Rise of the Pastry Chef: The Proof Is In The Pudding

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
February 2014

Restaurant

Is it just us, or are pastry chefs on a roll? No longer content with supporting parts, talented patissiers across the country are stepping out to take the lead and opening their own quirky businesses to express their creativity and fulfill their personal visions. And bakeries are the least of it—we're talking food carts, popsicles, vintage-style confections, and concepts that deftly unify the sweet/savory schism. These culinary entrepreneurs are increasingly defecting to smaller markets to realize their sugar-plum dreams, and regional consumers are on it like fat kids on, well, cake. Smaller cities, such as Portland, Austin, and Asheville, once mere culinary backwaters, have been reinvented over the last couple decades as chefs both sweet and savory choose financial independence, tight-knit communities, and quality of life over big city glamour.

But it takes more than cinnamon, spice, and everything nice to make a business work, and pastry expertise doesn't necessarily translate to business savvy. From plans to permits and fundraising to build-outs, going solo is no joke. Investors can provide the necessary funds, but creative freedom suffers when they come with opinions and obligations attached. (Does a substantial investment make someone's two cents worth more like five cents? Ten cents, even?) Renovations have a way of dragging on as contractors apply for the necessary permits and approvals, and then there's the matter of getting the health inspector on board. But once you've begged, borrowed, or stolen the necessary capital, sweet-talked (or beaten) the contractors and inspectors into compliance, assembled a team, and the doors have finally (finally!) opened—well, then you can kiss your free time goodbye for the foreseeable future. Welcome to business ownership.

We caught up with two 2011 Portland Rising Star pastry chefs, both of whom launched their very own spots late in 2013, to hear about their journeys from baker to business person. This transition is not for the faint of heart, but if you're ready to think outside the restaurant kitchen then take a cue from these intrepid pastry mavens and bake to the beat of your own drummer.

Pastry Chef Kristen Murray of Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Pastry Chef Kristen Murray of Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Brioches at Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Brioches at Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Lefse Wrap, Norwegian Meatballs, and Petite Potatoes

Lefse Wrap, Norwegian Meatballs, and Petite Potatoes

Black Pepper Cheesecake, Brown Butter Sable, Kalamanski Lime Sorbet, and Pineapple Compote

Black Pepper Cheesecake, Brown Butter Sable, Kalamanski Lime Sorbet, and Pineapple Compote

Pastry Chef Kristen Murray of Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Pastry Chef Kristen Murray of Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR

Kristen Murray – Luncheonette Maurice, Portland, OR
Luncheonette Maurice has old-school styling but a modern ethos emanates from the kitchen. It's the realization of Rising Star Kristen Murray's long-time dream. A southern California native, when Murray arrived in Portland she felt right at home. "It was in 2009 that I realized I wanted to open a business here. The community is what made me decide to make Portland my home; I fell in love with the people, the agriculture, the farmers. It's a pretty magical place."  Independently drafting plans, securing investors, negotiating a lease, and dealing with the ever-increasing expense of renovations, Murray spent the greater part of 2013 building her dream into reality from the shell of a former bookshop. The process was more intense than she'd anticipated, but the results are all she hoped for.

How did you go about launching your business?
I wrote about seven different business plans throughout the course of the process, and reached out to mentors and trusted friends that were business savvy. The biggest hurdle was financing. I ended up reaching out and looking for grants and investors. I found five angel investors.

How did you find a space and secure the lease?
I looked at tons of spaces. I almost signed on a space in southeast Portland in 2012. It was 2,000 square feet. I started to have panic attacks and think, "Ok, you don't have a partner, this is all you. What does this look like financially, how much do you need to bring in to keep this afloat?" It was really good for me to realize I wanted something small and jewel-like.  I found [my current] space through friends. They had a space that was 580 square feet, which hit the sweet spot. I ended up brokering the deal on my own, so that was really empowering. I played footsie for a long time with the owners. I had a liquor license application in the window, and the press was already talking about it, when the owners told me they felt it would be doing a disservice to the community if we didn't move forward on the space. I found the space in May 2013 and ended up signing on it in August.  It was really special the way that it worked out. I felt like it was meant to be.

Did you have a vision of the space you wanted, or were you waiting for one to speak to you?
Ideally, I wanted to find a turnkey, but there wasn't a turnkey that was the right fit for the amount I was looking to spend.

Why did you choose to do a Kickstarter campaign?
I didn't want my time to run out on the space—I knew from past experiences of people wanting to back me, there's a finite window for this sort of dealing. It was just $50,000 to $70,000 that I needed, so I did a Kickstarter. I was able to raise $43,000 in just 30 days. It was everyone from elementary school friends in southern California to old employees in Sweden to old boyfriends. The sense of community was a pretty special thing.

What renovations were necessary in your new space?
The space where we are now was a bookshop; it was a shell, so that was challenging. My budget blew up because I had to put in all the electricity, all the plumbing, everything. My sweet little $75,000 project turned into a $150,000 project.

How long did it take from signing the lease to opening your doors?
I was super naïve. I figured we would be opening September 15, that it would take a month. There's no way in hell, with all the infrastructure we put in, not to mention all the permits from the city, that it could have happened in a month's time. For a new restaurateur it's an incredibly intense process. The lease was signed on August 7, the last permit was approved on December 17, and we opened December 23.

