Who: Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin
What: Founders and owners of Ovenly
Where: Brooklyn, New York
If you live in New York and frequent one of Joe the Art of Coffee's nine locations around the city for your morning brew and breakfast, chances are you've tasted Ovenly's pastries. Or, if you've ever enjoyed a beer at the Brooklyn Brewery, you've probably snacked on one of their ridiculously delicious sweet/salty bar snacks. A chance encounter at a food-focused book club led these two former hobby bakers to start a food business together in the Fall of 2010. Fast forward two years and Ovenly now has a staff of 14, a brand new retail location in Greenpoint, and a growing number of big-time fans and clients...
...from Stumptown and Joe to Coolhaus, the Brooklyn Brewery, and a few wineries on the West Coast. But that's just what happens when word gets around that these ladies have a food lover's solution to dry coffeehouse pastries and bland bar peanuts.
Ovenly's relatively quick success may not be a surprise to anyone who's tasted their goods (the spicy bacon caramel corn, for example, which is a bestseller, or the salted chocolate chip cookie, recently named by Eater as one of New York's 10 Best New Baked Goods) but it's still a remarkable fact given the company's humble beginnings.
After meeting at a book club (to which Agatha brought homemade pistachio cardamom cupcakes, which are now a part of Ovenly's sweets line), the ladies decided to meet and talk about starting a food business together. The initial conversations were all pie-in-the-sky brainstorming. "We'd go to each other's houses and cook, bake, drink, and talk about business ideas. We had so many different iterations of what we wanted to do," says Erin. Ideas ranged from starting a dessert night series (too trendy) to homemade pop tarts (too labor-intensive) before settling on bar snacks. Soon a friend of Agatha's asked them to provide the bar snacks for a new bar she was opening. But, the bar was also going to be a coffeehouse in the morning, so could they do breakfast pastries, too? Oh, and could some of them be gluten-free? "We did not know what we were doing," Erin says. But the bar opened in July, and Ovenly (still unincorporated) was born.
The Café and Kitchen
Agatha and Erin moved Ovenly into its new retail location (which sits less than a block away from the water's edge in Greenpoint, Brooklyn) in May of this year. The front of the space is a café where customers can walk in and buy any one of Ovenly's signature pastries and a cup of Stumptown coffee. If they want to stay, they can have a seat at one of the café tables by the wall of windows, and people watch for an hour or two. Behind the cafe, in the back of the space, is Ovenly's industrial kitchen—a large, long room befitting the size of their business now, but a far cry from where they started.
Two months after they officially started providing snacks and pastries to clients (all of which they were making in their own apartment kitchens and delivering on foot!) they moved into a caterer's kitchen, and later on to a kitchen in Red Hook, which was functional... though barely. Despite delivering to about 30 different clients by that time, the kitchen they were working out of "had no A/C, no ventilation, no windows, [and last summer[ the thermometer read 128 degrees," says Agatha. Their "saving grace" was that they were on the same block as Stumptown Roasters, who kept them going with unlimited cups of coffee. "I [actually] don't know if it was our saving grace, but it was the only thing that brought us joy in Red Hook," Erin says.
While they were slaving away at 16-hour days in the Red Hook kitchen, they said they frequently got emails from fans wanting to come and visit the space. So they knew they always wanted to be more than just a wholesale company. They wanted to have a "face" in the form of a retail space in the front as a way to engage with their community and their fans.
Thankfully, they didn't have to stay in that Red Hook kitchen forever, and this new space—which they did most of the work on themselves—affords them (finally!) the opportunity to work on the business, since they have now have a cafe manager, a head baker, and a full-on baking team to handle the production. Now Agatha and Erin get to spend their days mostly focused on "the fun stuff," i.e. the research and development side of things. When they're not developing new recipes (which, Erin says, "usually starts with a cocktail") and offering taste test samples to customers, they're working on establishing more partnerships with other food brands and building their retail customer base.
