Over the years the Route 1 area has had its share of successful food-based businesses created and run by women. Sue Simpkins, for example, established what are now her Main Street eateries in Kingston and Princeton back in 1984, and Princeton moms Kathy Herring and Linda Twining have been expanding their Twin Hens line of all-natural potpies for years now. Gabrielle Carbone, co-owner with husband Matt Errico of the Bent Spoon on Palmer Square, Karen Child of Village Bakery in Lawrenceville, Nancy Dince (with business partner Dimitri St. Phard) of LIV Water, and Cricket Allen (with husband Brian) of Bot Beverages, all own successful food or beverage businesses.
But they are the exceptions. The failure rate of any small start-up in the food industry is always high — and climbs sky-high in times of economic setback (a euphemism, I admit, for today’s climate). So it is striking that within the last year or so a surprising number of female-owned specialty food companies, eateries, bakeries, and cookbook publishing and design firms have managed to succeed. Each woman took a different path and brought a different set of skills to bear, and every plate, package, box, book, and sweet treat they concoct holds a unique story. We’ve even included a female sommelier who, though she doesn’t own her own business, is enjoying indubitable success in a traditionally male-dominated professional arena in the food and wine fields.
Sugar + Sunshine Bakery
By the time Gigi Burton opened the doors to her Plainsboro bakery, Sugar + Sunshine, a year ago April, she had, by her own admission “over-planned and over-analyzed” every aspect of her business plan. And she doesn’t regret one minute of that time. Her advice to others contemplating starting up a business? “Do all your research. Every aspect of your plan, your operation, your expectations,” she says. “A lot of people see an empty storefront and take that as a sign they should take the plunge. Some would say I spent too much time planning, but it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. There would have been a lot more pitfalls along the way. I didn’t plan for the horrible downturn in the economy, but because of my over-analysis, projections were very conservative. I had planned the worst case scenario.”
It was a passion for baking that prompted Burton to leave a successful career of 12 years at JP Morgan Chase in New York, where she was a marketing executive. “I always enjoyed baking. I baked chocolate chip cookies in college and when I went back to visit, I was always expected to bring them.” Burton grew up in Altoona, PA, and graduated from Penn State with a B.A. in marketing and advertising. “After college I got the job at Chase, but still enjoyed baking on weekends, so I enrolled in the pastry program at the Institute of Culinary Education, working fulltime and attending classes until 10 at night,” she says. After finishing the program, she worked for Colette Peters, a well-known New York cake designer.
She and her husband, Ray, who works for Met Life, have lived in Plainsboro for 11 years. Burton calls her husband “my early morning cookie baker, my evening mopper, and a weekend cashier.” When the Plainsboro Village Center was being built, she saw it as her opportunity. Her cute retro-pink and chocolate-brown shop features a rolling collection of over 100 all-natural cupcakes, cheesecakes, muffins, cinnamon buns, other baked goods and drinks, including Small World Coffee, and, by special order, Burton’s award-winning Triple Chocolate Truffle Cake. The Star-Ledger’s Munchmobile made a surprise stop at the bakery recently, and the result was that Munchmobile maven Pete Genovese wrote that he had “found cupcake Nirvana.”
Burton attributes that happy outcome to “always making sure the quality is there.” She has learned in the last 15 months, she says, that “it’s important to have the right people relating to the customers. It’s critical to have people in customer service positions who are friendly, upbeat, smiling. They’re the first line. We could have the best product ever, but it will be overshadowed if the service doesn’t match.”
That upbeat attitude must extend to the kitchen, too. “When you bake angry,” she believes, “it comes out in the cupcakes.” She praises her co-baker, Jennifer Rall, for helping to put out the best possible product. “We share the same philosophy, which is, don’t even think about letting it cross the counter if it isn’t up to our standard.”
The Burtons are considering ways to broaden their reach beyond the bakeshop. “But if we were to open a second location and quality suffers, that is the last thing we want. We are looking for ways to expand without adding a brick-and-mortar site.” One possibility is a cupcake truck, a concept that is becoming popular across the country. “We could be at parks, farmers markets, and events. It would be a fun, smaller version of our shop.”
Canal House Studio
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer (yes, Christopher is her given name) were at the top of the food magazine and cookbook publishing worlds when they decided in 2007 to establish their own studio in Lambertville, where they specialize in food photography and styling and cookbook design and writing, including their own series of cookbooks. Hersheimer was one of the founders and an executive editor of Saveur Magazine, where Hamilton ran the test kitchen and served as food editor. Together the pair has more than 30 years experience working with magazines such as Metropolitan Home, Food and Wine, Cook’s Illustrated, and Martha Stewart Living and on cookbooks by Julia Child, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and other notables.
