Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

This year has been a very busy year for us.  Simon's niece was born in January.  We signed a lease in February.  In March, we went to Paris and Simon had Sadaharu Aoki's macarons for the first time.  We got married in April.  May was our first spring at Madison Square Eats.  The paperwork was finally filed and we were well under way with our construction in June.  In July, ConEd went on strike for 6 weeks.  They didn't come in to upgrade our power until August.  In September, we were back at the Hester Street Fair and Madison Square Eats.  By October, we (finally) opened our store.  Sure, there's a lot of things we didn't expect (ahem, ConEd strike..), but I definitely did not expect that Hurricane Sandy would be strong enough to knock out power for lower Manhattan for several days.

Ever since we got married, a lot of people have asked us when we're going to get started on the kids.  This store is our first kid.  Right now, it requires all of our attention and over time, we won't have to baby it all the time.  I'm here all day.  I have left the store for a total of 3 hours while we were open ever since we started over a month ago.  I get up in the morning and look at the weather to decide how many cookies to bake each day.  I spend 12-14 hours here a day (I'm at the store now) and then go home to continue working on paperwork.  I sometimes have bizarre dreams about the store.  I sometimes sit at the store for hours, doing nothing but unable to leave.  It's my baby and I'm a first time parent, worried about doing things wrong.

We weren't fazed at all when Hurricane Sandy came in on Monday, October 29th - partly b/c we're not open on Monday.  We closed up an hour earlier the night before because the streets were getting eerily quiet.  I slept in all of Monday morning and Simon hung out with friends in Chinatown.  He bought us food and we fantasized about cooking dinner for the first time since the store opened.  I was in the middle of catching up on our accounting when our power went out.  When it didn't come back on 15 minutes later, we broke out the flashlights and the portable radio.  We checked Twitter to see what others had to say.  As we came across pictures of cars underwater on Avenue D and a Tweet from Crif Dogs about the power going out, Simon and I went from considering the blackout as an adventure to worrying about our store in the storm.  Our store is 5 steps down from street level and I had taped up the door in the event of flooding, but I wondered if it was enough.

Simon paced for two hours, unable to sleep because he was afraid for our store.  I told him that if he went, I would go, too.  So, we went down 15 flights of steps in the dark, hopped in our car and drove to the store.  We saw lights from flashlights, downed trees, and people running across the street like zombies.  It felt like an apocalypse movie.  Our friend used a hand crank flashlight to check out our store and we were relieved to find that our store was safe from the flooding.  We were able to go to sleep that night.

But I was unable to stay asleep.  I woke up at 5 am with a feeling of dread.  The power didn't come back that night, so it would probably be out for a while.  I woke Simon up and we started calling around for dry ice.  We weren't able to reach anyone who could help us.  We drove around to visit the closest dry ice locations and none of them were open.  I called Lowe's in Brooklyn and they said they had 2 generators.  Somehow, we snuck onto the Brooklyn Bridge, probably during a shift change because for some reason, it wasn't blocked, and we were the only ones on it.  Btw, Lowe's had more than 2 generators.

Getting back, Simon had to name drop his cousin and flash his PBA card since the bridges were blocked for emergency personnel only.  We got back to Manhattan, with generators for us and our friends at Melt Bakery.

That week was insane.  We woke up early, raced around all day - chasing gas or dry ice - and going uptown to shower.  Simon filled up our bathtub with water, but that was our only water at home for the 4 days the power was out.  We made instant ramen for meals using a portable gas burner.  We made coffee for the neighbors around our store and charged cell phones in every outlet in our generators.  People said rude words to us about the sound of the generators.  I got to make friends with a few of the residents of our store's building.  We got complaints about serving coffee that wasn't boiling hot, because even though it was still over 150F.  Two separate people decided to graffiti our awnings.  The guys at Crif Dogs helped us get a gallon of gas when we really needed it.  People were getting mugged outside of our store.  We were able to open our doors on Halloween to hand out macarons to kids, who still dressed up despite the bleak attitudes of adults around them.  It was a very intense time period that I think will really make an impact on who we are as store owners.

In the end, we were able to save a good amount of product.  Maybe not everything, but we weren't devastated.  Probably, if there weren't a gas shortage and lines lasting for hours, we could have saved more, but I am so grateful that we had the resources to pull off what we could do.  One of the generators is now in Staten Island.  Another helped keep my parents warm in NJ until their power was restored last Sunday.  In the grand scheme of things, we were really lucky and we do feel a sense of guilt about others who weren't so lucky.  I really hope that people rally together and support those affected out in Staten Island, Long Island, Brooklyn, NJ, and other areas that are still coping.  They need help getting back on their feet, too and just b/c we feel like things are returning to normal for us doesn't mean that we can ignore the people still facing the effects of the storm.

November is the month that started off in the dark, but we made it through and even though it was a tough week, we're still standing.  We're so glad for the support of everyone.  Thank you so much and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Opening a Store

It totally makes sense that we would open a store after being market nomads for two years.  It's the logical next step, but one that we've been avoiding like the plague.

When we first started, a lot of our food friends told us not to open a store, or they shared the horror stories of having their own retail space.  Things like, ovens breaking down, crazy customers, or even better, the health inspector showing up the day that your fridge decides to break.  With the carefree lifestyle Simon and I had where we committed to a few events a year, a small number of big wholesale accounts, and only 3 days a week in the kitchen, we had a lot of free time.  Not enough free time to go away for more than 2 days, but during slow months, we'd actually be able to go on brunch, or visit friends, or my favorite hobby, lay in bed for as long as possible  We didn't have too much to worry about besides the business of having a successful business.  We were making enough money for two people to get by on, but not enough for two + 1 tiny dog (so we have a framed picture of a dog, which cost us nothing b/c we got the frame as a gift).  Even while working five weeks straight at the Union Square Holiday market, we were still able to make it to my parents house for an overnight trip on Christmas to do that favorite hobby of mine (which included a fireplace this time.  I swear that the fireplace was going for 6 hours and Simon and I were passed out in front of it for 5.5).  We had a business that had stressful times, but in the food world, it was still a low commitment business.