The Secret Sauce
What makes Ovenly's pastries and bar snacks so unique? Like all good things, it's about balance—specifically, the balance between sweet and salty. The black caraway shortbread (Erin's favorite) is made with dark chocolate and smoked sea salt. "It's really buttery, and not very sweet. The texture is perfect," Erin says. The Brooklyn Blackout Cake (Agatha's favorite) is made with their very own homemade salted dark chocolate pudding and the Brooklyn Brewery's dark chocolate stout. "Dudes love it," Agatha says. They also know what they do well... and what they won't do. "We don't do yeasted pastries. No croissants, no donuts, no biscotti."
And the bar snacks? What could be better with a cold beer than Old Salties, peanuts roasted in bacon fat and tossed with Worcestershire sauce and spices? Well, maybe the Spicy Bacon Caramel Corn, an addictive mix of organic popcorn, smoky bacon from pasture raised hogs, all covered with Brooklyn Brewery's Pennant Ale caramel.
The key is understanding your clientele. As Erin, says, "If you look at our two lines—coffee pastries and bar snacks—those are two areas where the offerings are pretty limited [unless you're at an actual bakery]. Most of the coffeeshops don't have in-house bakers; they buy from other wholesalers. We're getting the clients we're getting because people want high quality pastries to match their small-batch roasted coffee. Our price points might be higher, but we all understand that we're bringing artisanal skills back into a product. It's a craft product."
And word-of-mouth is key: "We've just been lucky," Erin says. "I think our product speaks for itself, but I [also] think we've been pretty fortunate. People who like food seek out food, and we've been lucky to have an almost entirely word-of-mouth business."
The Business Plan
Unlike a lot of other small food businesses, Agatha and Erin didn't go the food and flea market route. Their only model from the beginning, as Erin says, was "Who's doing a really good job? Let's partner with them." That's how they ended up partnering with Joe, Stumptown, the Brooklyn Brewery, and Coolhaus. "When we first started, we turned down a lot of business because we had to be picky because it was only just us. So we kind of went with, well, who's going to be not just someone who can provide us with a lot of sales, but a good partner who will help us grow," Erin says. And those partnerships continue to be a key part of their business strategy: "We want to continue to partner with small roasters that are growing," says Agatha, "that have some sort of important place in the community, that are offering good quality coffee to people."
Their ideal partnership? Virgin America! "We really want to get our snacks on an airline," Agatha says.
Agatha and Erin's Expert Advice to New Food Businesses
Given their success, I had to ask: what advice would they give to young food entrepreneurs just starting out?
Erin: We come from pretty modest upbringings. Something that I have learned about business is that it takes money to make money. Not every food company is going to have the fortunate luck to have an investor [which we have now], but if you have an idea that you believe in, that you think will work, and you have the confidence, I think it's okay to look to friends and family and people you know and say, 'hey, I have this really great idea,' and raise the money for it! That was a really hard part of our relationship. Someone offered us money, and it was 'should we take it,' because we were like, 'oh, we have to give up a percentage of the company.' But in the end there's no way we could have done what we've done without having an investor. It just never would have been possible unless you come from money or you have money, and we did not.
Agatha: The other key is to not just take money from anyone. It's more about people who are smart, who can actually help you grow.
5 Quick Questions for Ovenly (Answered by Agatha)
1. Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
Cook's Thesaurus is a great online resource for ingredient descriptions, substitutions, pairings, and pictures if you have no idea what something looks like. Go to Fishs Eddy to find anything and everything for your tabletop. Love their jadeite cake plates! And Zingerman's is an incredible small business that is perfect for specialty items and food gifts.
2. The one thing you can't live without?
I can't live without my chisel, which I use for everything from chopping dark chocolate to breaking up brittle and caramel corn.
3. If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
Neil Young. He has been my favorite musical company in the kitchen since I can remember. I'd like him to serenade me while baking.
4. What's in your Google reader?
I admittedly can't keep up with Google Reader anymore, but here are a few:
5. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
I would buy a farm and some fancy bottles of wine.
Thanks, Agatha and Erin!
(All images by Cambria Bold, except snack bag photos and the three thumbnail photos in the first gallery image, which are courtesy of Ovenly)