It’s refrigerated at about 37º F. We are continuously improving our dispensers and packaging and are currently working on a new version of the dispenser which will agitate the product and make it easier for retailers to operate.
Jeff: It’s a very interesting product, so what are the comments you’re getting back from clients?
Philip: People have loved them so far! A lot of people appreciate that the drinks are only lightly sweetened. We’re currently in the West Village and the Upper East Side, and the demographics of each area are completely different, so it’s very interesting trying to optimize the sales in each location. We are also in the process of developing new products and flavors based on customer feedback and our own ideas.
Jeff: What have been the biggest challenges to date?
Philip: Finding a bag that would work for our production process and also be compatible with the dispenser was quite a challenge. We found that the bags that we needed for our machines were not compatible with our hot fill production process. After speaking to a ton of folks who said that it couldn’t be solved, we were fortunate to end up finding an amazing vendor who partnered with us and solved the issue with a customized bag.
Laura: Another challenge is minimums. We consistently run up against minimum order sizes. We have created great partnerships with vendors who are excited to grow with us. Without their help we would have 10,000 bags, 100s of pounds of hibiscus and 50 dispensers that we wouldn’t know what to do with!
Kathryn: How are you identifying additional clients for your products?
Laura: We like to try and meet people at target restaurants through friends and industry contacts. It also has been helpful to connect with other food and beverage entrepreneurs in NYC. We hope to be build successful relationships with our current restaurants and retailers so that other potential targets hear about us through word of mouth.
Philip: One of the reasons why we enjoy the Organic Food Incubator so much is because it’s a like minded community of entrepreneurs, and Mike Schwartz (one of the partners of the incubator) is a teacher (and fellow Chef/Instructor at ICE with Kathryn and Jeff) and has been instrumental in helping us perfect our production process. It was challenging to scale up ¼ gallon batches to 55 gallons, and Mike’s insights have been tremendous.
Our long term goal is to create a platform in fast casual restaurants across the US for customers who want natural, lightly sweetened beverages that pair well with the food they are eating.
A happy Cup & Compass horchata customer at Dos Toros Taqueria
Kathryn: Did you think about bottling the beverages and selling to grocery stores?
Philip: No. The bottled beverage is brutally competitive and very expensive. We think that there is a large opportunity to create healthier dispensed beverages with no preservatives that customers can get at their favorite restaurants.
Jeff: Working in a start-up; how are controlling your costs?
Laura: We have augmented our small team with talented interns from ICE and NYU to help with the production. We were also lucky to get taken on by Orrick, as a pro-bono legal client. They have been nothing short of amazing. Lastly, Columbia has been very supportive. The university has sponsored an office space at Spring and Varick Street, Columbia Business Labs, which we will be working out of for the next year. We share the office with 20 businesses and around 30 entrepreneurs.
Kathryn: Tell us about the name: Cup and Compass. What’s the significance?
Philip: It wasn’t our first name, actually. The first name was Tiny Kitchen, since we started in my home kitchen. As we approached our launch date, we found out from our lawyers that that our name wasn’t going to fly because of trademark issues.
Laura with Bags of Hibiscus Lemonade
We were very invested in the name Tiny Kitchen so it was painful letting go. However, it gave us the opportunity to step back and take a look at the business again as it had changed significantly since we first named it. We decided we wanted to contextualize “beverage” in the new name, and we wanted something sentimental, invoking tools that have basic, functional uses. Finally, we wanted to bring in the idea of discovery since we are trying to get people to discover something new. That is how we landed on Cup & Compass.
Jeff: Thank you so much, we’ll check in with you later on. Next time we look forward to trying the limeade!
Interview with Jerome Chang
Chef/Owner Cathcart & Reddy (Formerly Dessert Truck and DT Works)
6 Clinton Street, Lower East Side, NYC
By Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Jerome, it’s nice to meet you. Tell me about how you started your business.
Jerome: I’m an attorney who changed careers and went to FCI (French Culinary Institute) for their pastry program. Then I got some fine dining experience in the industry for about 3-4 years. At first, I thought I’d take the more traditional career path, like working to become the executive pastry chef of a hotel.
Kathryn: Why did you start off your entrepreneurial career with a desserts truck?
Jerome: That story’s a little bit strange, and who knows, but it just sort of happened. It seemed like a great idea, and I felt I was seasoned enough to pull it off well.
It was 2007. The time had come for the democratization of really good food. Chefs were offering more casual dining options for really solid food other than white table cloth establishments. At the time we were looking to get into business, there was a general movement to make really good food accessible.
We were pretty much the first gourmet food truck out there. If you look back at the old magazines (guides to NY), we’re in all of them when the NY food truck movement started.
Kathryn: Well, now you have a retail space. Was it always a dream to have a retail location?
Jerome: No, not really, especially as we didn’t have deep (financial) pockets and we still don’t. Basically I’m a small business owner who commutes from where I live in Harlem to the Lower East Side because the rents were reasonable here. I have one business partner, Suzanne. I had a different partner in the beginning who left after the first year because he had never been in the hospitality business before and didn’t understand what the work entailed.
I met my current business partner, Suzanne, when I was working at Le Cirque. She had started in chocolate working with Jacques Torres.
Kathryn: Okay, so you're both veterans then, from the Jacques Torres/Le Cirque world. That explains the bomboloni style doughnuts (“Brioche Doughnut Squares”) on your menu!
Kathryn: Why did you decide to transition to a set location and stop selling products off the truck?
Jerome: Last winter, we determined it was time to retire the truck because it was on its last legs. The whole truck aspect is a double-edged sword.
Jerome: It’s the logistics of it. The city regulations (against parking in metered spots) don’t work in your favor and that was a negative. There have been police crackdowns against food trucks and neighbors can complain, get you ticketed, fined and towed.
We did use the truck to support corporate catering for film and TV, and that was a good revenue source.
Kathryn: When you had the truck, where did you park it at night after you closed up? And before you had the retail and kitchen space where did you do your production?
Jerome: Overnight the truck has to be in a Department of Health approved commissary, so it was parked in Brooklyn when we weren’t selling.
I produced for the first couple of years in 2 different shared kitchens, beginning by working out of the kitchen of a catering company.
Kathryn: When I last visited, this location was called “DT Works” for “Dessert Truck Works,” and now you’ve changed your website, and some signage, to Cathcart & Reddy. Why did you decide to change the business name again?
Jerome: Well, we had gotten rid of the truck and people just get confused! They would mix us up with other trucks. We helped create a (mobile food) movement in NYC. There were other trucks with dessert, but we were the only ones focused on desserts.