The reason we made that jump from that lifestyle to opening a store is really for our customers.  We were asked countless times about our store, whether we had one, and how they can purchase from us if we don't.  Eventually, we realized that we had to grow into a store, if not for us, then for our fans.

The entire process of finding the store was super easy.  We got lucky in that way.  It went by in a blink of an eye.  For us, it was like, "Oh, there's a space at 111 St. Marks Place.  Ok.  That's going to be it."  And it was.  Construction wasn't so easy.  The gut renovation probably would have taken us about 3 months, if we weren't such newbies at it.  We hired a great architect to help push us along and to force us to consider everything, from the flow of service, to where the plugs should go.  Our contractor turned out to be a very practical man who would ask us to reconsider certain things for the sake of efficiency.  ConEd went on a strike so we couldn't upgrade our electricity for two months.  We ordered a custom macaron display fridge and got the run around for over 6 weeks and after we couldn't take it anymore, the fabricator was like, "Ha ha.  I made you this salad bar.  I'm going to pretend this looks something like the drawing I made for you."  My sister and I wandered around Bowery, looking at chairs and tables.  We took turns sitting in them and pretending to eat, or modeling for photos to take to the store.  Simon shopped around to find the best deal on signs.  Our architect took us to pick out marble.  What's interesting that it was really hard to find the right vendors, but once we did, it was fairly easy.  We looked at marble at 3 or 4 places, but at the last spot, we found the pieces we wanted within 10 minutes.  I looked at a dozen stores for chairs, and I walked into one store and it was sitting right by the door.  Our oven and sheeter came from eBay.  One freezer came from Craigslist.  We got a ton of stuff from Costco.  Looking back at the past 7 months, I can't believe how much we've learned and how creative we got when it came to shopping.

Did I mention that we got married in the middle?  It feels like that happened years ago, but yesterday was the 6 month anniversary.  We had a beautiful wedding, but even that was less stressful than the store.  At least then, I knew Simon was going to marry me even if the food sucked or my shoes were ugly (food was great.  I had "wedding flip flops" and those were comfy!).  With the store, there's no guarantee that people are going to come.

I've been part of an opening before.  With that experience in mind, it was my goal to make mine as smooth as possible, but you really can't.  You can set a deadline and say, I will be open by this date.  The problem is, there are so many little things popping up that the smooth opening didn't quite happen.  If we kept pushing it off for things to be "perfect" then we probably still wouldn't be open now. We opened before the cushions for our benches arrived and the first batch of blondies was the first time I made that recipe that way.  The first time I made a large batch of croissants was the day before we opened and the batch was so large that my sheeter didn't want anything to do with it.  We had wires hanging out from our ceiling for the first few days.  Our speaker system died on the second day.  I didn't place the tea order on time, so we had to run out and buy some a few hours before opening.  We weren't sure about our employee clock-in/clock-out system.  We were still trying to set stuff up with our accountant.  Honestly, it was messy.  We got lucky, though, b/c we have a great team and they held our hand while we blundered our way through the opening. 

I say "blundered" in regards to our opening, but that's only how it felt to me.  We are like swans - lovely and graceful above water, but with our feet paddling furiously below the surface.  Simon charmed everyone who walked in and I was in the back with Marissa, baking thousands of macarons.  It felt like no matter how many we made, half would be gone by the next morning.  It's a good problem to have, but I was stressed about the idea that we might actually run out (we didn't).  It also doesn't help that now I have my own kitchen and I'm in there 14 hours a day, that I'm able to take something from an idea to production within a few hours...that's what happened to our Cheetos macaron.  I looked at some orange cheese powder, thought of Cheetos, and the next day, I tested out a batch.  While that particular flavor is going to only be around for Halloween, it's insane to me that I was able to turn it around so fast.  That's something we never would have been able to do before.  But now that there's an outlet, I'm in the kitchen even longer than anticipated.

We're open now.  It took us over half a year to get here, but we're here.  We're still in our soft opening, but at least our doors are open and we're cranking.  For the past week and a half, we've been working some crazy hours b/c I can't keep up in the back, but now that Madison Square Eats is done, maybe I'll get ahead.  One of the reasons why we decided to close on Mondays was so we can fix small errors and catch up.  Soon, there won't be so many things to fix anymore and we'll be open all 7 days of the week, and from morning to night. 

Every day, I am still amazed that we have a store and one thing none of our food friends have ever mentioned is how many people want to meet the owners.  Most people settle for meeting with Simon, but I get beckoned from the kitchen at least once a day to talk to the pastry minded folk.  People want to hear our story and oh boy, do we have a story.  I didn't think I would like it as much as I do.  I like talking to people about what I'm trying to do through food or going out to talk to someone who really likes something they had at the store.  Perhaps b/c I only go out for the nicest people, that's why it seems really lovely, but it makes me happy that anyone wants to have a real chat with us about what we're doing.  When I'm really tired, talking to someone who has nice words gives me the energy to run back to the kitchen, keep on going, and still adhere to my quality standards.  It's fuel for my soul and that alone is enough to reassure me that we made the right decision about opening a store.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Working with Simon

People may wonder what it's like working with your spouse.  It's awesome, really.  It's awesome now, but much less awesome back in our early days. 

Let me remind you that when we first started, Simon and I hadn't even known each other for six months.  I suspect that most couples who decide to go into business together at least believe that they have a long term chance at survival.  For us, the whole, "Will you be my girlfriend?" came about 2 weeks before the, "We should create a business and see where it takes us."  Yes, Simon pushed for both (I did not ask him to be my girlfriend) and I was reluctant (to both), but eventually I caved in. 

Back then, both of our roommates were business partners in the midst of launching their own food business.  I pitched in by creating all the desserts and Simon was helping out with the odds and ends.  In general, Simon's a super helpful guy who'll help out anyone he can.  However, I suspect that since a lot of the craziness was going on at my apartment, Simon was pitching in to help so he could hang out there.  At some point, he was there more than I was and I would see him whenever I came home from work or school.  As we watched our roommates reviewed numbers, discussed menus, and prepared for their opening, Simon got it into head that we could set up a business together.

