The commonalities among the entrepreneurs behind three successful bakery-cafes in the Princeton area were simply too striking for me to ignore. But when I asked Jen Carson of Lillipies in Princeton and Marilyn Besner of WildFlour and Joanne Canady-Brown of the Gingered Peach, whose popular eateries are situated right around the corner from each other in the village of Lawrenceville, to meet for a joint interview, I didn’t know if they considered one another rivals or fellow travelers. Happily, it turned out to be the latter — and in more ways than I foresaw.
I zeroed in on these three in particular because of what I already knew about them: that their current business represents the second iteration of what they started out to do, that they had worked with business partners in the past but are now solo, that they all began as baking amateurs, that the brick-and-mortar locations they currently occupy had each been the site of others’ failures, and that they were all married women with families. Turns out, these similarities represent just the tip of the pastry bag. (Sorry.)
To be sure, each one has carved out her own niche within the bakery-cafe genre. Since 2013 WildFlour’s 100 percent gluten-free breakfast, brunch, and lunch menus have earned it a loyal and grateful following in the space on Main Street that had previously been the Lawrenceville Inn and other restaurants. WildFlour continues to expand its assortment of scratch-made breads, pastries, crepes, flatbreads, and panini, not to mention vegetarian soups, salads, sandwiches, and special-order cakes and pies.
The Gingered Peach, which took over the spot that had been the Village Bakery for more than 50 years before it closed in December, 2012, gained its own devoted fans from the first day it opened exactly two years later. Topping its hit parade of customer favorites are cinnamon buns and their decadent cousin “caramel crack,” a brioche bun smothered in nutty dark toffee. Its menu of “hand-crafted baked goods with soul” (the Gingered Peach tagline) also features cupcakes, croissants, bars, cookies, muffins, and doughnuts — all made from scratch on premises.
When Lillipies opened in the Princeton Shopping Center last summer (in a space that had last been a children’s clothing shop), it represented Jen Carson’s move from selling her popular small-batch sourdough breads and sweets — including the mini-pies that give the name to her enterprise — at farmers markets and, wholesale, to local eateries such as Small World Coffee and Tico’s Eatery, both in Princeton. At her sparkly new space, Carson offers a full menu of eat-in and take-out breakfast, brunch, and lunch items, in addition to her breads and sweets.
Our meeting begins with Besner asking Canady-Brown if and how her business changed when she relocated from her original location in Ewing to the current Lawrenceville spot. In 2012 Canady-Brown established Let Them Eat Cake, a boutique bakery and cake shop, with a friend and then-business partner. “The difference is black and white,” Canady-Brown responds. Everything is demographics, as you know. Tastes are different, so it really changes everything you do. Plus, I was working with different resources.”
Jen Carson compares working with a partner to being in a marriage: it could be great — or not. Canady-Brown agrees. “Your focus has to be the same; your work ethic has to be the same,” she says. “But your strengths need to be different, so that you can balance different situations.” When Canady-Brown’s friend’s husband’s job moved him to Rhode Island, the partnership ended. “This was when we were open only six months, and I’m like: ‘So now what happens?’ We were the only two employees!” she says, shaking her head and chuckling. “But it was good; it turned out great.”
Like Canady-Brown, Besner’s first foray into the retail baking business was with a friend. As the Moonlight Bakers, they made from-scratch strudels, both sweet and savory. They began to develop a range of gluten-free products before they amicably dissolved the partnership. “You don’t know what the other person is imagining until you are doing it together every day, and then you might find you have different expectations and different ways of dealing, and that’s hard,” Besner says. “But being the only one can be hard, too.”
Canady-Brown admits that she relishes her solo role. “I’m not going to lie! If I want to make a call, I make a call, because I know I’ve hashed it out; I’ve looked at it from all angles. I don’t have to look to anyone else.” That doesn’t mean, she adds, that she doesn’t consult with the bakers who are among the staff of 18 she currently employs at her Gordon Avenue bakery. “For example, pistachio. I’ve been obsessed with pistachios my entire life. My bakers just don’t get it; they’re like, ‘Nobody cares about pistachios the way that you do.’ But on calls like that, I just tell them that if it doesn’t work, it’s all on me!”