We no want to reach a wider more traditional audience. Having the truck name didn’t help and they were skeptical.
Kathryn: You’re located on the Lower East Side and you want a more traditional audience?
Jerome: To be able to grow, we need to reach a wider customer base. It’s been hard here to build up a business during the day. The most traffic on this street is at night so we’d like to attract more people throughout the day.
Kathryn: Do you have any regrets with the path your business has taken?
Jerome: I have definitely made mistakes. I think the hardest thing is to make the transition from fine dining, where we live in a bubble and all think like foodies.
As chefs, we fantasize technique and exotic techniques too much, and that doesn’t help you “run a business.” 95% of your customers don’t care about that. You have to learn how to produce things that are easy to understand. It’s not about “pretty.”
Kathryn: Do you think that you were prepared for what you’ve had to do?
Jerome: I understand food costs and I did a business plan. I think most new businesses that fail don’t make it because the owners don’t understand what they’re getting into, are not adequately prepared, and do not understand what operating their business truly costs them. First and foremost, they do not understand their food costs or how to determine it.
Note: Food Start Up Help consulting services can assist you with determining your food costs, vis-à-vis industry standards. Please visit www.foodstartuphelp.com
Kathryn: I love that you’re using your iPad for your POS (Point of Sales) system.
Jerome: Yes, it’s very easy to use. A few months ago SQUARE came around aggressively marketing merchants, and it’s free. I created a custom menu and can add new line item additions (products) as needed.
Note: Square is a free system that allows you to swipe credit cards via your iPhone and turns your iPad into a cash register. You can research whether it could help your new business at www.squareup.com. Food Start Up Help chefs Kathryn, Jeff and Jessie like that it has in-depth analytics and reports that will help you understand your sales patterns.
Kathryn: What would you like most to happen next for your renamed business, Cathcart and Reddy?
Jerome: We’d like to attract more customers. We need more people to venture this far over on the Lower East Side. It’s a 10 minute walk here from the closest subway, but we like the space, the rent is cheaper than other places we found, and Clinton Street is a food destination street.
Kathryn: Thanks Jerome!
Able To Delegate
Interview with Jenny Ammirati
Co-Owner of Culture, An American Yogurt Company
331 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY
Interview by Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Jenny! I’ve been back over here to eat yogurt periodically, but I haven’t seen you since you invited us to your launch, almost 1 ½ years ago! How are you?
Jenny: Great. As you can see, I just had a baby and yesterday we were in the NY Post!
Unfortunately, Dannon apparently just opened a yogurt shop in Manhattan that looks like our location, and incorporates “Culture” in the name. We have our attorney working on cease and desist letter. We found out about it because our customers actually pointed it out to us. They thought we had opened a second location already.
Kathryn: Wow. That will be an interesting process to go through and I’m sure going to keep you busy.
Kathryn: Tell us a bit about your concept here at Culture.
Jenny: Our mission is to provide a healthy snack alternative to those who crave strained yogurt combined with artisanal toppings. Our fresh and frozen yogurt is made entirely on the premises from local and organically sourced milks. We manufacture the probiotic yogurt and toppings to ensure everything is extremely fresh. We are a certified dairy.
Essentially, we are a neighborhood shop (in Park Slope, Brooklyn). We are open from the morning to provide breakfast and through to the evening. We have communal tables for people to sit at, and we are starting to promote neighborhood artists through an art show installation.
Kathryn: You’re open 7 days a week, for long days. Do you live nearby?
Jenny: I live about 20 minutes away, and can walk here.
Kathryn: OK, let’s go back to your decision to open a business after attending the Pastry & Baking program at ICE (Institute of Culinary Management). Did you always know it would be in yogurt?
Jenny: No! But while I was in school, I did make a lot of yogurt at home. We experimented a lot with freezing it. I had wanted to open a traditional bakery, but once my husband and I were talking about it, and we were actually eating our yogurt, we decided to open a yogurt business instead!
We realized that there is nothing else like this anywhere. Nobody was pasteurizing their own milk using locally sourced products.
Kathryn: So it wasn’t like you attended some “yogurt school” somewhere…
Jenny: No. We both worked in finance before, and my husband still does. I had worked in some restaurants. We started by testing the product at home to find the way we wanted to do the manufacturing. I did the research and found a machine from Holland to support our manufacturing method for the pasteurization process.
Kathryn: Which agencies regulate a “dairy?”
Jenny: We are under the NY State Department of Agriculture and the NYC Department of Health. We’re very regulated! There are inspections all the time, so we’re used to it.
The Department of Agriculture inspection is every 2 months, and they check the plant and test for bacteria in samples. The Department of Health inspection is only once a year, and sometimes the inspectors change so a new person has to come up to speed.
Kathryn: Coming out of a culinary school, was undergoing your first inspection for a new business scary?
Jenny: Yes, but I’ve learned that if someone finds a little thing then you can fix it while it’s little, that’s exactly how you want the process to work.
When I was researching our business, I went to the Department of Health and they worked with us. They told us who else to talk to and what would be needed for our pretty unique set-up. My staff is very well trained and know what the standards are that we must maintain.
Kathryn: How do you find staff for Culture’s operations?
Jenny: I post a notice in the window. My kitchen staff have been here long term. There is more turnover in the front of the house. I learned not to staff with high school kids, although college aged kids can be okay. Everyone is on a part-time schedule.
Kathryn: In the kitchen, does everyone do everything?
Jenny: No, the yogurt making process is pretty secret. Everyone knows how to make toppings and our granola. My manager knows how to pasteurize the milk and make our yogurts, as do I.
Kathryn: Can you tell us a little about the secret process?
Jenny: We have frequent milk deliveries. Right now we’re pasteurizing overnight a few days a week, but we could do more. The curds are then strained through synthetic cheesecloth bags for 7-8 hours to separate the whey.
Kathryn: I know initially you had a lot of excess whey. Have you found a way to utilize it? I know in France they sometimes use it to feed pigs, but I imagine here in Park Slope that’s a bit of an impossibility…
Jenny: We recently introduced a line of drinkable yogurts, and I incorporate some whey in the formula.
Kathryn: You gave birth to your baby daughter only a few months ago! How’s that going, managing a business and your first baby?
Jenny: Coming from a finance background, I was already very organized. To support your own business, you have to be organized. If I become a little disorganized, everything falls apart.
Everything here is run via checklists. There are separate checklists for opening, closing, deep cleaning schedules – everything! I pop in here frequently to check that they are filled out, and signed with times noted down.
