Saturday, April 14, 2012

Macaron Parlour Inteview: Former Students and Their Chefs

Meet the Entrepreneur
An in depth interview (with future follow up) to explore the lessons learned by others like you in the baking business

Opening a retail pastry shop
Interview with the Dynamic Duo, Christina Ha and Simon Tung by Kathryn and Jeff

Current Name of Business:  Macaron Parlour
111 St. Marks Place (between First and Avenue A) estimated summer 2012 (target July)

This is the first installment in our talks with Christina and Simon and we will continue to give updates on their progress.

The Story…
Christina originally came to ICE (Institute for Culinary Education) after working fashion PR, when she had realized over time that wasn’t the career she wanted.  Instead of sleeping at night, she started baking.  She happened to live right up the block from ICE and first took a macaron class with Chef Kathryn Gordon, and then the 12 week pastry series with Chef Jeff Yoskowitz.  After that, she went to Paris to Pierre Herme’s macaron school for a few days – which reinforced her decision to be serious about a career change.  She applied and won a James Beard scholarship and started at ICE.  In this timeframe, when she was deciding what to do with her career, she met Simon through mutual friends.  Simon was an attorney recruiter, and has worked in club promotions as well.   He always enjoyed baking, and has since taken the 12 week pastry series at ICE and other recreational classes. 

The Beginning
Christina began the program at ICE in January 2010, and she and Simon decided to form a business in March 2010.  They saw an ad for the Hester Street Fair in NY Magazine, which was looking for vendors.  They had about 6 weeks before starting to sell their macarons in April, to work on a website, establish a tax ID, and file the paperwork to form an LLC business.   A friend helped with the photography for the website.

Christina decided to try selling macarons and a few other items at the Hester Street Fair – but the macarons were always the most popular item.  They started with about 12 flavors, making 300 macarons per day. This took them 2 days to make renting commercial kitchen space, after the working illegally the first day of production out of an apartment (like most people who start!).  It didn’t hurt that Jeffrey Steingarten came the first weekend!  Soon they were making about 1,000 macarons a day using a commercial kitchen they saw listed through the ICE alumni posting.  Unfortunately, the person with that space lost their lease after a month – but utilizing a network of friends they had established at Hester Street, Christina and Simon were able to negotiate with a nearby bakery to use it on off hours. 

It was a struggle, because Christina still had a day job and was in school at ICE on the weekends.  By then she had given up her apartment and moved into Simon’s, which had lower rent.  They would bake Wednesday and Thursday nights until 4 am, and Simon would sell on the weekends.  Their macaron sales were profitable right away, even though they were ordering ingredients quasi wholesale thru l’  Some food was sourced thru BJ’s, before they obtained a Jetro (wholesale) account.

Christina quit her day job and got hired out of externship from ICE.   Etsy (an e-commerce based website) generated initial online sales that supplemented the two days a week they could sell at the Hester Street market. Simon was packaging the macarons and carrying everything to the post office himself.

The Effect of Getting Press
Suddenly, Macaron Parlour started to get some press, including a spot in Daily Candy in August to cover the macarons with “American flavors” vs. French.   In December, they were mentioned on the Today Show and Style Magazine, and sales came quickly.

At this point, Christina got recruited to help open a coffee/pastry shop in Brooklyn, and they initially thought that they could move their macaron production out to the new shop.  Simon started to help make pastries at the shop with Christina but there wasn’t a budget to hire more employees nor was there enough space to bake macarons necessary for their business.   The oven broke where they had been doing production, so they found another baking location through friends from the Hester Street market network.  After 4 months they were able to find another kitchen in Sunset Park and they have been there ever since.  In April, Christina came back to ICE to enroll in the management program. She applied and won enough scholarships to cover her tuition from organizations such as Les Dame d’Escoffier, WCR and AIWF.

Their Next Steps
Christina and Simon decided to do the Union Square Market, which is expensive to participate in -- but they applied anyway, knowing how difficult it was to get in and at the same time participated in Madison Square Eats, a food fair run by the same management company. Due to their participation, when someone backed out of the Union Square market at the last minute, Christina and Simon got the call. To pay for the booth, they took the money out of their wedding fund and Union Square ended up yielding a profit.  

Christina and Simon realized the most common question customers would ask was:  “Where’s your store?”  Meanwhile, Christina was completing her business plan project in her management class at ICE, and all that was missing was the location. Christina mapped out all the “other” macaron shops in NYC and realized there was a clear gap in the East Village. 

Using Craig’s List, Christina found their future location.  The place had good ventilation and enough square feet (1150) for their production that they would not have to share with anyone else – and would allow room for expansion.

Getting Ready for Construction
Christina says the real world is very different than school, where the practice exercises are theoretical. First, with a viable location open to them -- they realized that they needed a real estate lawyer, to help with the lease process.  Steve Zagor, Christina’s management instructor, helped with that. They wound up with a ten-year lease with three months free, one of which was thrown in as a wedding gift!

Simon and Christina discovered there’s a stop-work-order from a ten year old excavation at the building, which is supposed to be inspected and cleared tomorrow (as of this writing). Christina knew an architect from when she helped open the Brooklyn cafĂ©, and asked her to work for them because she liked her style.  Right now, they’re in the permit process with the city and hope to be able to begin construction soon. The duo are obtaining bids now and are using an expeditor through the architect. They are also receiving help from the New Business Acceleration Team (NYC NBAT) (for food businesses and grocery stores).   Unlike other city departments, NBAT actually answers the phone! 

Christina is currently focusing on the menu and understands from the Brooklyn experience that the neighborhood vibe dictates what will sell.  The shop’s hours will also be determined by their East Village location, meaning opening later and closing later than originally planned.   The couple is gearing up to start again at Hester Street and the upcoming Madison Square Eats before they try to open their retail location this summer. By finally opening their retail shop, Christina and Simon believe Macaron Parlour will receive the legitimacy a retail operation can bring to a company. 

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