For the sweet-toothed among us, artisan confectioner Valerie Confections is truly iconic. Originally recognized as one of the nations’ top chocolatiers, the company went on to introduce delicious preserves and cakes, as well as expand their business into catering and cafes; and they aren’t stopping there. We recently caught up with Valerie Gordon, the woman and namesake behind Valerie Confections, to learn more about how she launched one sweet dream job.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 5 YEARS BEFORE LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS?
VG: I was managing Les Deux Cafes, an incredibly unique and impactful restaurant and cabaret in Hollywood. The proprietress, Michele Lamy, is a fashion luminary of sorts and she set me on a path to create something out of nothing. Managing LDC taught me to “see” what was not obvious in the day to day running of a business under a creative and unpredictable spirit. Each day was a new adventure where I was expected to gauge the needs of the kitchen and the customers, while maintaining a diligent knowledge of who’s who in film, art and politics.
About three years before the birth Valerie Confections, I began teaching yoga. I found the process of guiding people through stress relieving meditation and yoga extremely gratifying. The majority of my teaching was private clients and small groups, and the relationships I forged were long lasting, defining relationships in my life. One of my clients actually provided seed money for Valerie Confections!
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO START YOUR BUSINESS AND DID YOU HAVE AN “AH HA” MOMENT WHEN EVERYTHING CLICKED?
VG: I had a combination “ah ha” and “oh shit” moment that led me to start Valerie Confections. When Les Deux Cafes closed on January 1, 2004, I was in a bit of a situation. I had pre-existing medical issues that were fairly serious and was in continuous physical therapy at the time. As it was the pre-Obamacare era, I was truly uninsurable and with the closure of the restaurant, so went my medical benefits. Although I was teaching yoga part-time when LDC closed, it was not enough income to fully support me and I knew my commitment to the food industry was not something I could retire. The initial idea for Valerie Confections came in the form of luxury toffee, and forming an LLC allows two people undeniable health insurance coverage. Was it an “ah ha” moment? Maybe two birds with one stone is a more accurate description.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS BUSINESS CONCEPT AND DID YOU HAVE EXPERIENCE IN IT PRIOR?
VG: I tracked the luxury chocolate industry for many years as both a fan and a consumer. I loved the experience of walking into a chocolate shop or bakery, I always find the environment soothing and deeply comforting. The initial idea of Valerie Confections was to create memorable experiences for people through chocolate. That concept has maintained it’s ethos but expanded into dessert and food in general. From a creative perspective, my partner Stan and I both wanted a career that was flexible, endlessly stimulating, and limitless in scope. We wanted a company with food as the core where we could also explore design, photography, installation, writing and more. Essentially, the company is the amalgamation of all of our interests transformed into commodity.
WAS THERE A POINT WHERE YOU THOUGHT THINGS MIGHT NOT WORK OUT AND WHAT WERE SOME OF THE OBSTACLES YOU HAD TO OVERCOME WHEN CREATING THE BUSINESS?
VG: 2008 and 2009 were incredibly challenging years to run a small business. Some people call it the recession, I prefer calling it “the slow walk through hell.” Leading up to holiday season 2008, we were positioned to make a huge leap in business having secured full page coverage in the Dean and Deluca, Williams Sonoma, and Bergdorf Goodman catalogs. The sales projections from these major specialty food and luxury retail outlets were enormous—we took out loans to front-load the packaging and product in anticipation of the holiday season that would change our lives. Unfortunately, the economy imploded and we took a huge loss that year. Early 2009 was scary: we had a toddler at home and a business on the verge of bankruptcy. The luxury chocolates that launched our company were no longer in demand and in order to survive we needed to switch gears quickly. I refocused the company towards baked goods and developed a line of pastries, jams and pies to sell at farmers markets using locally grown produce. Embracing our neighbors fueled a deeper community foundation for the company and the misfortune of the great recession resulted in great fortune for me both creatively and financially.WERE THERE OBSTACLES YOU FACED THAT WERE SPECIFIC TO YOU BEING A WOMAN TRYING TO CREATE A BUSINESS?
VG: I was strangely oblivious to the fact that I am a female business owner when we launched Valerie Confections. I have always considered myself something of a post-feminist, meaning I don’t feel limited in my goals based on my gender. So my gender did not cause me to pause in the formation of my company. However, I now see that as a naïve perspective; just because I don’t feel the oppression personally, doesn’t mean it is nonexistent within my field or that others don’t feel the oppression acutely. I think I would have experienced something very different and likely problematic had I worked my way up through other people’s kitchens. My path was truly unique as the only professional kitchen I have worked in is the one I created.
HOW DID YOU FUND YOUR IDEA?
VG: When I was in the testing phase of Valerie Confections, I solicited a group of tasters, people who might be future customers of the products (I suppose “foodies” would be the mainstream term.) One of those testers was a yoga client of mine who has a zealous appetite for confections and was very impressed with the products I was testing. He offered up 30k in seed money and that set us on track to begin Valerie Confections.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOUR BUSINESS?
VG: My business has two sides: there is the Valerie Confections side and the Valerie Gordon side. These efforts are complimentary and have the same name, however, the tasks and projects involved definitely feel like running two companies. On the Valerie Gordon side, I am putting a lot of energy into media projects such as food writing, television content and collaborative events. On the Valerie Confections side, we are opening a new location this summer and launching an ice cream line!
WHAT IS YOUR PIECE OF ADVICE TO ANYONE WHO WANTS TO STOP WHAT THEY’RE DOING AND CREATE THEIR “DREAM JOB”?
VG: Research as much as possible. Don’t jump into anything blind. Know that a hobby does not make a career. Within the realm of the food industry and other lower-margin industries, buffer yourself fiscally. Unless you are starting with a serious mountain of capital, most start-ups run very lean books for the first two years and many new business owners pay themselves last.
Go on a date before you get married! Try out the concept in a pop-up or a serious self assignment. Is this dream job something you never clock out from, meaning would you want to live with it on the tenth, twelfth or fourteenth work hour every day? Creation takes time and tireless dedication, but if you are following your true calling, nothing is more gratifying.