I can also monitor what’s happening via camera at my house. I’m on the phone with staff every day. What’s key to succeeding is delegation. I knew that immediately and set everything up here to run that way. The more responsibility you give people the better they are. You also have to be good at interviewing people and determining which tasks they will be best at and can be trusted with.
After delegation, you need controls. Only 2 people ever cash out the register, for example. If there’s a problem, I can track it back via the security cameras. So there haven’t been any problems.
Kathryn: So what’s next for you here at Culture?
Jenny: We are working with a realtor now and looking into a second location. I’m not entirely set yet where it will be, or if it can be a retail only outlet. The refrigeration here probably will not support a second location’s production.
We currently have 800 square feet here. It’s a limited space, and in the kitchen, only 3 people can work simultaneously or they are on top of each other.
Kathryn: To help promote your expansion, are you planning a lot of advertising?
Jenny: Pretty much everything has been word-of-mouth. It’s paid the rent! We do have Facebook and Twitter, of course. That’s how we found out about the Dannon venture.
Kathryn: Thanks Jenny! Let us know what happens next with the cease and desist motion against a giant conglomerate versus a neighborhood dairy. They must have totally loved your business model, if they’ve emulated it….
Interview with Denise Anderson
Bagel Basement, Hanover, NH
By Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Denise, how was the transition from being a lawyer to becoming a baker?
Denise: It was a long transition and did not happen overnight, although the final jump off the bridge only takes one step! It started with a divorce and an opportunity to move to NYC from Kansas City (KC) to be near some of my kids.
My friends told me to just be honest with myself and admit that I loved to bake. Being a lawyer, I of course analyzed the options of a second career. I had a successful practice and my own law firm, so whatever I did would take some planning. Eventually I hired a head hunter and sold my firm to the highest bidder. I almost signed a lease on a bakery in KC, when I asked myself; what happened to your one-time dream of living in NYC?
I looked at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), amongst its competition in NYC, and liked the attitude, the way everyone shared experiences, and the idea that I could get a pastry and management diploma in less than one year. I kept a few cases and practiced part-time in NYC. It paid the tuition and rent. I felt "at home" with the environment even though at my age it was scary going back to school, particularly with people who never went to college, and of course in a city where I was a complete stranger.
Kathryn: What advice do you have for another professional thinking about changing careers, and ultimately becoming an entrepreneur? Was it worth it?
Denise: When I first decided to leave law, I was afraid to admit what I wanted to do was not as glamorous and lucrative as my career as a lawyer. What would my family and friends think?
I made the shift in my career because I was burned out and, at the time, I wanted to do something that was a win/win. My passion is baking, being in the kitchen, making others happy with food. Making this transition in my career, so late in life, I learned we are who we are because of our experiences. I am a lawyer of 23 years. I have skills and a way of thinking because of having practiced business and trial law. I bring that to being a pastry
chef. I struggled with how to join the two parts of my life, but then realized I always have had both parts. I have always been an entrepreneur and love to build a vision. I did it with my law firm, which was not easy but a huge success. I will do it in this industry too, but this time I will enjoy the ride.
Jeff: How much baking experience do you have, besides your externship at ICE?
Denise: I have been baking since I was very young. I learned from my grandmothers, both of whom were very skilled at baking. My dad's mother was a baker in Germany and worked as a baker after she came to America. I was self-taught until ICE.
Kathryn: How did you wind up moving to NH and finding a place to acquire there?
Denise: When I was practicing labor and employment law in KC, the owners of
Bagel Basement, one of whom is my son, contacted me to consult on the finances and structure of the company. I advised the owners on contracts and other business issues.
After I moved to NYC and was working as a pastry chef/cook, one of the owners contacted me. On behalf of the company, he asked if I would consult again, this time on the labor and management side. They wanted a full analysis of the cost of goods sold and whether the business was able to continue. They had gone through several managers and the business was losing money.
At the end of January, I moved temporarily to NH to advise on Bagel Basement. If Gordon Ramsay had approached me for a segment on Kitchen Nightmares, we would have aced the deal! It was the worst. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong. Being a lawyer, coming from my work ethic and having had the training at ICE and working in NYC, I was able to negotiate and save the business.
Jeff: How long was the bagel place in operation before you obtained it and why was it for sale?
Denise: It was started in the late 70's by a couple who wanted to steam bagels. It was the cool thing to do. It was the only bagel place in the area. The current investor group purchased the Bagel Basement around 2004, with the idea it would remain the historical, unique bagel college hangout (near Dartmouth College).
They have had several managers, none of whom have had the passion to run it to make a profit or grow it beyond just bagels. When they contacted me, the business was not worth anything. I doubt they would have been able to sell it for anything more than the equipment. A bankruptcy would have been the final outcome.
Jeff: And now you believe you’ve turned it around?
Denise: After the consulting period, the owners asked me to stay for another 30 days, which I agreed to, because I could see the business turning around. To convince me to stay on, the owners offered me a majority ownership interest, with full control of the daily operations.
Today, I am the CEO and majority owner. I feel that my legal background has fully transitioned into part of who I am and what I am doing. My investors are absolutely the best partners I could ask for. I am now in conversations with a couple who want to invest in the business, to grow it into a full bakery.
Kathryn: The location was originally a bagel place. Are you continuing to offer bagels as you expand the bakery aspect?
Denise: When I began my consulting, I was faced with a business that had been mis-managed and employees who were used to doing things as they pleased, without rules or care for the premises. Several of the employees ended walking off the job when I ran the schedules, held them accountable for the cash drawer, and implemented processes. I had to find another lead baker. I had to find staff/employees, etc. Everything was wrong and nothing was a standardized procedure or process. It was everything it should not be. I mean dirty, smelly, etc.
The last General Manager was selling premade frozen muffins. I sold the rest to empty the freezer and began making our own muffins. I have since created and designed a process and procedure for our own dry mix and muffins. I have added cookies, coffee cake, cinnamon rolls, baked bread, and much more, on a daily basis. We make everything everyday, from scratch, in our ovens. We also have sandwiches, soups and salads. We also have a retail location in the Medical School, which I have completely revamped. The menu is entirely in-line with the guests and customers.
Kathryn: Have you had to buy new equipment for the new production?
Denise: We have a 23-year old Excalibur oven and bagel former. There was a mixer that was probably 10 years old, which has since been replaced. Since the bakery was bagels only, with muffins frozen, I have supplied the rest of the equipment. We recently purchased a Viking 7 quart mixer, food processor, baking pans, pastry equipment, etc.