We started to set one up, but hadn't gone very far in the planning process before we found the opportunity at the Hester Street Fair.  There were a few obstacles though.  I was 2 months into pastry school and still struggling with perfecting my macarons.  The Hester Street Fair was on the weekends and I was in a weekend program.  Simon knew nothing about macarons. 

So those early days were wild days.  I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted our product to be like, so Simon was very reluctant to make moves without me and I spent most of my week either at my desk job or in school.  I'd come home from work frustrated about how little got done, from packaging, to answering emails, to putting together our orders on Etsy.  Simon had to build our name on his own - he had to go to the Hester Street Fair and set up, sell, and try to open more wholesale accounts.  We didn't know how to scale our production, so we were in the kitchen for 12 hours in order to make something ridiculously 300 macarons.  At least once a week, we wouldn't get home until after 4 am.  I had my sisters help in the kitchen.  Simon had his cousins help at the markets.  There was much yelling, arguing, and of course, tears.  We fought about money, we fought about the direction of the company, and we fought about how messy his house became since it became our home base.  I cried a lot from working late until sunrise while knowing that I had to show up at work in a few hours.  Generally, when it came to the business, a lot of it sucked.  The redemption was in having fans who enjoyed our products - that surprise on their face after the first bite, and seeing them again week after week.  We knew we had something good that could be great.

I never grew sick of Simon.  Even when we fought, I never felt like I just need alone time away from him.  In fact, I would get really pissed if he thought I needed alone time. During the toughest week we've had as a business, Simon would constantly tell me how much he missed me while out making deliveries, even if we had just spent 18 hours together.  There is a lot of crossover between our personal lives and our business lives.  We've met many of our close friends at markets and with our irregular schedule, seeing them at events or in our production kitchen comprises most of our social life.  If we get into a fight in our regular life, we can have a really tense day at work.  If we argue at work, there's no reason to not continue after the production is finished.  We talk about cafe furniture over dinner.  We talk about dinner while piping.  We bring macarons to 90% of the social events we go to.  We go on dates to bakeries.  We have never been apart for 24 hours since starting the company.

Even though things were very difficult at the start, over time, things changed.  We had one really big order that changed production for us forever.  We took classes where we learned about how other people make macarons.  We smoothed out a lot of our issues and divided up our responsibilities for example, Simon handles all of the customer service and I handle all the recipes.  I went from being reluctant about being a girlfriend, to asking when I can be a wife.  We spend so much time together, that it feels awkward to be apart.  We go to meetings together, we make all of our decisions together, and eat dinner together every  night.  We're just attached at the hip.

Things don't work out this way for most couples.  Our siblings have successful careers independent of their spouses, which sometimes means spending a great deal of time apart.  I've always been a very independent person, so I had envisioned my life would end up that way, too.  However, things are not that way when you own a business with a person.  You see them a lot.  My parents still work together, and Simon's parents had a successful business and are now happily retired together.  I know that my parents feel lost without the other.  We grew up watching our parents spend most of their days with each other and maybe that's why it feels so natural to us.

It works for us.  I don't recommend it to anyone else because it could easily go very wrong.  Work stuff can become too personal and your personal life can ruin your work.  I've met couples with successful business together, but I've also heard of things going not so well.  I'm so happy to be able to see Simon all the time, but right now, our life isn't that complicated.  We have a good job, a comfortable home, and we eat really well for really cheap (5 dumplings for $1 on our block!!).  If we have kids, or the store doesn't work out, then we're in a bad position.  It's not like, if I lose my job, at least Simon still has his.  We have a very specific skill set and we've got a lot invested in this, so we are actually putting all of our eggs in one basket. 

Although there are a few things to worry about, at the end of the day, I'm happy and Simon's happy.  We're going to continue our uncomplicated bliss for as long as we can.  Eventually, we'll have to grow up and be adults and adopt other responsibilities, but not in the near future and I am totally fine with that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fan Sponsored Honeymoon!

When people asked us about a firm opening date for our store, I was very reluctant to give an answer.  I know enough people in the industry to know that an opening doesn't always go the way you wanted it to go.  Our architect aimed for June, and our contractor said early July, so I told everyone probably late July...but then filed our paperwork saying August 16th, but that's tomorrow so all I can do is throw up my hands and shrug!

I know it's coming soon, but now that we've passed all of my estimates, I don't know what to tell people.  You never really know what's going to happen when you start building.  When we tore down our ceilings, we saw that we needed to add some support to the structure.  When we opened a wall, we found that a chimney had collapsed.  When our contractor removed the tiles from the floor, he found that the underlying floor was beautiful.  We took off the plastering covering the front of our store and discovered that we really liked the original building.  There's so many surprises everywhere!  We also found out that since our building is over 100 years old, we would need to upgrade the power supply to the whole building in order to have a working kitchen on site.  It looked like it was going to happen in July, but then ConEdison went on strike.  Now that the strike is over, we're waiting for them to go through their backlog of stuff and get to our store.  They're inspecting on Friday, so hopefully it means that they're upgrading shortly after.  Then after our electrician updates all the wiring, we can plug things in and at least get the kitchen running so we can start preparing for opening date.  If you ask me when opening date is, I'll ask you if you have any pull with ConEd!

Did you know that we have the best fans, ever?  When we got married in April, we had no plans for a honeymoon.  At our booth at Madison Square, I put a sign on a cup and wrote, "Just got married and can't afford a honemoon.  Tip jar."  Many sympathetic fans, or just nice people passing by would throw change into the jar.  Sometimes, a person would run up and press a $5 into the cup without buying anything.  We had the nicest conversations with people about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do, or what it was like when they got married.  Couples would give us advice on a long relationship (aka I always win and Simon needs to know that).  We'd talk to newly weds about how stressful wedding planning actually was and how being married is just like being in a serious relationship, but with some new bling bling.  We had a great time talking to our fans and finally, everything came together and we booked a completely last minute trip to Montreal.  I got an email about flight sales on Tuesday, and we were in Montreal by Saturday!  With the help of our fans, we had a wonderful honeymoon filled with lots of walking, eating, and the nicest bed we have ever slept on.  In fact, we called the bed "The Cloud" and could not believe how the good our sleep was on The Cloud.