Carson concurs. Before morphing into Lillipies, she started out in 2007 as Jen’s Cakes & Pastries. She rented space at a co-operative commercial kitchen in Montgomery. (My story about her and the others at what was then the Wooden Spoon catering kitchen appeared in U.S. 1, February 10, 2010.) That space was also used at the time by the Moonlight Bakers and another start-up, Simply Nic’s, which made artisanal shortbread. Although they were never technically partners, Carson and Simply Nic’s Nicole Bergman joined forces for sales. “We would take turns selling each other’s products at the farmers markets, but we were never partner-partners,” Carson says.
Interestingly — and perhaps tellingly — none of these entrepreneurs received financial backing from banks or other institutions to start up. When I ask where the seed money came from, Canady-Brown chortles. “Discover Card and friends! No one would lend to me at all. And it’s not like I’m showing up and like, ‘Hey, I’m a girl who just wants to bake.’ I’m coming in with solid restaurant management experience; I have a great credit score; I have an undergraduate degree in economics; I got my MBA.”
Canady-Brown grew up in Hoboken, along with four siblings. Her grandparents and extended family lived in the same building. The Gingered Peach is named in honor of her grandmother, who taught her how to cook improvisationally, by “gingering” things up. Her degrees are from Rutgers in New Brunswick and Newark, respectively. Before establishing her baking businesses, she worked as a project manager for Bed, Bath & Beyond and a training specialist for Panera Bread. “I basically drained my savings — which was not like real money anyway — and I had credit cards and they were all empty.”
Carson, who gave up a teaching career and started baking after her children were born, started out with $1,000 that she borrowed from her family’s household savings. “And I was working in our little Wooden Spoon kitchen and was lucky enough that I could save every penny I earned,” she says. In late 2011 Carson was tapped by the owners of Brick Farm Market (and the future Brick Farm Tavern) in Hopewell to be their bakeshop manager. She worked for them for a year, developing recipes, well before the market debuted.
“I saved that money, and then still used our savings!” she says. “But you have to believe! You have to believe that it’s an investment in what the business is going to become. So you pay your people as well as you possibly can for as long as you have to.”
Besner’s seed money came from her share of an unrelated family business. “I was lucky enough to be in business with my brothers. My father had started a parking business in Montreal — that’s where we’re from. So my brothers and I all owned a piece of land in Montreal and had a company together.” Eventually she and her siblings sold the parking business to one brother. “I used that money to buy the building we are now in.”
Besner’s WildFlour is in a converted Victorian home on Main Street across from the Lawrenceville School. It was converted into a restaurant, the Lawrenceville Inn, in 2005, and later was home to Dennis Foy’s restaurant until he relocated it to Lambertville, as d’floret. “I think this is where this whole idea was meant to lead me; this is where it’s all going to happen,” says Besner. “And it all happened very quickly. I closed on the building in December and opened in May!”
In the interim, Besner and her husband wisely took their family — they have grown children — to Spain. “I knew I was never going to go on a vacation again,” she says with a laugh. “We went between Christmas and New Year’s. After that, everything was going on. I bought machines, hired people, and hired a baker so I could figure out all those recipes because, seriously, I just knew a little bit about gluten-free baking.”
Besner, who does not confine herself to gluten-free eating, had attended the well-respected Natural Gourmet for an evening’s class on how to make gluten-free bread. “Rebecca Riley was the teacher, and she had written a cookbook. So I took her recipes and learned how to make focaccia, baguette, and pumpernickel. The other recipes sort of came from those. I hired a baker through the Bread Bakers Guild of America to be my consultant and we worked together for a couple of months trying to work out and scale up all those recipes.”
For Besner and Carson, the biggest ongoing challenge is staffing. Lillipies currently has 20 employees, including part-time high schoolers, and WildFlour has 11. Both women agree that it’s not technical skills that are hard to find.
“You can basically teach anybody how to bake or brew a great pot of coffee,” Carson says. “But they learned in kindergarten how to be a nice person. There’s a window of opportunity for when you learn to be an honest, genuine person.” Besner adds, “That’s huge.”
Canady-Brown concurs — to a point. “I don’t look for bakers — I look for a personality. Experienced bakers come for interviews all the time and I’m like: ‘Please don’t wear your chef jacket! Come in your regular, comfortable clothing, and we can talk like regular human beings.’ We have a conversation and then I ask if they have any questions. It never fails, they say: ‘But you didn’t ask me if I know how to bake!’