Jeff: What’s next for you at Bagel Basement?
Denise: I am finally writing a training manual. I have put in place many processes and now need to get them in a binder. I am hoping to franchise the business model and open another bakery. I may also rename the establishment.
Meanwhile, I am targeting local residents and business owners to help expand our customer base beyond the Dartmouth student population. We have 10,000 people in Hanover, in the surrounding area, and on campus. The downtown is mainly a Main Street, and we are located on a side street.
Jeff: How are you financing the purchase of the establishment and your new equipment for the bakery?
Denise: I have paid for the new mixer and other new small equipment with revenue generated from sales. We have not borrowed money, yet.
On a good note, the current investors have made current our past due accounts. I have since been able to make current the old loan and other bills with revenues being generated through our sales.
Editors: Thanks Denise! We will check up on your progress with the turnaround in a few months.
Interview with Karen Heyson
Interview by Jessie Riley and Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: You directed, edited and produced the video to promote our book, Les Petits Macarons. Everyone loves it! Within a month of its release, the video was featured in Texas at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference as an example of how to promote your own cookbook with a food video.
How did you start in video production?
Karen: I attribute my interest in all of this to when I was about 10 and my parents bought me a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. My friends and I used to spend hours making up characters, playing with our voices, and conducting mock interviews. It blew me away that you could have an instant recording like that. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, but I didn’t do anything about it for a long time.
After college I had a job I hated and was desperate to find another career. I decided to take a night class in video editing. I was immediately reminded of how much fun recording was. It took a while, but after a variety of transitional jobs I became an assistant editor at a post-production house called Post Perfect. In 1989, Post Perfect was one of the top post houses in town. They had all the latest bells and whistles and specialized in what’s referred to as “online” editing. Online editing is the final phase of editing where you rebuild the original edit in full resolution, and then add all the finishing touches, like transitions and graphics. In those days it was very technical and involved a lot of button pushing.
Of course, the business has changed dramatically since then. With the advance of more affordable equipment and software, those big fat post houses were replaced by much smaller editing “boutiques,” and a lot of that purely technical work disappeared. When I saw the writing on the wall, I started learning how to offline edit using an Avid system. It turned out to be blessing in disguise, because offline editing – the actual story telling - is much more creative and fun.
Karen with some of her camera equipment
Jessie: In addition to editing, you are now doing more of your own video production as well, from the planning phase through directing and shooting.
Karen: Yes. Maybe I’ve come full circle back to my recording roots and I’m still somewhat in awe of the fact that you can go out, record something, and then zip on home and start editing that same afternoon.
My pet project right now is something I call “PulseAP,” based right here in Asbury Park, NJ. I’m working with local teenagers and teaching them how to be broadcast journalists. It seemed like a natural fit, because Asbury Park is chock full of activity, the kids have a blast, and I get to run around, meet lots of people, and have fun making short videos.
Jessie: What do you think about when you go out to shoot?
Karen: I’ve always felt that a really good camera person should have at least some editing experience. It’s a tremendous advantage. When I go out into the field I already know what I need to get. The whole time I’m shooting I’m thinking about editing.
Each situation, in terms of a live video shoot, is different. For instance, if you’re shooting someone cooking in real time, you can’t ask them to repeat every step 5 times so it helps to have at least one additional camera. In that situation, I always have one camera shooting a medium shot of the head, with the person talking, and the second camera shooting all the close ups of the process. It’s common sense really. The trickier and more creative aspect of shooting is to shoot things in an interesting way (whether it be angles, lighting or camera moves) so the footage brings life to the final product.
Making pizzas at Porta for a PulseAP shoot
Kathryn: When we made the video for Les Petits Macaron we didn’t do a whole lot of pre-production. Would you say a script helps the director plan out the shots and be able to think ahead to the final, edited version?
Karen: Absolutely. If you can, plan EVERYTHING in advance. Think about what you want to accomplish. Who is your target audience? Think about how you’re opening, how you’re closing, and how you’re going to flow from one scene to the next. If you’re well prepared, the shooting and editing can be done much more efficiently and you will end up with a better product that is cheaper overall to produce.
Jessie: What are the best types of shots to try to capture?
Karen: Well, you generally need some kind of establishing shot for each scene, so you know where you are. There’s one basic rule I have with shooting: close ups, close-ups and more close-ups. A lot of the videos we make today are delivered via computer, on a tiny screen – it’s not going to be shown in a large theater. The image needs to fill the screen. If you’re shooting food, get right in there and shoot the actual product, because that’s what people want to see. At the same time, you can’t be totally divorced from the person doing the food preparation. As I said before, you should really have at least 2 cameras, so one can focus on the person’s face when they’re talking, and one can get close up’s of the food. Even in low budget situations it’s good to bring along the basics, like tripods and lights. Descent sound is also critical. I prefer small digital recorders that I sync up with the footage during the edit. But there are a variety of choices, depending on the type of camera you’re using.
Example of medium and close up food shots
Kathryn: I know from my experience working on our video that voiceovers can help with the transitions when you edit the finished tape.
Karen: If you’re shooting some kind of process that ultimately needs to be sped up, voiceovers will help. A sentence or two, along with a sequenced collage can work really well, especially if you add in some decent music.
Kathryn: You have the coolest software on your computer to edit with. I’ve just sat there and watched you zip through it.
Karen: Most decent editing programs allow for multiple layers of video and audio tracks. After you lay in the initial video and natural sound into a timeline, you can add all kinds of things to spice it up - animation, titles, visual effects, sound effects, music, etc. I especially like to play with music, so I subscribe to an online stock music library. There are lots of stock houses out there. You just have to find one you like, and can afford. In addition to the editing system, I also use a variety of external programs to create graphics and animations.
Jessie: Can someone get away with using a smartphone?
Karen: If you’re even remotely serious, I would not recommend using your phone.
Decent HD camcorders come in all price ranges and lots of people are also using the video feature on SLR’s (single lens reflex cameras) and getting some amazing results.
The thing to take into consideration is whether the camera output will be compatible with your editing system. These days most cameras use hard drives as opposed to tape, so you need to make sure that the video file being created by the camera will be compatible with your editing system.
Kathryn: If someone can afford a professional, how would they find one like you to help with their project?
Karen: Pretty much everyone can be found on the internet, these days. It’s probably best to select someone who has previous experience with the type of video you’re planning to make. Definitely ask to see samples of their work and if possible, get some references. There’s a very wide range of price and ability. You don’t want to spend a lot of money and end up with a really bad video.