When Hersheimer and Hamilton decided to set up a design and consulting business in a river town in New Jersey away from the bright lights of the big city, “even our friends in the big publishing houses told us ‘you can’t do this,’” says Hersheimer. But their connections paid off. Their client list includes some of the biggest names in cookbook publishing. They have shot five cookbooks for Lidia Bastianich (Knopf), including “Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy,” which they also designed. and just finished shooting “The Country Cooking of Ireland” by Colman Andrews, due out this fall from Chronicle Books, and “How to Roast a Lamb” (Little, Brown) by Michael Psilakis, a New York restaurateur and one of the hottest new chefs on the scene. They are currently shooting “The Green Kitchen” by Alice Waters, due out next spring form Clarkson Potter and are about to start shooting “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” by Judith Jones, senior editor and VP at Knopf, renowned for putting chefs on the map — she pulled Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” out of a rejection pile (and as an aside, also, at age 27, pulled Anne Frank’s diary out of a rejection pile at a publishing house in Paris).
As for their intent to self-publish, some said it was downright foolhardy. “Up until now ‘self-publishing’ has been a dirty word,” Hersheimer says. “The thing is, we know and have access to the [major cookbook] editors. If we had taken our idea to them we would not have had creative control. So to break through, we’re doing it on our own. We don’t think self-publishing is a dirty word.”
Volume I of “Canal House Cooking” is just out, to rave reviews and brisk sales. The first in a series of seasonal cookbooks their Canal House Studio will issue three times a year, it focuses on summer recipes. Anthropologie in New York carries the book and is closing the store on Wednesday, August 19, for a big book signing party. Next up is the Fall/Holiday book, due out in mid-October.
Melissa Hamilton is the daughter of Jim Hamilton of Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville, for which she was the chef when it opened 20 years ago. Her mother had been a ballet dancer at the Metropolitan Opera. “Then she raised us children, then bought a general store in Vermont, where among other things she pumped gas and made baguettes. She eventually sold the store but still lives in Vermont.” Melissa grew up in New Hope and now lives in Stockton with her husband, Michael Hagerty, an architect who works from his Stockton studio, and two daughters, ages 18 and 13. Her siblings include a sister, Gabrielle, who is the owner/chef of Prune, the acclaimed restaurant in New York, and a brother in publishing — one of those who advised against self-publishing.
After earning a BFA in painting from Sarah Lawrence College’s School of Visual Arts, Hamilton thought she would make her living in art. “Then I came to my senses,” she says. “After leaving the Grill Room I did some sorting through and decided to embark on what is now called food styling. A local antique dealer friend put me in touch with the food editor for Metropolitan Home,” who at the time was Christopher Hersheimer. Her career as a stylist — and the pair’s collaborations — took off. “‘Canal House Cooking’ is really a combination of all my talents,” Hamilton says.
Christopher Hersheimer grew up in San Francisco. Her father’s family was from Hong Kong, with businesses throughout the Pacific Rim. “We lived in Hawaii and Sydney [Australia] as well,” she says. “My family entertained on a fun and lavish scale, both high and low. Here we were, an American family of seven, traveling the Pacific Rim. We’d eat in dives and we’d eat in fabulous places.”
She attended San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco, but “jumped into life in the ’60s and ’70s without earning a degree. It was a very exciting time to be in that area. A place like Chez Panisse was very accessible: you could eat there for something like $3! You could say I ended up in the food world by default.”
Eventually she landed in New York helping a friend start a catering company. “It’s amazing how casually things were done back then. Our confidence was staggering. These days, young people are so nailed down.” Hersheimer resides in Erwinna, PA, just across the river from Frenchtown, with her husband, Jim, an antiques dealer in Erwinna. They have two grown daughters.
The two women agree on the factors that have contributed to their success with self-publishing, as well as to their photography, design, and consulting work, which, Hersheimer says, “allows us to be masters of our own destiny in this economy. We are passionate about what we do. We ARE the people in our book; this is how we cook; the content is there. We face putting meals on the table for our families every day while working long hours, like everyone.”
Adds Hamilton, “You find yourself putting so much energy into a project that, at the end of the day, you want it to still please your aesthetic. It was a conscious decision to go for quality over quantity. It’s satisfying to send something out into the world and have people who have no connection to us mirror back what we intended. This can be done.”
At last year’s Fancy Food Show in New York I came upon a booth with a perfectly nice couple urging those of us wandering the aisles to sample the mini-cupcakes they had baked from their line of all-natural cake and frosting mixes. I admit to being skeptical that they would taste as good as homemade, as the pair claimed, or even, for that matter, as good as standard boxed cake mixes that contain artificial ingredients, preservatives, and hydrogenated oils. Obviously, I was won over to the Naturally Nora line, or you wouldn’t be reading about it here.