“I tell them I don’t care about that at all, because I can teach them to do anything. But I don’t know if they’re going to get along with the other members of the team, and this is a team effort. It seems that in this area there are a lot of nice people, so luckily it’s not difficult. It’s just sometimes it’s hard to find the right ‘pieces.’ I have 18 on staff now, and I joke that we’re Oceans 18, like the movies. We have the nutty one, for example, and I think I’m a weirdo myself. We’re just all weird together and it’s great!”
For Canady-Jones of Gingered Peach the bigger challenge is staying ahead of consumer trends. “It’s responding to the consumer, knowing what’s hot, what’s new, whatever it is they’ll be tasting. It’s not responding: it’s getting ahead of them, and then telling them that this is what you want.”
She cites as an example the introduction of kouign-amann, a buttery, croissant-like cake that’s a specialty of Brittany and is having its moment. “We tested it for a year,” she explains. “I had eaten it in France in 2014 and thought, ‘This is going to be so hot!’ It took this long to get right, and we just recently rolled it out.”
All three entrepreneurs admit that being a female business owner is, as Canady-Brown says, “even to this day, in this socio-economic-political climate, a blessing and a curse.” And, in her case, add to that being African-American. “My experience is a little bit different because race factors into it — a lot. I have people who come in and say to me, ‘I want to see the head baker,’ and when I tell them it’s me they’re like, ‘Oh really?’ It’s infuriating that they can’t believe that.”
To make matters worse, they often then conjecture that, that being the case, the Gingered Peach must buy unbaked frozen goods and simply bake them on premise. Jen Carson witnessed this happen to Canady-Brown. “I was there when someone said, ‘There’s no way you made this croissant.’”
“But,” says Canady-Brown, who turned 35 in November, “I love the fact that I’m a woman and I’m a black woman! It’s so good for my confidence when other women come into my store and say, ‘You’re doing it! I’m so glad!’ And African-Americans come in and go, ‘You’re doing it!’ It’s almost like I’m relatable. I’m not just the one who hovers above it.”
For Carson, who is 46, being a female business owner is “mostly” positive and inspiring. “Sure, I get comments like, ‘You’re the boss? Is this a family-owned business? Does your husband own it?’ But not all the time — just every so often.
“For example, we had a plumber who came by the third time for something I had asked him to fix the first time. He says, ‘Well you know, I could fix this, but this is really the previous guy’s problem, so you may want to harp on him.’ Well, I don’t want to ‘harp’ on anybody! Just the fact that he used the word ‘harp’ — that hurt, that rubbed me the wrong way. I thought, “You wouldn’t say that to a man, would you?’ In general, though, that sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
Besner, who will turn 60 later this year, says she might be inured to this sort of thing by having grown up as an only daughter with six brothers. “I think it’s a plus and a minus. I mean, I just let it roll off. Like, OK, you’re going to play me like that, well it’s not going to work out. I don’t respect people who don’t respect me.”
She looks to the other women and says, “Those people have to play ball because we’re in a position here where we are hiring people — including plumbers and whatever. If they don’t want to play with us, that’s OK. There are other people and other ways to get this done. It’s just holding to a vision: you know where you want to go, and if people don’t want to help you out, too bad.” They all nod when Canady-Brown says, “Yes, it’s cool being a woman and doing this!”
Although the main revenue base of all their businesses comes from retail — customers coming in to buy their wares to eat-in or take-out — each also does some amount of catering and/or wholesaling. “For me catering is something I really don’t want to dive into,” Canady-Brown says. “I prefer more the wholesale end of things, where I partner with people who are likeminded in terms of their brand, and I have developed our wholesale program around coffee shops.
“What I tell them is, ‘You’re an expert at serving coffee, why are you fooling around with baking?’ We build them a case under the Gingered Peach name — I have a woodworker working with me who will build a custom case just for your store. Our logo goes in the top corner, and we deliver every morning before 6 a.m. We drop off baked goods that you order from our wholesale guide.”