Montreal was amazing.  We did a lot of walking, ate a LOT of food, and just had a grand old time.  I had thought it would be cold in comparison to the heat wave taking over NY, but I was wrong and I got the first tan I've had since 2009.  Even with a thick coat of SPF 75 on, I still got a tan!  We ate a billion croissants, ordered tons of poutine, ate at Schwartz, and watched the medieval duct tape fight. 

Did I mention that my teammate, Julien, from my Pierre Herme class owns a shop up there called Point G?  Based on how many shops that carry their macarons, it appears that Point G is THE shop to go to!  Back in April 2009, I basically lied about my experience in food to go to the workshop in Paris.  It was pretty clear right away that I was a complete amateur, but fortunately, I had been teamed up with Julien.  Julien was so fast and efficient that I remember looking at him and thinking, I need to go to school to be like this guy.  When we saw him yesterday, he even demonstrated to Simon how bad I was at piping and the scared faces I would make (all totally accurate).  Julien taught me how to have more control with my piping bag and today, I still use his technique.  Anyway, in three years, his business went from a tiny shop with a small budget to a really amazing operation.  I hope that one day, we will be somewhere near as successful as he is.

One of the things I like about the food industry is that it's full of nice people.  Sure, there are bad eggs in every bunch, but a lot of us are brought together by our love for food.  Some of our best friends are friends we have met through food and during the rare times we do get together, we talk about our shared experiences, or throw around ideas for a new product.  We wonder if there's a better way for a small business to do delivery service; we complain about how scary an 80 quart mixer is; we chat about the nice thing someone said to us that day.  There is more that brings us together than tears us apart, so we love to share it.  Simon met a nice couple who work at a restaurant in Pittsburgh while we were on line for a Japanese spot in Montreal and we had that common ground that made us almost instant buddies.  Julien told us about how difficult the early days of his business was, which I imagine is a warning to us as future new store owners.  There are plenty of stories to share.  I can't wait for the classroom portion of our kitchen to open up because then we'll be able to show our fans where the magic happens and let them have a glimpse of it, too.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We eat a lot of macarons.  Every few months or so, we go on a crazy spree and buy dozens of macarons - from NY and from all over the country.  Truthfully, we've had some bad ones, but we've had a lot of great ones.  We admire other bakeries for their beautiful shells, or vibrant colors, or tasty flavors.  We eat a lot and I think it's really important to sit down and assess what's going on around you b/c that will only make you better.

So recently, I tried some macarons where the shell wasn't very sweet.  I wondered if reducing the sugar in our macarons would bring out the flavors more.  So I went into the kitchen, changed up the recipe and gave it a try.  The resulting shell was pretty delicious.  Because it wasn't as sweet, it had a much stronger almond flavor to it.  I was pretty excited to fill them and compare and the results were very interesting...

It turns out that the sweetness helped bring out the flavors of our fillings more.  Somehow, when we reduced the sugar, the flavors didn't seem as bright or as tasty.  Even our lemon macaron, which is a super bright flavor, seemed reduced in the more almond-y shell.  How bizarre is that?  I had been wondering for a long time if our shells were too sweet, but I guess it's just right.

I think that's one of the most interesting aspects of working in pastry.  You pretty much have to be a calculating person who's always wondering what happens if...  What happens if you change the oven temperature?  What happens if you add a little more butter?  What happens if you accidentally forgot the sugar?  My mind cycles through all of these scenarios all the time and there's always a weird scrap of paper lying around with an untitled recipe on it and odd notes like, "NEED MORE CRISPY.  BUTTER??"

I consider myself part of the microwave generation - I grew up in an era where your microwave dinner can be cooked in a few minutes.  Due to the store opening coming up, the impatient itch has been worse than ever and I will be in the kitchen all day because I cannot sleep until I have mastered whatever it is that I am after that day.  I keep thinking about what to do next and I am so impatient about waiting for it to all happen.  The worst is when I get so impatient that I ruin it at the last step.  I do that a lot.

It's important to always be on your feet.  I want to be able to stand behind our product.  There's always that whole greener pastures thing and I wonder if where I'm at is good enough.  I may have a great recipe, but it doesn't stop me from wondering if it could get better by tweaking it a little.  That's what happened with our pistachio macaron.  When we first unveiled our pistachio, I thought it was pretty good.  But I changed it like 4 times in the middle of our busiest season (December!) until I finally found one that I was happy with.  It's incredibly expensive to make compared with our previous version and uses 3 different pistachio products to get to the right flavor, but I'm much happier with it.

Now that we're expanding, it means I'm testing out new recipes - beyond macarons.  I sit down some nights with four books open around me so I can compare recipes and figure out what exactly I'm looking for.  It's a lot of fun to try something new, but also very frustrating when you know what you want, but don't know how to get there.  Often, I find myself turning to some of my more technical baking books and google to figure out if anyone else has mastered the same problem I have.  Sometimes I find myself baking 6 batches of brownies in all the various pans I have in my house only to find that there's one with the right flavor, but wrong texture and then have to test it again with varying amounts of batter to find out which thickness is the right one or which oven time is right.  There are just so many variables and you have to keep trying in order to have something you're proud of.  It's all worth it in the end for the moment you taste something for the first time and say to yourself, "This is it."

And that's when I type it up and put it in my recipe book.  It usually is "It" until I start to worry again and decide to tweak it four times before realizing the first one was just right. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Married Life!