Kathryn: When you’re shooting food, in particular, what hints would you give to someone trying to organize their own project?
Karen: 1. You need to realize that the camera is not the star of the video.
A common mistake is not realizing that the food has to be the star of a food video. You don’t need to do a lot of fancy moves and fly all over the place. Focus on the food. Show the person talking when they’re talking, and show the person demonstrating when they’re demonstrating but keep returning to the food.
2. Make the shots long enough.
Amateurs tend to be all over the place and their shots aren’t long enough. Try to relax and pay attention to what you’re doing. Look at your framing and what’s in the shot. Stay in one place. I know this sounds obvious, but make sure you are recording BEFORE the action starts. It’s really important to get both cameras rolling for 10 to 15 seconds before you start shooting. Make sure both cameras start and stop around the same time. Otherwise syncing the 2 cameras later will be a nightmare. Keep the cameras focused and rolling for 5 - 10 seconds AFTER the action stops and have your talent stay more or less in place.
3. Lighting is key.
Video needs evenly distributed light. The darker the image, the more pixilated (grainy) it will be. As much as possible I try to work with natural light. For an inexpensive, multipurpose lighting solution I always bring along two soft boxes with diffusion screens. They do a pretty decent job of providing general lighting with minimal shadows.
Remember that if you’re shooting in natural light, the light will shift during the day and you may need to compensate for changing hot spots and shadows. Most editing programs have color and lighting correction filters, but you still need to get the best initial image possible.
The Macaron Video
If you want to learn how to make French-style macarons, Karen produced 2 versions, the short version on our website, lespetitsmacarons.com and a slightly longer version which you can view on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K1Vl4LzYx4
If you want to see some of Karen’s work with Asbury Park, NJ teenagers go to:
A Passionate Businesswoman, Having a Blast and Enjoying (Almost) Every Minute
An interview with Shelly Goldenberg
Interview by Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon at Hesperides Incubator Kitchen, Hawthorne NJ
Kathryn: So Shelly, I know from being your Mod 4 instructor at The Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) for chocolate and decorated cakes that you make absolutely stunning cakes, but now you have added chocolate to your repertoire. Can you explain that transition and your vision for your business?
(A note from Kathryn… When Shelly told me “she made cakes,” I postponed looking at her website, because I didn’t know the quality of her cakes. Shelly’s were actually so beautiful, that as soon as her externship chef, Francois Payard, took a look at her portfolio she was asked to create the cake for the opening of his store at The Plaza Hotel).
Shelly: I love learning. I love learning new techniques, challenging myself artistically, and setting challenges for myself. I had a successful cake business before I ever started at ICE, but I was highly motivated to learn more about chocolate during my externship and post-externship training.
Jeff: Okay, so let’s start with talking about your cake business. How did you get started?
Shelly: I used to be a lawyer, and for 10 years I had a high profile, nice job in Israel. Then 6 years ago, we moved to NYC “temporarily” for my husband’s business, which gave me an opening to drop my old job and to start doing the more creative things that I was interested in doing but was too scared to do in Israel because it would have meant leaving the security of my lawyer’s salary.
When we moved here, as a mother, I wanted the best cakes for my 3 kids, so I took some classes with Toba Garrett and Betty Van Nostrand. I volunteered to make cakes for friends, then I sold my first one for $40 and my business began.
Kathryn: Why did you begin the pastry & baking program at ICE?
Shelly: From the beginning, my cakes were gorgeous but I got feedback that they should be moister. My baking initially kind of sucked! Clients weren’t getting the same enjoyment eating the cakes as they were looking at them.
So, instead of creating the whole cake from scratch myself, I hired a professional baker to make my cakes, which I then decorated. It was cheaper for me to do just the fondant work. That didn’t work out though.
Jeff: That sounds like a pretty reasonable set up. How come it didn’t work out?
Shelly: I realized that the baker wasn’t quite following my buttercream recipe. My pistachio buttercream recipe, for example, is delicious. I really worked hard on it and I felt the tastings I did for the clients myself didn’t match the final product.
I wanted complete control of the process and the technical knowledge to get there, so I went to ICE. At the time, I also wanted to learn how to do chocolate, and I thought I would eventually start selling chocolate to my cake customers as party favors.
I wanted people to eat my product and react with “Wow -- that’s what it’s supposed to taste like”!
Jeff: You’re still doing cakes, although now you’re focusing on chocolate?
Shelly: Actually, I believe I can do both. They are both seasonal businesses. I find the highest demand for chocolate in the winter, and now that it’s summer, the wedding season cake orders naturally pick up.
Right now I have two websites, although I am thinking of merging them into one and presenting a cohesive artistic vision for my business. At the moment, I work alone until we’re in the high demand for each season, and then I take on interns and seasonal employees. (I use the free ICE career placement services when I need people).
Jeff: So what’s the vision for your business, since demand is growing in both segments?
Shelly: I am at the point where I can see my success, and what I need to do now is sit down and make some plans. The chocolate and cake businesses do run a bit differently from each other. To continue to do both, I need a business map to visualize for myself what kind of experience I want to give to my clients. I need to be the one to innovate, to bring out a new collection each season (like in the fashion industry). But I think I’m “done” being the only one in the kitchen. To be successful, I need to spend more time marketing. Other people under my supervision can execute my formulas especially in the cake baking, and production line for the chocolates. I will always retain final creative control over the cake decorating, though.
Kathryn: You have pretty chocolates and you’ve modified your packaging for the various chocolate holiday seasons. Did you design it all yourself?
Shelly: Yes and obtaining packaging in runs of less than 5,000 is never easy. But in the end, I found a great small company who will do a small quantity of custom print boxes.
Kathryn: In starting your business, did you take advice from anyone?
Shelly: I actually did everything myself! I did my own market comparison of competitors of artisan chocolates and then priced out my chocolates by lowering my prices by 10% compared to my competitors. I built my own websites and I took my own photos. I drew my own logo of a cocoa bean and gave it to a graphic designer to digitize it. I designed my own packaging to be eye-catching. In short, I took no advice from anyone.
Jeff: How did that work out?
Shelly: I’ll tell you honestly, I started my chocolate business as a way to thoroughly learn the way to produce chocolate, school myself in new techniques, and see if I was able to build a high production line of something I never did before, but always wanted to learn. I started in September, 2011 with no specific plan beyond having as many people as possible love my chocolate! Luckily, because people do like my chocolate, it has grown into a small profitable business.