Thomas Sweet was a customer for five years. Current clients include Sourland Coffee in Pennington and Rojo’s Roastery on Palmer Square in Princeton. Rojo’s original Lambertville location will come on board soon. “We’ll be jumping on that store as soon as I can get the second oven in,” Canady-Brown promises.
In fact, the size of the Gordon Avenue space, at approximately 1,300 square feet, drives her future plans. “My focus now is supporting Lawrenceville better — those customers who come through the front door.” As it is, she admits, “we can’t fit the equipment, staff, or materials in the building that we need to meet the demand. So any expansion efforts are from a supply chain standpoint: controlling our supply chain better.”
Long term, she dreams of being able to expand her wholesale business by setting up a commissary kitchen, not for the signature croissant, cinnamon buns, and seasonal hot cross buns that get consumed within hours of coming out of the oven, but items that can be baked — and benefit from being baked — the day before and delivered to wholesale clients. Such a scheme would, she says, “take the pressure off the bakers (and ovens) at Gordon Avenue, who get pounded” during the busiest times, such as holidays. “But as of right now, it’s make Gordon amazing, then worry about the rest,” she says.
Besner’s WildFlour has a delivery truck to facilitate the catering clients she serves, but she admits, “I don’t think we’re made for that either. I think you need a whole branch — like somebody who’s in charge of catering, who deals with customers. We do small jobs; we do lunches; we’re on the approved caterer list for Princeton University. We’ll get a call: They want a lunch for 20 people. And we’re vegetarian, too, so they’ve got to want gluten-free and they’ve got to want vegetarian.
“And we do weddings — we deliver wedding cakes and sweets tables, that whole thing. I like working with a party planner who can be that go-between person. I have in the back of my mind that, yeah, it would be great to hire someone to be in charge of catering.”
Lillipies does some catering, too, but since the retail store is less than a year old, that is where the emphasis remains. “We’re morphing as we go,” Jen Carson says, “but we explain to people that we do not deliver — they have to pick up. Still, there are caterers who will pick up a wedding cake from us, and people who will pick up platters of sandwiches, and we’re happy to help them with that.”
Of course, Carson started out as a wholesaler and has been supplying Small World for nine years. She still delivers to them personally every day. “They have the nicest people, and it’s nice to deliver to them and see smiling faces and say good morning,” she says.
The importance of personal relationships extends not only to staff, customers, and suppliers, but also greatly influences how these three women approach marketing and advertising. Carson points to Lillipies’ Sandwich of the Month promotion. At the start of each month, she creates a special sandwich in cahoots with a famous Princetonian (or a member of their family) and names it after them. Ten percent of its sales then go to the celebrity’s chosen local cause.
The first sandwich was in honor of Albert Einstein, another was named for Cornel West. In March the sandwich was an Italian sub named for Damien Chazelle, a graduate of Princeton High who won an Oscar this year for directing “La La Land.” He personally contacted the store to designate the PHS band as his cause. “It’s a lot of fun and has really taken off!” Carson says. “We put their picture up and they have fun with it. Cornell West comes in all the time, and when he was our sandwich he asked to come behind the counter to take a picture with it.”
Canady-Brown cops to being a bleeding heart when it comes to good causes. “I’m the worst. I’m in this business because I love it, but I’m also doing it to make an impact in many different ways. I grew up with nothing. There were 11 of us, and we were multiple generations and we lived in a one-family house. I shared a bed with my sisters until I was a teenager. I know what it’s like to try to do something and the support’s just not there.
“So it’s a huge part of the Gingered Peach, especially because as soon as I opened the door, the community rallied behind us. I established a budget and last year we did over $15,000 in charitable donations in one shape or form. I always give in-kind; I never take ads out; I don’t ever give cash. I’ll give gift cards or product, but it’s always a very big part of what we do.”
Her latest adventure involves raising money for Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. “They approached me last June and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to ask you to do something crazy.’ They have their gala coming up and it’s kind of like a local “Dancing with the Stars.” I had already been taking dance lessons, but now I spend two hours a week taking lessons with a professional instructor — and countless hours at home dancing in my bedroom,” she says, laughing and shaking her head in disbelief. On Saturday, April 22, guests at the gala at the Princeton Hyatt, will pay to attend and vote on one of five pairs of dancers.