Remember that time when Macaron Parlour was started by two people who practically barely knew each other?  Yeah, well, those two people got married.  Then a week later, kicked off our season at the Hester Street Fair, and a week after that, started the month long market at Madison Square Eats.  Now it's almost 7 weeks later and after all the chaos of the past few months, I got hit with a serious stomach virus and now I finally get to relax (minus the pain and not eating part) in bed.

Tomorrow will be our last scheduled day at the Hester Street Fair and then we're going to go on a hiatus to focus our energies on our store (and maybe go on a honeymoon?  If you see Simon , please tell him that we should do one last getaway before more chaos).  We'll hopefully be open sometime in late July and can visit us like, all the time!

Thank you everyone for making the past two years wonderful and being part of our story.  We're super happy to have so many new friends and fans in our lives and we couldn't have gotten here without your love and support.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Our Future Store

Simon and I went on vacation in early March...FINALLY! We haven't been on vacation since meeting each other. Our first year, we were too broke, our second year, we were too busy. I had booked a trip to Paris for our two year anniversary and somehow, it totally worked out.

Right before leaving, we signed a lease for a beautiful space at 111 St. Marks Place. We're going to have the whole works there - cafe, bakery, kitchen, classroom, and outdoor garden! There's this really beautiful backyard and while we're sad to report that we can't use it for seating, we're happy to have an urban garden. I had started gardening when I was in middle school after my grandmother was unable to maintain the one in our backyard. I was a terrible gardener, although I tried hard (somehow grew an entire crop of corn that had baby tops, regular sized bottoms...). Hopefully this time will be better.

With the lease signed and knowing that much lay in the months ahead, we went to Paris with the purpose of doing "research and development." This meant buying and eating macarons from everywhere, and coming back to the US with 15 boxes of macarons to do a master taste test with ours. We also ate French brownies and cookies, and if you like the simplicity of American brownies and chocolate chip cookies, you will be disappointed b/c theirs have so many ingredients and are so complex. We made croissants and baguettes at Grenier a Pain. We ate baguettes every day, slathering them with rich butter and jam. We walked until our bodies felt older than our actual age and my hips started hurting, while Simon's ankle became strained. We visited museums, ice cream shops, flea markets, bookstores and many pastry shops. At the very end, we took engagement photos that ended up being way more amazing than I ever could have hoped for.

Then it was back to reality - less than two weeks after coming back, we had a Macaron Day pop up at our store. We basically painted the interior and exterior of our store with the help of my sisters and hung up a curtain to hide half of the store. A lot of people said that it seemed like we could just open up with the setup we have, but we have a lot in mind for our future space.

When I went to school last year to learn about culinary management, I was very unsure about the next steps for Macaron Parlour. We work in a commissary kitchen, but I had dreams of having our own kitchen, although not our own retail space. As much as I enjoy working with so many great people, I always felt like having our own kitchen would help streamline things for us a little bit. We wouldn't have to spend an hour getting things out of our storage space before starting production and an hour putting it away. We wouldn't have to search for equipment that may have wandered since the last time we used it. With all of that in mind, I had hoped to someday have our own tiny production space that was all ours. I thought that if we had our own kitchen, our business can grow.

But once I started the program, I realized that we were potentially much more than a wholesale/market business. Friends pointed out to us that people always ask us if we have a store. Simon and I noticed that many people believed that since we don't have a store, we must bake out of our home - including those we had approached to be potential wholesale clients. We saw that a store would give us a sense of legitimacy, and probably grow our business much faster than we could do without.

We found our space in January. I found a listing for it on Craigslist that gave a very vague impression of where it might be and I begged Simon to do a slow drive by whenever we were in the neighborhood with the hope that we could find it. It took about 3 trips before I finally found it, two basement retail locations on St. Marks Place. Then I had to convince Simon that we needed both sides and not just one of them. He didn't buy it at first, but he came around eventually once I drew a diagram of what it could be. Then we had to find a broker who was showing that space and would respond to us in a timely manner.

We thought that it would take 2 months before we got a lease to sign. Took us less than two weeks. Negotiations took another two weeks and we got the keys. I have signed leases for apartments in NY and while this was a little more complicated, it was still somewhat familiar territory. What wasn't familiar was everything that came next - finding an architect, thinking about the feel of the space, getting all of the specs for the equipment we're going to use, figuring out what we're going to sell and how to display it, lighting, electricity, plumbing, etc. There is so much to think about and no real guidebook on how to do it right, so we just have to plunge in and do it. I think we're a little slower on everything than we would like to be, but I think it'll be better for us to be more thoughtful every step of the way than to have major regrets in the future.

Opening a store is no easy feat, but we're taking our first baby steps and have our fingers crossed. We're lucky that Simon and I have great connections to people we trust for advice to help us on this journey.

While the store won't be coming together until this summer (hopefully), we do have several other fun things in the meantime. This weekend, we're going to be at the DeKalb Market for opening weekend (April 7-8). Then we will be doing the TAP-NY Night Market at the Downtown Community Television Center at 87 Lafayette St on Friday, April 13 from 6-10 pm. Then all will be quiet for a week so we can get married (YAY!). Then Hester Street Fair will be kicking off on April 28th. The following Friday, on May 4th, we'll be back at Madison Square Eats - spring edition. If things work out, we'll hopefully have some frozen macarons for sale there. There's plenty of opportunity for us to see each other before the store opens, so friends, please stop by and see us soon!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pastry School

I had always liked baking. I went to this really great pre-school that taught us a lot of amazing things, like we spent each week learning about a new culture, we met people doing some really great things, I got to meet the governor, and I remember doing some really fun art projects with fish. The thing that stuck out was, we learned a lot about food. When we learned about different cultures, we learned about the food they ate. We visited our kitchen where we would get a demonstration and sometimes even work hands on to make the product. My mom said I would come home with these recipes and ask her to help me make a binder for them. I'm sure she did, but I am not sure what happened to it.

As a kid, my next door neighbors would come over and we would spend hours baking together. I wasn't sure what the difference was between tsp and tbsp so I always had overly salty cookies (perhaps why I like salty cookies now...). In high school, I always baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies at the beginning of every break for my family (who does not eat sweets normally) and one at the end of break for my classmates (who suffered from repetitive cafeteria food) when I got back.