Now I have some challenges, and an urgent need for a more structured business plan. I sent out my own online newsletters through Constant Contact. Through that, I was able to sell $10K in chocolates in the first 3 months and was able to buy a tempering machine with the profits. I also sell directly at gift fairs, and find that a very good way to move my product so I will continue to do that through the fall.
I was introduced to a broker, who got me into 6-7 retail stores in NYC like Garden of Eden and West Side Market. That gave me volume, but I had to sell at half price for wholesale versus what I can make with direct sales via the internet, or in gift fairs.
Kathryn: Right now you’re producing in an incubator kitchen. Is that working out for you, and how did you get there?
Shelly: When I went looking for a space to produce the chocolates, I started in a “warm kitchen” in the back of a cookware store. It was tiny, but only $20 an hour and the very nice owners didn’t charge me for using the space past 5 pm! I got myself a real bargain, but it was hard to work there for any production efficiency. I Googled incubator kitchens online and found this space.
The best part about this contract is I can rent a small amount of permanent space with no ovens nearby, and rent additional cold storage space for chocolates and/or production space for my cake orders as required. It’s very flexible and cost-effective.
Kathryn: Given the type of production spaces you need, do you think it makes sense to focus on only one of your businesses?
Shelly: I find the high end, custom cake business to be easy for me to manage. You have ample notice for a project, and there’s nothing to stock. Since I’m pretty much the only one working on the cake, I’m under tons of pressure just before the project, but there is no overhead except for rental of the kitchen when needed. For artisan chocolate, it’s more complicated. I need stock, have to care about shelf life, need to have more marketing and sales follow-up, and there are more people involved.
Jeff: A very experienced business person once told me you can’t truly run a business successfully if you have to manage every single detail and aspect of it yourself.
Shelly: I am seeking a partner who will help me with the business part of the business. I have lots of ideas and I know that I can sell the product because people love it, but I need someone to help with the financing and marketing, because I am not good at it.
Jeff: Do you have time for your family?
Shelly: You know, I wrote up a plan of how much time I wanted to spend a day with my kids, my husband, the gym, my businesses etc. It added up to more hours than are in a day so that didn’t work and I threw the paper out!
Recently, I started working with a branding company that gave me a long list of questions to focus on things that are very relevant, and will help me structure my plan to grow my profits and balance my life commitments.
Jeff: OK Shelly, thank you very much for your time today. And thanks for the chocolates! How about we plan on talking to you in a few months, when you’ve finished your branding survey analysis. We’d love it if you can share it with us.
Shelly: Yes, that would be great!
Time Management Challenge
Interview with Marisa Iapicco
Chef/Owner of Semisweet
By Chef Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Marisa, so I met you a month ago here at the Hesperides Kitchens when I noticed your beautiful, decorated sugar cookies! How did you get into doing this style of cookie with royal icing?
Marisa: I started doing custom cakes as soon as people found out I had graduated from pastry school (Institute of Culinary Education/ICE in 2008). I worked at a bakery in PA, and then my friends asked me to do holiday cookies that year. This business grew from that demand. I later moved to NJ, formed an LLC and found the incubator kitchen here in Hawthorne. I still do small custom cakes and some cupcakes but my main business is decorated cookies.
Kathryn: How long have you been here at Hesperides and how much time do you spend here a week?
Marisa: I’ve been baking and decorating at Hesperides incubator for a year. Typically I am here in the bakery 4 days a week, 6-18 hours a day and the rest of the time I’m doing paperwork in my office and home. I currently live 45 minutes away and that’s too far, so I’m moving soon to be 10 minutes away, so I can pop in to make dough when I need to, or package up cookies that have finished the drying process.
Kathryn: When you sell your cookies, what kind of packaging do you use?
Marisa: I am in the process right now of changing it, but I offer a clear top gift box with the cookies in shredded paper for the standard decorated cookies. ‘Minis’ are packaged in clear plastic cylinders. For custom cookies, which tend to be hand-delivered, my clients typically want them presented on a platter or an individually wrapped party favor. I have tried heat sealing each cookie but I don’t feel it looks quite right so I put the cookies in a craft box, and seal the box. It also works better to ship them that way.
Kathryn: I heard that you tried selling in a local mall but now you’re not there anymore. Can you tell us about that process and decision?
Marisa: There was a local mall that was (supposedly) trying to promote local businesses. They offered a 3 month trial for a cart and in exchange I paid a percentage of my sales to the mall. After that, a monthly rent would have been established based on my sales record. I brought cookies and cupcakes over from the kitchen, and used my phone for credit card transactions.
The cart had limited electricity, so I couldn’t put anything in a refrigerated case. The problem was the mall placed my cart inan area where the sun came in through the roof. Per the mall’s rules, I wasn’t allowed to put up an umbrella. The cupcake icing got soft, and some of the royal icing colors faded on the cookies. It became clear that my product and the location in the mall were not a good “fit.” There were just too many obstacles and restrictions. I didn’t have the “clout” as a trial customer to argue with the mall but it did give me a heads-up that maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to sign a long term lease with them if they were going to be so difficult to work with.
Kathryn: Besides the mall-selling experiment, how do you market your product?
Marisa: I have a website, and people find me on the internet. The biggest part of my business is through word of mouth. My business has grown exponentially without me spending anything on advertising. My biggest customers are moms and brides-to-be who order cookies for engagement parties, bridal showers, baby showers, and bachelorette parties. I also do some corporate orders.
Kathryn: I see various sizes and shapes of cookies here in your kitchen. How do you organize your product offering and pricing?
Marisa: I have 2 lines. The first is a standard collection with holiday and seasonal specials. I offer vanilla, chocolate, orange-almond and gluten free for those cookies, and they are iced with royal icing but these are the standard shapes and colors. I have different sizes, including ‘minis.’ I can work on the standard cookies pretty quickly because I know the designs. My second line is custom cookies. I have lots of different cookie cutters, and I work with a client to develop what they want. Based on the detail required and the number of royal icing colors on each cookie, the price for custom cookies increases ($5.50 is typical per cookie). It takes more time to design each of the icing effects for a custom cookie.
On top of the cookie prices, I charge for delivery. Within NYC, I charge a $30 fee to cover the cost of tolls and gas. I also deliver within 3 counties of NJ. Other than that, people can either pay for a situational delivery charge, or pay to ship the cookies. They do ship fine.
Kathryn: Marisa, are you doing all your own deliveries?
Marisa: At the moment, I am the only one working on the whole process. I’m making the dough, rolling it out, baking, and icing both the standard and custom lines. I am trying to persuade my husband to help, because he’s very good at the artistic side, but he’s in graduate school. My mother helps a lot – sometimes she assists me in the kitchen, and she’ll organize or clean, or help with the finances.