Canady-Brown says that even as an undergraduate at Rutgers she was determined not to follow traditional marketing strategies. “You’ll never see my logo appear in print. I don’t think that every time you turn around you should see the Gingered Peach. Everyone will disagree with me, but what I believe is that there’s confidence in what we do, in the product that I make. And I make a bigger impact by you tasting something and going, ‘Where did this come from?’ and that drives you to where I am.
“So I don’t have a marketing budget. All marketing is done in in-kind donations because, say, there’s 100 people at an event and if even only two of them boomerang back and we can lock them in as lifetime customers, it’s worth it.” She acknowledges that there’s only so much the average person spends per trip to the Gingered Peach. “And that’s the reason I’m able to make those contributions — because I’m not spending money on print ads or online.”
Besner agrees. “That makes sense, because if somebody asks you for a contribution it’s because they value your product. So you’re giving it and they’re receiving it in a meaningful way. It’s not like paying somebody and it’s going to be misplaced. It’s very hard to gauge — if you’re putting an ad somewhere — to know how effective it is going to be. But if somebody makes the effort to actually find you and make a personal connection, I’m very open to that. That is our way of getting recognized and having our brand recognized by the people in the neighborhood and the people who know people in the neighborhood. It just grows organically.”
Sandwich-of-the-month cash donations notwithstanding, Carson says that most of Lillipies’ donations are also in the form of product. “As Joanne says, if you think about it sensory-wise, someone’s tasting it and smelling it, and they experience a feeling that goes along with that — a mental/emotional reaction. Whereas, if they just see an ad, it’s just one stimulus, right? So in those terms it’s more productive, but also it gets more people to try your product. It helps them, it helps you — it’s a win-win.”
Laughter erupts when I ask this group about the possibility of future locations. “A regular customer came in to Lillipies and asked: ‘When are you opening your second location?’” Carson says. “I said: You don’t ask a mother who just gave birth, who’s still in the hospital, when she’s having her second baby! So don’t ask me right now. Because that’s how it feels!”
Besner concurs. “That is exactly how it feels — like you have a newborn. My place is going to be four years old in May, and I feel as though the baby’s almost ready for kindergarten. People are always asking me when are you going to open one here, or open another there. But I can’t be two people!”
Canady-Brown is on the same page. “As I said, my focus now is supporting Lawrenceville better. As of right now, it’s make [the Gordon Avenue location] amazing, then worry about the rest later.”
For me, the most revealing part of this meeting came near the end, when I asked this question of the trio: Looking back, if you had to start all over again, what’s one thing you would do differently? After all, each had flirted with partnerships; each had begun in a different place or configuration; each had met obstacles not of her own devising. I asked for just one example, and yet all three entrepreneurs had a hard time — if not impossible time — coming up with anything.
Besner begins by simply stating that she doesn’t look backward very much, and the others quickly agree. “You have to keep motoring,” she says. “You make mistakes, yes, but you learn from them.”
Canady-Brown states flat-out, “I wouldn’t change anything, because literally every huge mistake that I made, it was almost like the universe put it there — for opening this Lawrenceville location, for example. I knew that the location hadn’t worked, but I also recalled that it was because of this, because of that. So I thought, ‘I’m good.’ Even if this location hadn’t worked out for me, I still wouldn’t change anything because you had to go through it in order to learn.”
Carson recalls her great-grandmother. “She was one of those people who totally thinks that everything happens for a reason. She lived to be 99 years old — and she was happy! She didn’t second-guess every little thing she did. I’m striving to be more like her.”
“That’s so true!” adds Canady-Brown. “When my partner left, I had three wedding cakes on order for that weekend. And guess what? I didn’t know how to make wedding cakes!” Her solution: sign up for a class being held that Wednesday. “It took me hours! But I did it. And that’s why, looking back, I wouldn’t change it. It really showed me I could do anything!”
To which Carson replies: “You’re my hero.”
LiLLiPiES Bakery, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center. Jen Carson, owner. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-423-2100. www.lillipies.com
The Gingered Peach, 2 Gordon Avenue, Lawrenceville. Joanne Canady-Brown, owner. Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. 609-896-5848. www.thegingeredpeach.com
WildFlour, 2691 Main Street, Lawrenceville. Marilyn Besner, owner. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-620-1100. www.wildflourbakery-cafe.com