Sometime in college, I started fantasizing about opening a bakery. Perhaps because I had spent so many years thinking I was going to be a lawyer, or a psychologist, or something that would make my parents very proud, it never really occurred to me that you can bake for a living. I'm not sure why I didn't think it was feasible as a full time job. I fantasized about having a bakery as a side job. So, I thought my real job would be in PR and I would own this bakery on my days off.

Well, there is one way you can own a bakery as a side job. That is by being an investor and pouring enough money into someone else's business to be able to go in and check on it now and then and pat everyone on the back for the good work. I did not have that kind of money. I don't have that money now. I get excited whenever the lottery is over $150 million because I think that is my only chance of getting money like that. I would be excited to win $600 in the lottery, but that hasn't happened yet.

I went forth with the PR route and sent out dozens of emails before someone finally took me in. One of my internships led to my first real post-college job. After reading "Cheaper by the Dozen" as a kid, I am really into the idea of finding ways to be more efficient. When it comes to Christina time, I am incredibly lazy, but when it comes to work, I sometimes step back and think about a problem for a few minutes to see if there is a better way of tackling it. There usually is. I have taken projects that would normally last 2-3 days down to 20 minutes. But then I would be incredibly bored for the next 3 days while looking for something to do. I would just eat in my cubicle, quietly gain weight and think about what to bake that night. This happened in two jobs over almost 3 years. It wasn't that I was a fantastic worker, it was just that there was such a set way of doing things that no one thought of ways to do it differently. But after a while, I started to feel that I did not belong and perhaps that side job could become a real job.

I couldn't afford pastry school because I couldn't get a loan no matter how many times I applied and I complained about it to everyone for 6 months. I actually applied for a lot of jobs in food with the hope that I could bypass the whole step altogether. I tried to apply to be a server, a cashier, a floor sweeper, a pastry cook, and even a completely free intern and I never heard back from anyone. I applied online to a lot of jobs. I applied in person to some and those were the worst because I would get the most pitying faces from people who knew they wouldn't hire me. I just wanted to get in and try. At this point, I was actually a really good home baker (but terrible cook...and still am). I baked a lot and I tested out recipes. I had taken the 60 hour Intro to Baking class at the Institute of Culinary Education. I had even been to Paris and held my own against professional pastry chefs in the Pierre Herme class. I applied all my ideas about efficiency to baking and with my sister, held a bake sale with literally hundreds of products from cookies, to florentines, to macarons, blondies, and pies. I could bake, and I could write a letter about why I wanted to bake, but no one wanted to take that risk.

I realized that in NY, it would be hard to get a job in food with no school or professional food experience under my belt because there are so many culinary schools and graduates here. So, I decided that I had to go to school. I was aching to get out of my PR career path and get into food. I knew if I was desperate enough to sweep floors, I really wanted to do this.

The funny thing is, I actually got my first job in pastry before going to school. An old roommate of mine had once worked at a cafe and managed to get me an interview to be a server. But once I actually started talking to the manager/pastry chef, I think she realized where I actually belong. She offered me a job as a pastry cook two months later. On the first day, I learned a lot more about how a kitchen runs than I did baking at home. I was just so grateful to get a chance that I worked so hard that I ended up with eczema that lasted for over a year. I went to school anyway because as much as I learned on the job, I felt like I could learn more and after 6 months of trying, I finally got a loan.

I have met a lot of people along the way who have been to school and people who have not gone to pastry/culinary school. A lot of people who have gone to school say it was a waste of money because it is nothing like working, but on the other hand, many people who didn't go to school have a huge chip on their shoulder.

I went to school. I found a loan that I qualified for and I took out one that was almost twice the amount of the loan I had from college. Two years later, I have barely made a dent paying it off and I hope that I don't still have loan debt to pay off by the time my kids go to college, but who knows? I never rose very high on the totem pole at work, so the money I make now is pretty much equivalent to what I made as a lowly PR person, but I work like 20 more hours a week. However, all that aside, I don't regret it at all because I met some really great people along the way. I applied for every scholarship and grant that I could and that introduced me to even more people. I made some good connections at ICE that have been completely invaluable - like being able to work with Pierre Herme at one of his demos and meet Thomas Keller. I think pastry school is just what you make of it - much like any other experience. If you go in hungry, you will learn a lot from it and you can be great. If you think that it will make you the next Food Network star, it won't.

Even though pastry school preps you for the real world, it is just like college - it is nothing like the real world. Doing class for a few hours a day is different from working for 16 hours straight with your only sitting break being when you go to the bathroom. Learning how to make 2 tarts is nothing like having to make dozens of tarts day after day for months, or even years. It really only prepares you by giving you a glimpse of what you may come across in the real world. Pastry people are crazy. We love to do the same repetitive task over and over again, every single day. We are like factory workers, but we love it. I sometimes sleep with a brace at night because my wrist aches so bad, but it doesn't stop me from working.

I don't think you have to go to school to be good. I think you just have to have the right attitude about it. Just because I don't regret school doesn't mean that you have to go. I think there are a lot of really great pastry chefs out there who didn't go to school. They were so hungry that they learned it own their own and I really admire them for that. That hunger and drive is what makes people great, not necessarily education.