Behind the concept are Princeton entrepreneur Nora Schultz and her husband, Steve. In 2000 Nora left her job at Campbell’s Soup, where she had worked for five years, marketing, she says, “everything from cream soups to canned beans.” She went on to become a partner in Rosetta, the marketing firm headquartered at 100 American Metro Boulevard in Hamilton. During this time she also enjoyed baking with her two daughters, now ages 11 and 8. “I began to notice that at all the birthday parties they attended and all the block parties in our neighborhood, the cakes were all made from mixes. Now, these are great for saving time and work, but I wasn’t happy about a lot of the ingredients,” she says. The particular favorite of one of her girls was Pillsbury’s Funfetti, which she says, “was at all the kindergarten parties at the time. It was what inspired me to create my first Naturally Nora flavor.”
Steve Schultz subsequently left his job with Colgate-Palmolive to develop the company; with Nora joining him full-time in 2008. The line has expanded to include five cake mix flavors and four frosting varieties, all made without artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or hydrogenated oils. They are certified kosher and contain no soy or dairy, although milk or some sort of milk-like product is added during home preparation. The Naturally Nora line is distributed in 20 states — including at some major supermarket chains like Acme in New Jersey and online at amazon.com. Along the Route 1 corridor they are also carried by McCaffrey’s, Pennington Market, the Whole Earth Center, and Whole Foods.
“Our plan for this year was to have our product distributed in a certain number of states and we’re currently ahead of plan,” Schultz says. “At this point, we are focusing on getting brand recognition.” They are also putting the finishing touches on a new product, brownies, to be introduced in September.
Schultz grew up in Detroit, the child of two lawyers. “I was not inspired to do the same,” she says. Nor was her younger brother, who works for a state group that aids small businesses. “What did inspire me was that my family had a little summer place with a vegetable garden.” The Schultz family has been a member of what is now the Honeybrook CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) co-op in Pennington for many years.
After Harvard, where she majored in psychology, Schultz went on to the University of Michigan for business school. She and her future husband met in Chicago, when she was just out of college. “I was trying to get into marketing and was working in an Orvis store. He came in wearing a Boston Red Sox hat and I was missing Boston and we struck up a conversation. He mentioned that he was in marketing and offered to make some connections.”
When asked how many hours she devotes to her business, Schultz laughs. “It’s all-consuming. I still bake in the evenings. Even when I go to the grocery store, I can’t help but be on the job, perusing the competition.” She says the biggest surprise for her over the last 18 months has been the quantity of unsolicited E-mails and phone calls the company receives. “They say ‘thank you for doing this.’ I knew there was a need for our product, but I didn’t know how grateful people would be.”
I was fortunate to come across Nicole Wilkins Bergman’s Simply Nic’s line of sweet-and-savory shortbreads on its maiden voyage last February at one of the Slow Food winter farmers markets, where they were an immediate hit. Not least of all with me. I devoured a two-pack of the lavender variety before leaving the parking lot, then ate the rosemary two-pack on the ride home. Luckily, the third flavor, cardamom-candied ginger, was still in the works, or I would probably have devoured more.
Bergman lives in Princeton with her husband, Jeffrey Bergman, who works independently in finance, and two sons. Before establishing Simply Nic’s, she was chief of protocol for the U.S. mission to the United Nations from 2000 to 2004. She left when her first son was born in order to be a stay-at-home mom. “I love to bake; it’s my creative outlet,” Bergman says, “and I had this sweet-and-savory cookie recipe from my Dutch mother-in-law, an amazing, effortless cook and baker. People would go nuts over these. A friend finally said ‘you’ve got to market these!’”
Ingredients for the soft, moist, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread that plays off sweetness with a good hit of salt as well as the sophisticated herb and spice flavors, are limited to unbleached, unbromated flour; butter; sugar; honey; kosher salt; and fresh rosemary, lavender, or cardamom and candied ginger. A chocolate version is in the works. Bergman rents commercial kitchen space from Christina Crawford of the Wooden Spoon Catering Company in the Princeton North Shopping Center at Route 518 & Route 206. “Chris is amazing, and a recent mentor who has taught me a lot. She teaches her customers and everyone who comes into contact with her about food.”