What kind of setbacks did you encounter along the way?
I ran out of money. I had to find $20,000 in November to be able to open. I did more reaching out to people that had shown interest, to the community, working really hard on my own PR. My best advice is to leave no stone unturned. Make it happen at all costs.

How has your role changed, from pastry chef to business owner?
Tremendously, and then not at all. It's very challenging to have that time where I can just think about beautiful things I want to make. I didn't entirely realize how many hats I was going to be flipping between. I have an amazing team, but you have to be on your game all the time when you're wearing every hat. Especially if you want to remain a good mentor and a good chef. Every movement, thought, and action has to be intentional; it all has to count.

Has the business unfolded the way you intended?
I'm glad I waited until I was 41 to do my first business. I'm glad I worked for others and saw what I wanted to do and what I didn't. In that sense I had an incredibly clear vision and was able to stick with it.

What's next?
Maurice number two in Portland, Maine; New England is a second home. But that's a good five to 10 years off.

Rising Star Pastry Chef Kir Jensen of Sugar Cube

Rising Star Pastry Chef Kir Jensen of Sugar Cube

Lemon-Buttermilk Cake

Lemon-Buttermilk Cake

Sugar Cube Pastries

Sugar Cube Pastries

Sugar Cube Menu

Sugar Cube Menu

Kirsten Jensen – Sugar Cube, Portland, OR
Chicago born and trained, Rising Star Pastry Chef Kir Jensen's journey began along the typical culinary school-to-restaurant progression. But her trajectory changed in 2008 when some outside-the-box thinking landed her in—curveball—a box. Jensen bought an 8-foot x 12-food food cart in downtown Portland, overhauled it DIY-style with the help of friends, crammed in some baking equipment, and presto! The Sugar Cube was born. Five years, one cart upgrade, and a cookbook later, she's outgrown her cramped beginnings and traded up to a full-fledged bakery space.

Using the cart as an incubator, Jensen was able to build a brand and establish a following with a modest initial investment of about $30,000. While baking, storing, and serving solo in a tollbooth-size space was definitely limiting, the transition from one-woman-show to team leader has been a gratifying challenge and education in its own right.

How did you go about launching your business?
After many years of working in kitchens and restaurants, I wanted my own creative autonomy, and I wanted to venture out on my own. I really wasn't sure if it would work or not, and I figured the cart was the most inexpensive way I could get started. I had a little money of my own, and I took out a Mercy Corps loan. They really helped me out.

Why did you eventually decide to leave the cart format behind and establish a brick-and-mortar?
I wanted to do more—open in the morning, do breakfast items, have a space where people could sit and enjoy pastries out of the rain and cold. We were able to expand in different directions, build our catering and wholesale, which helps build our business. I did catering and weddings out of the cart, and it was nuts. Now I have a really great staff that helps me realize the full vision.

How did you find a space and secure the lease?
The owner actually contacted us. She wanted to sell her business. I kind of sat on it for a little while, then when she contacted me again, I went in and looked. I told my partners to go look, and they told me they thought this was it. It was the right size, the right fit, we didn't have to do too much, and it was within my price point. Everything was very serendipitous.

Why did you choose to do a Kickstarter campaign?
I didn't want to go through the bank again, especially with how the economy has been—it's a lot harder to get those kinds of loans. I had a couple of friends who were successful with their Kickstarters campaings, and it was a good way to get our name out there, get the message across. I have a lot of really great support in this town. I've been here 12 years so I know a lot of people in the community. They rallied around us and wanted to see us make it to the next phase. We raised a little more than $15,000 in 30 days.

What kind of renovations were necessary in your new space?
It was already built out and to code, which was great. We purchased all the equipment with the space. We wanted to give it a deep clean and a facelift. I spent three days scrubbing out the convection ovens. We had a designer come arrange the front space in a way that was most functional and had a good flow: tons of natural sunlight, minimal pops of color, with the main focus on the pastries.

How long did it take from signing to opening?
We got the keys at the end of June 2013 and opened September 11. We turned a bad day into a good day.

What kind of setbacks did you encounter along the way?
Didn't have a ton! There was no build-out, and everything was already permitted and to code. We were lucky enough to bypass a lot of disasters.

How has your role changed, from pastry chef to business owner?
I'm learning every day; faced with things I didn't have to deal with before. It doesn't get dull, that's for sure. One thing that's hard is managing people and knowing your position in the business. You can't always be stuck in the back anymore; you have to be talking with customers, building relationships, and building your brand. Being able to let go and allow other people to help you realize your dream was a big challenge, but it's been great.

Has the business unfolded the way you intended?
For me, the big thing was not to bite off more than I could chew and end up being overwhelmed. We're just getting started, gaining our sea legs, moving from a cart to a brick and mortar, and there's a learning curve. I wanted a neighborhood bakery, a place of my own where I could create and be part of the community—and I think we're doing it.

What's next?
Who knows? For right now, it's building my business and making sure it's sustainable. I would love to write another cookbook, and maybe open a second location, but right now the focus is getting this one to where it needs to be. You have your specific vision, but once you open something you're building a community. That's the most rewarding.