Thursday, March 21, 2013

Interview with Samantha Ward, Chef/Owner Exquisite Desserts

Interview with Samantha Ward
Knowing How to Bake is Not Enough
Chef/Owner Exquisite Desserts

By Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  Sam, I’ve known you from various pastry industry events since probably 1999! I know in that timeframe, you've opened your own business in Palm Desert California.  I haven’t been able to come out and visit, so can you tell us about it?

Sam:  I’ve been open for about 13 years.  I have 3200 square feet, with about 1000 square feet for retail and the remainder for production. 

I have 6 full time employees, 3 part time and we’re open 7 days a week.  Many of my employees have been with me from the beginning.  We’re a full service, from scratch bakery, including wholesale work, specialty desserts and wedding cakes.

Kathryn:  How many days a week do you work yourself?

Sam:  7!  Actually, I go in 6 days for production, and use the 7th day to get myself organized for the next week.   The bakery is 12 minutes from my house, so that helps.

Kathryn:  Did you always want to have your own business?

Sam:  Yes, I did.  My dream started when I was working in San Francisco after finishing culinary school.  My mother passed away and I saved the inheritance I received.  This business is my mom’s blessing to me.

Kathryn:  Did you write a business plan? 

Sam:  No, I never did.  I’m more of the flighty, artistic, social type!  I am still learning how to be a better business person.  My key to success has been my perseverance and determination.

Kathryn:  You have a very extensive menu, compared to other bakeries!

Sam:  Actually, the published menu is only a fraction of what we really do.  Primarily, I am the personal pastry chef to many of the top country clubs in this area.  I work off of my repertoire, but produce whatever they want and need for their clients, so it is continuously evolving.

When I first came to Palm Desert, the clubs were getting their product wholesale from large frozen-dessert manufacturing companies.  Only about 3% had in-house pastry chefs.  There was a clear need to offer an alternative to mass-produced frozen desserts.

It really helps to research your competition.  There was originally one competitor, but they couldn’t keep up with the demand.  The choice to open my business among so many country clubs was an obvious one.

Kathryn:  How were you able to become acquainted with all of the country club chefs?

Sam:  Actually, I joined the American Culinary Federation.  Most of the country club chefs were members, and they were my target market.  There isn’t too much turnover within the country club staffs – the executive chef jobs are lucrative.  However, the club members can be demanding, so I’m in an intermediary position to produce exactly what the executive chefs need to successfully satisfy their clients.

Essentially, I am in service to the chefs and not directly to the country club members.  The success of my business has been the result of word-of-mouth.

Kathryn:  What percentage of your business would you say is wholesale?

Sam:  It has fluctuated over the years.   Probably in the first 7 years we were open, 75% was wholesale.  Now with my upcoming retail location, Exquisite Desserts’ name is better known, and it’s balanced.  This is helpful because the country club market is very seasonal with peak business taking place from November to May.

Kathryn:  What sector have you seen the highest growth in?

Sam:  Definitely the retail cake and wedding cake market.  Last year, between October and November, we did 45 weddings!   Weddings can account for 40% of our profit.

Kathryn:  Have you seen any trends in the wedding market?

Sam:  Petite pastries and dessert bars in place of cakes have been a big seller this year. 

Kathryn:  You recently took on a specialty cake decorator, so you wouldn’t have to do the large cakes all yourself? 

Sam:  Yes, she’s a real go-getter and does beautiful work.

Kathryn:  When you take a cake order, do you charge a deposit?

Sam:  I request $150 down and payment in full 2 weeks prior to the event.  It only didn’t work out one time – it was a project for a minor celebrity, and I had to take them to small claims court before I received payment.

Kathryn:  What counts more, appearances or taste?

Sam:  It took me a long time to develop my desserts so that they taste delicious and are also well-decorated, and I have to protect that.  People shop with their eyes and as such it’s important to invest in quality photographs of the product – but people don’t just care about the outside of the cake.  A great pastry chef knows how to bake, and the result is great-tasting product.  That brings customers back, and that’s how I’ve stayed busy.

Kathryn:  What do you mean, exactly, by protecting?

Sam:  No one person in your employment should know every aspect of your entire business.  Otherwise you could be creating your own competition.

Kathryn:  Is there anything you wish you were doing differently?

Sam: I would like to be more tech-savy.  I could be 3 times as busy if I utilized internet exposure. The market is increasingly digital, and the first place people go to find things is the internet.

Kathryn:  What other advice would you give to someone trying to open a brick and mortar bakery?

Sam:  Have money to invest.  It isn’t enough to be skilled and know your market.  I had $60K to open but it would take a lot more these days.  Things were easier when we began, but it’s not as simple to just open a business any more.  Everything has become more expensive.  I was lucky that my husband could help with the physical construction, which saved $100,000 in costs.  So marry a handyman!
Kathryn: Thank you Sam, speak to you soon! 

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