Currently Bergman herself sells her wares, in two and six-packs at the Princeton farmers market (in the lot next to Wild Oats) on Tuesdays and the Rutgers Garden market on Fridays. They are also carried by Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville and in Princeton at the Whole Earth Center, Nassau Street Seafood, and Green Design, as well as by farms in Bordentown and Doylestown, PA. She and her husband had a booth at the East Coast Wine & Food Festival in Hopewell in June. They sold out both days, and were approached by both Wegman’s and Whole Foods about the possibility of doing business. “This is a product that’s almost marketing itself,” she says. “The business is basically still just me, and it has become a 40-hour-a-week job. Tuesdays I ship. Wednesdays I’m in the kitchen, as well as a half-day on Thursday. Fridays I make deliveries. But I can also work until midnight, after my kids have gone to bed.” Her sons are five and two-and-a-half.
Bergman grew up in Chico, California, north of Sacramento, where her father ran the medical lab at the Enloe Medical Center. “He had a creative side too,” his daughter says. He had a landscape design business until his death 19 years ago. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom when Nicole and her older sister were growing up and for the last 10 years has worked in real estate. “My mother was instrumental in teaching me the love of cooking and baking, and the joy of gathering friends and family to share a good meal.”
After earning a B.A. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from the University of California, San Diego, Bergman taught English in South Korea and worked in the mayor’s office in San Diego. She says that her expertise in diplomacy continues to help her work with people. “It’s wonderful to have a product that tastes good and is fairly unique, but meeting customers face to face, as I do, calls for people skills. I was scared to death the first time I went out to sell my cookies. But you just have to do it, to gain confidence to do it again. If you love what you do and put your heart and soul into it, you’ll do well.”
Alysia Welch-Chester of Trenton has also parlayed a personal recipe into a business. “I’ve been baking for friends and family for years, for cookouts, dinner parties, etc. Someone would be known for making the best deviled eggs or mac and cheese. My specialty was brownies. A friend asked me to bake a batch for a chocoholic friend of hers, and offered to pay. I thought, maybe there’s a market for them.”
Welch-Chester started up in earnest about nine months ago, making brownies to order for individuals and for events and the business went online in May (alysiasbrownies.com). A local ice cream shop stocks them for use in their ice cream sundaes. What sets apart her brownies, she says, is that she uses premium ingredients and makes every batch to order. The original triple-chocolate brownie is the best seller among the 17-and-counting versions she bakes, with the various nut varieties second, and fruit varieties, including dried cranberry and blueberry, third. She makes them in the kitchen of a church in Trenton, where she has lived since 2000.
After growing up in Niagara Falls she says “winters are much better here. Plus, I love the diversity and the food.” She was working at the headquarters of what is now AT&T Wireless in the Buffalo area, after studying communications at SUNY-Genesco and was brought to New Jersey as part of that job. “AT&T Cellular One was being organized by a labor union. I got involved with the negotiations, caught the eye of the organizing company, and they asked me to come to Trenton.”
Welch-Chester met her husband, Zachary, at a community meeting in 2002. The couple is very active in civic and non-profit organizations. Zachary Chester, community relations coordinator for Capital Health, has tossed his hat into the ring for Trenton City Council in 2010. Welch-Chester was a two-term elected Trenton/ Mercer County Committee-person. She serves on a number of boards. including McCarter and Passage theaters, the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Trenton Area National Organization of Women (NOW), and the Junior League of Greater Princeton.
With more than 15 years of experience in sales, corporate America, organized labor, and the non-profit sectors, Welch-Chester says she draws upon her public relations experience to promote Alysia’s Brownies. “The customer service piece as well as the ability to get the word out through the use of media and through social networking have been key,” she says. “And being willing to give out samples! This is a food business, after all. You can’t just talk about it, customers must be able to come and taste what the brownies are all about.” She describes her brownies as “more the moist, dense kind rather than the cakey kind” and jokes that the antioxidants in the blueberry and cranberry brownies “make them kind of a health food.”
Sommelier at Elements
Emilia Haglund Sparatta doesn’t own her own business, but as general manager of the four-star restaurant Elements in Princeton, she is a key to its success. As sommelier, she is also a woman in a position that is still overwhelmingly held by men. Add to that that she is the de facto director of the restaurant’s wine program, and she is in even more rarified company. Add to that that she is just about to turn 28 and, well, you get the picture.
After two years studying psychology at Virginia Tech, Sparatta, who had been working in restaurants since high school, says she “realized being in the food business was better than going to grad school.” She enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in 2001, graduating in December, 2002. “I came out expecting to try my hand at being a restaurant cook and seeing where things went from there,” she says. Her first job was at the famed Ryland Inn, where she started as a food runner and became assistant maitre d’ and assistant sommelier. It was at the Ryland that she met her future husband, Joe, as well as Scott Anderson, chef and co-owner of Elements. Scott, Emilia, and Joe all went on to work together at the Lawrenceville Inn and are together at Elements, where Joe is sous chef.