Kathryn: That’s not sustainable. Either you’ll burn out, and/or you’ll max out the income you can earn off of your business. I’ve watched you, here in the kitchen working and I see your labor time for these hand-piped cookies is incredible. Can’t we get you some externs from ICE to help you?
Marisa: I need to have standard production days where I do the same thing each day before I can bring in an extern. Right now I don’t have a standard production schedule and each week varies.
Kathryn: I think someone could be trained by you to make your doughs, roll them out to the thickness you need and cut and bake them. Maybe even after you’ve piped them, an extern could come in and pack the dried cookies for you and get them ready for delivery or shipping? You could retain the “control” of the icing, at least for the custom cookies?
Marisa: Luckily, to date I’ve been able to do everything myself. It has meant that I haven’t had to worry about paying someone else. The labor time to make these cookies is enormous. Between rolling the dough, and the drying time for the icing to set, it takes 18 hours per cookie order over the course of the week.
Now I’m pretty much maxed out, doing everything myself. I do need to restructure my time, have better production organization, and have a standard schedule in order to take on more work.
My busy season starts in the fall with “back to school,” birthday parties and then all the string of holidays. I am planning to restructure this summer, tackle my time management, and take on some externs and be ready to gear up.
I’m starting with having someone re-work the website. I’ve also been starting to target new distribution channels for my high end, custom work in an effort to gain more corporate clients. But you’re right; I have to be able to remove myself from doing all of the production to also be able to tackle these goals.
Kathryn: Okay Marisa, thank you for your time! Why don’t we talk again after the summer, when you’re geared up for a new phase of growth? We’ll be able to review your new operating procedures!
Interview with Margaret Wong and her sister Suzy Wong
80 Riverside Café (expected open January 2013)
Interview with Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon
Kathryn: Hi Suzy, Hi Margaret. This space is so open and airy, and with the plants and the overhead fans it reminds me of a stage-set for a Cuban café. How did you find this space, and what are you planning to do here?
Suzy: We’re sitting in the hotel lounge area and this is where we will set up our cafe. We are located at the corner of 80th St. and Riverside Drive in a Landmark building hotel. There are no cafes along Riverside Drive and there are 120 rooms in the hotel. Hotel guests have to walk 2 blocks to Broadway if they want coffee and breakfast in the morning. Based on a survey I conducted of guests staying at this hotel and based on the overwhelming positive response of guests wanting a cafe on premises, we’ve decided to open a breakfast café here. The owner is a very dear friend of mine. He wanted to have a restaurant/outdoor cafe here many years ago but it was very difficult in the past to get the Landmark Preservation Committee to approve an outdoor cafe. We are in a sense fulfilling the owner's dream - many years later.
Jeff: Landmark status is difficult to work around. How are you managing that?
Margaret: We’ve used the hotel’s architect, because there are very few landmark specialist architects. He has now obtained permission from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee for us to create a new door opening facing the park. That will allow us access to neighborhood foot traffic, in addition to hotel guests. We’re hoping to attract customers throughout the day, then transition to light lunches and finally to afternoon snacks and treats as mothers and nannies take kids to the park after school.
Kathryn: So Margaret, we know you from when you were a Chef Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Obviously, you’ll be managing the kitchen. Suzy, what’s going to be your position?
Suzy: I'm the day-to-day manager. Once the cafe opens I will be front of the house and barista/counter person.
Jeff: Margaret, what’s it like to work so closely with your sister?
Margaret: Well actually, there are 2 more siblings involved! My other sister will be in charge of the Café’s aesthetics and when we open she will be doing the sandwiches and wraps for lunch.
My brother Simon, who is a architect, will be in charge of the inside renovations (and the hotel architect is working in conjunction with him for the outside modifications under the landmark rules). There is also a pre-existing bathroom that we will spruce up and are sharing with the hotel.
Kathryn: Wow, that’s an amazing group of resources to be able to draw upon. So where will the kitchen that your brother is designing be located?
Margaret: Right now, it’s the suitcase storage area for the hotel. It actually was a kitchen once so there are pre-existing gas hookups. There is good solid floor tile, and windows and I’m thinking we might open up the art deco archway and have an open kitchen view from the café. I might be able to host some demos and classes here eventually.
Suzy: Can you visualize a kitchen in there?
Jeff: I can visualize a kitchen anywhere! It’s really tiny though!
Margaret: It’ll be even smaller since the lease requires us to carve out a suitcase storage closet. But I will have a Hobart mixer, convection ovens and other equipment.
Jeff: What kind of terms did you get on that lease?
Suzy: It’s a 5-year lease with a 5-year renewal option. We don’t begin paying until we are actually in business.
Jeff: Those are fantastic terms to have negotiated.
Kathryn: And there really is nothing like this around you in this whole very residential neighborhood.
Suzy: We are fortunate as we already have a captive audience - the hotel guests!
Margaret: And especially in the summer, the amount of foot traffic passing outside is amazing! The baking aromas should help draw them all in, and there’s visibility to the kitchen thru these tall windows.
Kathryn: Margaret, for the 9 years I’ve known you, you’ve been a pastry and baking instructor. You’re making quite a transition from teaching. How do you feel about that?
Margaret: I’ve always wanted to have something of my own, and I’m the only member of my family in the food business. I told my students what I was planning to do, and they were very supportive. I needed something more. This is the time to do this, for myself and I couldn’t teach and focus on the business at the same time.
Kathryn: It helps immensely to have support from your family, as well.
Suzy: We’ve pooled our resources to finance everything and we are reluctant to take a bank loan. Having Simon overseeing the architect/design portion of the business has been a tremendous help in keeping our costs down.
Jeff: Sometimes that’s risky, because you’re risking your own family relationships.
Margaret: I think at the end of the day if this fails, we’ll still be ok as brothers and sisters.
Suzy: As a family we are very close and each of us will work very hard to make this dream come true. We’re in a bit of shock today, because we just got our first bill from the hotel landmark architect. We should probably double the estimate for each project moving forward.
Jeff: Did you have a concern that you were leaving a salaried position for a business that was going to take a long time to get off the ground?
Margaret: Thankfully I have somewhat of a cushion and obviously, having an architect in the family will ultimately save on costs.
Jeff: Do you have a business plan?
Suzy: Yes, we do and I find SCORE's website to be very helpful. You have to do a lot of your own work, but they give you guidance. We welcome any guidance/suggestions as this is so new to us.
Margaret: We’re sort of all over the place, because we’ve never done this before.