And along the way, I have asked a lot of people how they have managed to avoid the hefty tuition bills of going to school. They said that they were just persistent in asking for a job. Sometimes it was at a local cafe where they were regulars and after getting to know the staff better, they just asked. Sometimes, it was by sending a really well crafted letter. Sometimes it was as easy as seeing a "Hiring" sign and going in. I learned from my first pastry boss that someone with a good attitude will be better for you than someone with a lot of experience and a poor attitude. It's true. At Macaron Parlour, we have only ever taken in one intern. I remember the surprise in Simon's voice when I told him that I was letting her come in. I told him that while emailing with her, I saw how smart and thoughtful she was and I could see myself in her words, so I wanted her to come in and see if she liked pastry. She's at school in Paris now. =)

On the other side, now that I have been in this field for enough time and have had to hire/fire people, I do have some thoughts on why no one wanted to hire me back in the day. When you know what you're doing, it's really painful to watch other people fumble around. I have taken many and I still continue to take baking classes that are marketed towards the home baker. A lot of classes are very slow for me, and it is hard to listen to someone say they want to open a bakery when they cannot operate a Kitchenaid or they have only baked with box mixes before. I have spoken to someone who has had some amateur bakers work with her and she said sometimes, they know so little that they slow her down. When you're working and you have a routine, it's hard to take that time out of your own busy schedule for the chance that the person might make it. She said that most people realize that they aren't made for it and leave very quickly. If there are two people with no experience, but one has been to least you know the one who went to school has shown some level of commitment to food and will know the basics.

If you haven't gone to school and are either debating it or trying to skip it altogether, please spend some time in a real kitchen before making any sort of big life commitment. It can be very difficult to get in, but someone will let you, even for just a day or a "trail" as we call it. Be sure to hustle and move fast because kitchens are all about that sense of urgency. If you don't know what's going on, ask. It's always better to ask how to do things properly than get it wrong and if the person training you yells at you or belittles you for not knowing, you don't want to be there anyway. I've worked with a lot of really great people who will always take the time to teach you to do something right. Put thought into what you're doing and appreciate whatever it is that they have you do, even if it's just spraying dozens of muffin tins. Don't complain. One of my first trails, I cut so many fruits that I broke out in hives all over my hands. I said nothing about it until I got home to Simon and he saw my swollen fingers. There really is no glory in food so don't expect to show up and start making cakes and batters immediately. There are lessons to learn every step of the way and a lot of steps to take before you get to the top. It is just unclear to me what the top really is, so I think you'll be learning forever.

We're probably going to be hiring within the next 6 months - after the wedding and the slow season of the summer. Based on the holidays last year, we can't do that mostly alone again. I hope we're able to find a few good thoughtful folk to come join us and learn how to grow a business with us.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is it February?

Oh man, time flies when there's too much going on!

December is a complete blur to me. With the Union Square Holiday market, all the Christmas orders, all the online sales, and trying to shop for presents for the, I can't believe we survived. We actually made like...over 20,000 macarons in December alone. And, I think we bought some of the best Christmas gifts we have ever gifted. Simon and I were so exhausted that on Christmas day, we both took 3-4 naps. We were really only up for meals, and then it was nap time. It felt amazing to just be couch potatoes.

I thought January would be a whole lot of trying to not move as we let our bodies slowly recover, but it was time to finally start dealing with that know...the Everyone had been hounding me on how I wasn't getting things done on time (who sets those wedding deadlines anyway?) so Simon and I delegated responsibilities and plowed through it in 3 weeks. We're like 90% done with our planning and we've got a handful of stuff to still what we're going to order for room service once we're no longer dieting.

I took a part time job filling in at a friend's restaurant for just January. Simon's sister had a beautiful baby girl. I wrote a list of like 10 new flavors I want to test out and we got through testing about half of them (some are real flops though). For a month that we expected to be very quiet, it really wasn't that quiet at all. I suppose it's like the weekend for people with regular jobs. I always think of the weekend as days off, but a lot of things that you had been pushing off during the week gets accomplished on weekends, like laundry, or grocery shopping, or seeing your family. It's not time off as in, you can just sit and watch TV all day, it's just time you delegate to something else. So, our January got mostly delegated to catching up on our personal lives since June-December was mostly about our pastry lives.

Now that we're hunkering back into Macaron Parlour mode (we just started making heart shaped macarons for V-day!), it's time to reflect on our holiday season. It was very interesting being at Union Square. These markets are really the first time we've done an event for many consecutive days, so we were able to really get to know people and see what it would be like if we ever opened a storefront. We made many new friends and fans, and we loved chatting with people. We were honored to be the first macarons for many and to provide many macaron gift boxes for the holiday season. We were thrilled at how many people purchased macarons and returned only a few minutes later to tell us how much they love our stuff. Moments like that made it worth having 16 hour days that started with early morning deliveries, then working at the booth, then going to the kitchen for production.

We got a lot of really good feedback - a lot of really lovely words and a few comments on how we can improve. For example, the weather was pretty warm for a December, but there was still a day or two where it was colder outside than in our freezers and after being told that the macarons were hard, we advised everyone to warm up their little macaron before eating it for optimal results.

We're constantly a work in progress. We have so many quirks from being such a small business. All of our macarons are piped by hand and even though we have a standard size, sometimes they end up a little smaller, sometimes a little bigger (good news: if we have a small guy, we usually try to give two small macarons for the price of 1). We're a two person company, so there are some things that I'm sure bigger companies can do that we can't. We're still at the point where 95% of the macarons you get from us are piped by Simon or me (the other 5% is for when we are able to recruit some help - either my sisters or some of my former coworkers). I am the only person who manages the ovens when it comes to baking, so I put each tray in and take each tray out. Simon washes all of our dishes. We are the entire business and it is deeply personal to us.

A French guy once said to Simon that we are better than any macaron shop he has ever been to in France, even the most famous names. Simon asked him why. The answer: You'll never go to any of those shops and get a smile like he did at our stand, or see someone as nice or as friendly as Simon is. That really warmed up my heart. I love the idea that even though this guy liked our macarons, the real memory that he drew from the whole experience is the good time he had chatting with us.

We really pride ourselves on having great conversations with our customers. Simon is the best macaron salesperson you could ever come across because he is really funny, he is sharp, and he is super helpful. I'm kind of awkward, but I like giving out free macarons to make up for that fact because I want you to have a good day and I make terrible jokes that no one gets, so I have to distract you from the long awkward pause afterward.