Sparatta was born in Doylestown, PA, but the Haglund family moved to Virginia when she was nine. Her father, who was born in Connecticut but went to high school in Sweden, where his family was from, ran the American division of a company that produced analysis equipment for beverage laboratories. “My mother was artistic,” Sparatta says, working in interior design. The family had four children, including Emilia’s younger brother, Mattias, who manages the bar at Elements.
Among her responsibilities at the restaurant are running the wine program, which can mean “making selections, managing the inventory, and working with the guys as they develop menus to make sure we have the right wines to match.” She also deals with staff health care and office issues, and even works with contractors when the building needs work. Asked why there are not more female managers and wine directors in high-end restaurants she says, “It’s a boys’ club in a lot of these places. Joe and I spent a lot of time working with David Bouley, for example. He had virtually no women working the floor in any capacity. The more well-known chefs have the old-school mentality and they choose to work with people they have known for years and years. So it makes some sense.”
She points out that one benefit of having her work as general manager and Joe as sous chef is that “it cuts back on some of the friction and miscommunication” that typically occurs between a restaurant’s front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house. Her advice to women who would like to follow in her footsteps? “Just recognize that this is a very emotionally-driven business and that you’re working with passionate people. It’s important to take a step back in your dealing with the front staff and the kitchen staff and get the proper focus on what is best for the guest and best for the business.”
Bakery & Cafe
‘The news is, we’re busy,” Karen Finigan says of the Cranbury eatery and take-out shop she owns with her husband, Bob, which opened on Main Street last Labor Day. In fact, they have just added dinners three nights a week to what had been a breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea spot. This came about as a result of customer inquiries. “We thought we’d give it a try,” Karen says, “with not much else going on around us these days.”
Finigan grew up in Cranbury, but lived elsewhere for the last 30 years or so, including Dublin, Ireland. She and Bob met about 16 years ago when they were both working for IBM. It was in Dublin that Bob Finigan, acting on a longtime passion, trained to be a professional bread baker, and the couple have fashioned their cafe-cum-bakery after those in Ireland and Europe. The Finigans live less than a quarter mile from the Blue Rooster and often walk to work — Bob in the very early morning hours; Karen, who runs the dining room, later.
“Our philosophy is to serve fresh, pure rustic country fare — simple but creative,” Finigan says. The breakfast menu runs the gamut from smoothies to an authentic full Irish breakfast and the lunch menu features stylish soups, salads, sandwiches, and more hearty fare. The dinner menu, she says, “represents not a departure but rather an expansion of the range of what we do.” A daily frittata and dinner salads are popular now, in warm weather.
“I was fortunate to have found people in the kitchen who can interpret what I call my non-chef talk and translate it to the other cooks,” she says and cites Lois Gullace, who has been with the Blue Rooster since the start, as expert in such translation.
The first year was spent, Finigan says, focusing on producing a quality product. “Now we’re spending more time on figuring how to maintain a balance between the quality I demand and the cost of producing it in terms of the time it takes to maintain that quality. We started in the right place and we’re building on that.” One area that has been gaining in popularity are private teas in the stylish, butter-yellow dining room in this pretty Victorian erstwhile home.
From the start, the Finigans have concentrated on giving back to the community, holding fundraisers for Cancer Care and Check Out Hunger and stocking the SchoolHouse Kitchen line of condiments, the profits for which go to education. “We want more than the business part of this to work,” Finigan says. She was especially pleased to have gotten a “phenomenal” reception at this year’s Taste of the Nation benefit. “People went crazy for our mocha cheesecake and since then we’ve gotten a lot more people crossing Route 1 from Princeton to dine here.”
Alysia’s Brownies, www.welchesters.com. Owner: Alysia Welch-Chester.
The Blue Rooster Bakery & Cafe, 17 North Main Street, Cranbury, 609-235-7539. www.blueroosterbakery.com. Co-owner: Karen Finigan.
The CanalHouse/Canal House Cooking, 6 Coryell Street, Lambertville, 609-802-7997. www.thecanalhouse.com. Owners: Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer.
Elements, 163 Bayard Lane (Route 206), Princeton, 609-924-0078. www.elementsprinceton.com Emilia Sparatta, sommelier.
Naturally Nora’s, 609-688-9988. www.naturallynora.com. Owner: Nora Schultz.
Simply Nic’s, simplynics.com. Owner: Nicole Bergman.
Sugar + Sunshine Bakery, 6 Market Street, Plainsboro Village Center, Plainsboro, 609-936-3777. Owner: Gigi Burton.