Kathryn: In your business plan, how many customers are you expecting once you’re open?
Suzie: I tried to be very conservative. We need on average of 75 customers a day, estimated from the hotel. There are 120 rooms, and we believe based on my surveys that roughly 80% of those will get something for breakfast. Throughout the rest of the day, if another 45 people total come in thru foot traffic from the neighborhood that would not be unreasonable. We’re located right on the park! On average we need each customer to spend about $4 to break even.
Jeff: That’s pretty reasonable for a break-even projection, given the cost of coffee and a croissant or danish!
Kathryn: Have you figured out your menu?
Suzy: We’re going to focus mainly on breakfast items, sandwiches and coffee for now. If we could expand we would ultimately want to do wine and dessert.
Jeff: Since this is a hotel, are you planning to be open 7 days a week? What are your business hours going to be?
Margaret: 7:30 am till about 6 pm. I think we can handle that every day, between all of us.
Jeff: Besides the process of working in a landmark building, were there any surprises for you that you had no idea you were getting into?
Margaret: No, not yet. We thought we would have to go all electric, but then we’ve been told that we have the ability to go gas, because there once was a kitchen here.
Jeff: There’s an existing bathroom – have you determined how you would share the responsibilities with the hotel of updating it, cleaning it?
Suzy: You’ve just brought up an important point! Like what happens with the shared space – that we have not thought about. I think that we’ll be able to work out some plan with the hotel staff.
Kathryn: Is it a concern that people might just hang out in the space here off the hotel lobby, and you won’t be able to turn tables?
Suzy: The hotel guests usually come in and check emails and go off to do other things in the city. I am noticing more and more hotels in Manhattan share their lobby areas with something like a Starbucks.
Kathryn: Can we come back and see how the space comes out after the build out, before you open?
Margaret: Sure! I’d love to share my menu with you when it’s ready, too!
The Right Tools For the Job
Interview with Ed Delandri, Food Equipment Technical Advisor at Interline Brands
By Kathryn Gordon and Jessie Riley
Kathryn: Ed, I’ve known you since 2005 but can you tell our readers exactly what you do?
Ed: I help sell commercial kitchen plumbing and food service equipment. I am in the corporate office of an equipment wholesaler. Our sales force sells to the end user, the restaurant or bakery. I am the technical advisor for both our sales people, and the end customers. In other words, the salesman will start to talk to a customer – but if the customer doesn’t know what they want or need – I get involved, and source it and get it for them. I’m on phone, email, video or teleconferencing all day and occasionally I travel.
Jessie: Do chefs and owners typically agree on what they need?
Ed: No, it doesn’t usually mesh! What would be ideal for the chef may not be affordable to the owner, so I need to help both of them figure out how to do something else. We work with vendors around the world so there are infinite options regarding what can be arranged for any customer and given the variables, every situation is unique.
Kathryn: Why do customers generally come to you about custom design vs. stock, already available equipment?
Ed: We’re the 4th largest wholesaler in the world, so people know our name. I take pride in helping people find the right fit. We will not sell a new chef or baker something we do not think they need, won’t help them, or will cost them too much in the end and create risk. We have a good reputation, and people know we can customize equipment. The customers drive the demand, not our salespeople and actually, even our competitors use us sometimes to sell to third parties.
Kathryn: How do you start the process of determining exactly what a customer who is designing a new retail (brick & mortar) location needs?
Ed: Videos and photos can go a long way. It helps to have an integrated team of the architect, engineer, electricians and plumbers.
Jessie: For custom designs, do customers have to pre-pay?
Ed: Not if it’s a repeat client who provides us good business like purchases of $500K per year. Bottom line: we want happy customers. If it’s an all-new customer, some sort of a deposit will be negotiated based on what the vendor for that type of equipment requires.
Jessie: But what happens if the customer specifications are wrong?
Ed: Someone has to sign off on the contract before the work is started. It could be the end-customer, or the architect. Custom items are non-returnable but if the vendor is wrong, they will take the responsibility to fix the situation. Occasionally an architect or engineer has to take the responsibility if they were the one to provide the incorrect specifications regarding space, etc. on behalf of the client.
For big ticket items it’s key for you to be involved hands-on in making your own decision. If you know your own business, don’t let anyone push stuff on you, standard or custom, or you’ll wind up with the wrong equipment.
Kathryn: What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen in terms of wrong equipment selection?
Ed: A lot of novice people screw up ordering ice machines. They don’t provide enough specifications on how they want it to work, and there are a lot of options.
I’ve also seen a lot of errors around fryers. Experienced chefs know they are purchased in pounds per hour. New businesses don’t always know how to project how many covers they will have, let alone peak frying volume and we need to know that and how many items on their entire menu will be fried to be able to help recommend a specific fryer that will actually work for the customers’ needs.
Sometimes, refrigeration is ordered because a restaurant chef loves the equipment design, but nothing was measured correctly and when they arrive, the reach-ins don’t fit under the counter.
Kathryn: How can customers best help an equipment purveyor understand what they need, especially since you can order from wholesale equipment purveyors all over the world?
Ed: The more specifications on how they want everything to work, the better. Allowing time for custom work is also important. Customers have to be articulate and videos and photographs help immensely. I can also go out and visit a difficult situation if necessary but remember you may be forced to select domestic vs. international given the shipping costs (like for a heavy espresso machine, or an AGA-type stove).
Jessie: What do you do with equipment that’s returned, or cannot be sold?
Ed: Periodically, our locations will host sidewalk sales!
Kathryn: Do you think that custom versus stock is the way to go, especially since you’re in that side of the business?
Ed: Actually, no I don’t. Blending custom and stock is usually the best thing but owners should never jump in with huge dollar investments without prior understanding of their business. We take pride in what we do, and we want the businesses to come back to us so we will not sell them equipment that’s wrong for them no matter how much more we could make. I am also a chef, and I will try my best to help steer them in the right direction. You have to remember, the artistic side of fancy custom equipment appeals psychologically but does not ever translate to commercial quality.
Jessie: So where should people start?
Ed: There can be a benefit of a seamless, integrated team recommendation – but that’s often impossible. So don’t just use “too many cooks” to make key decisions. You can start directly with calls to manufacturers to determine some of your initial possibilities, and you can do that yourself. Look at websites, communicate with equipment engineers and start making your own decisions. If you’re stuck, use a knowledgeable middleman and trust us to help guide you. It costs too much money to take the risk of wrong equipment selection, especially if you’re new to this part of the business.
Kathryn: Thanks Ed!