We've been to almost all of the shops that offer macarons in NY and I only remember having a good conversation at one of them. The others have just treated us like a transaction. We believe that when it comes to food, there is something very personal about it! I had a very racist comment said to me at a famous French shop in NY. I was so humiliated, upset, and shocked, and the woman refused to apologize when I called her out on it so I vowed to never go back. There are places that I go to that I know doesn't have the best food, but I just love the staff so much that I keep going. Sometimes, the experience is just as important as the food. I hope people come to us because they like the product, and they keep coming back because they like us, too.

I hope the next time you see us at a market or fair, you come by to say hi. I also hope you're lucky enough to avoid one of my awkward jokes.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Is it V-Day already? This means it's less than 80 days days to our wedding. Wow.

Macarons brought Simon and me together. I'd never think that making macarons would be part of any love story, let alone ours. We were officially together less than 6 weeks by the time I filed the paperwork to start our company. I had attempted to open my own baking business before and failed, and had no indication that this time, it would fare any better.

For Christmas 2009, I was too broke to buy gifts for anyone, so I made Christmas tins filled with cookies, chocolates, macarons, and all sorts of sweets. Around this time, Simon had introduced me to his kitchen and let me use his massive counter to set up my own assembly line. As he sat on the other side, I could hear his feet pitter patter with excitement every time I took something out of the oven. He ended up dipping all of the truffles in chocolate and packaging them. He helped me pack all the boxes and ship them to my friends. When I made a batch of macarons that all turned out bad, Simon made a small baggy to put them in so he could snack on them like popcorn. I told him my macaron theories - what constituted a good macaron and why mine were bad. This was 8 months after the Pierre Herme class and I was still having trouble getting them right. He tried to reassure me that what I thought was bad still tasted good to him. After I finished all my Christmas tins, I retired my macaron making and decided to quit for good. I was tired of trying to make macarons, and always failing and I simply couldn't afford to keep doing that (retail almond flour is like $13 a lb! I was using almost a pound a batch!).

I "unquit" macarons in March 2010. I asked Simon if he wanted to start a company together, and b/c he says yes to everything, he agreed. I decided that we were going to do macarons b/c I had this feeling that we could do something different than what was currently being offered. I was in school at the time and I asked all my pastry instructors, who helped me figure out what I was doing wrong. Simon funded our business with like $500 and that's all we had to start, and we made it work.

Simon & I baked every Wednesday night for the Hester Street Fair on Saturday/Sunday. I still had a desk job and the schedule was brutal. There were days when I would leave work at 5, we'd get to the kitchen at 6 pm, and leave at 6 am...and when I cried about how exhausted I was, knowing that I would be back at work in 3 hours, Simon would plow through it. He would clean up the kitchen, put everything away, and drive us back home.

We fought all the time over our business. When it came to our relationship, everything seemed to be rainbows and shooting stars, but when it came to Macaron Parlour, there were plenty of punches. I would get disappointed with his recipe testing. He would get irritated with how I cleaned the kitchen. I'd ask him about business moves and the bigger picture, and he somehow didn't envision it as I did. He'd hound me on not sending Paypal invoices and I would get annoyed that he didn't learn how to use Paypal himself. When people say that you shouldn't go into business with your close friends, they mean it. We were at each other and I think I probably got in a lot more punches than he did. But at the end, we realized that if we weren't so damn in love with each other, we couldn't have gotten through those first few months. It was more my dream than his, so I drove a lot of the decisions and at some point, he really stepped up and helped me make it happen. He adopted my dream and it became our dream, our business, and our "baby." We realized that we could do so much more together than we ever could have accomplished separately. We balance each other out.

My parents own a business together. Simon's parents owned a business together. I suppose it runs in our blood to be in business with the one you love. It's not easy and I don't really recommend it to anyone. Our relationship is entirely dependent on being able to spend massive amounts of time together and you know what? Simon is the first person I haven't gotten sick of after spending a lot of time with him. I get sick of everyone. When I was in high school, I wanted to live on an island with squirrels because I was so sick of dealing with people's drama and how mean everyone was to each other (I think people in high school are meaner than people in any other age group. And no idea why I liked squirrels so much, except that for some reason, my high school had cool black squirrels.). I couldn't go on trips with friends because I would get so annoyed after day 3 that I would try to do excursions on my own and come up with elaborate excuses on why I had to go alone. I get irritated pretty easily, and had always been used to the independent life, so I never thought I would ever need a business partner, but I needed someone to balance that out. I got lucky that the one person I have never gotten sick of happens to both be my future husband and my business partner. I hope our partnership is much like our parents' and we have a long, happy marriage together, even if we have to yell at each other about work stuff once in a while.

Today we're at the point where when we're in the kitchen, we can work without talking. We can anticipate the other's next move. We don't really argue about what's going on in the kitchen, we haven't been burned in a few months, and we watch movies as we work to pass the time. The other day, I picked a movie that Simon liked so much that when we had a little break, he pulled up a chair next to the laptop and I could hear his feet tap excitedly as he waited for what came next. We had work to do, but I pulled up next to him and we both took a half hour break to finish the movie. One of the reasons why I think we don't claw at each other is b/c we know how to step back and take breaks so we don't let ourselves get too consumed by the present task at hand. Last month, we didn't time our day in the kitchen right so we were stuck with nothing to do while we waited for our macarons to bake, so what did we do? We went on YouTube and practiced Michael Jackson dance moves for an hour. We finished early, in great spirits, and with new moves.

February 13, 2010 is the day Simon asked me to be his girlfriend. Well, actually, it was probably like the 4th time he asked. It was just the first time where I actually agreed to it. He asked over a heart-shaped Papa Johns pizza, the actual pizza is pictured above. That was the first time I ever had a real boyfriend for Valentine's Day. I'm not into the big hype over Valentine's Day, but I think the heart-shaped pizza was a winner in this relationship.

So, I wish everyone a Happy Tuesday. Regardless of your relationship status, it is important to remember to not get so caught up in the flow of everyday life to miss out on taking a break and doing something fun today and every day. Michael Jackson YouTube videos are free to watch & practice with. I hope that you enjoy a macaron today.