Each month we feature a different food entrepreneur. This month’s feature, Jenny Belliveau, owner of A Butter Life, really opened up to us about everything from her start in media and video production through her decision to change her career, to her fears and how she works through them, to what inspires her and keeps her going. This interview is longer than usual, but well worth the read! Jenny is smart, determined, hardworking, and talented. I know I learned things while interviewing her, and am excited for readers to make similar discoveries while reading this intricate and engrossing interview. Enjoy!
We know you spent many years working in corporate media and video production. What made you finally take the leap to transition into becoming a food entrepreneur?
It was hard because I was good at my job, it was such a part of my identity. But by the time I got to a management role all the creativity was sucked out of my job, and I just got to this place where I thought, yeah, I don’t know if I can keep going anymore. At that point I was baking as a hobby. Finally, I decided to just take a break from what I was doing and I enrolled in this intensive class in pastry at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE).
That’s really brave of you! How was your experience there?
Great! I really got into making pie, I learned how to make buttercream, I started making cakes, and what I really fell in love with was the making. Working with my hands and seeing tangible products at the end of my work. So Thanksgiving rolled around, and I asked my husband if he thought people might want to buy pies if I made them for the holiday. He said yeah and that he’d ask around at work. Two days later I had to prepare 18 pies!
After that I got it into my head that I wanted to give baking for a living a real shot. But I didn’t have the capital to just up and start my own business, and I needed more professional experience. So, when my class ended at ICE, I got hired as a chef’s assistant. I got to work on a whole bunch of different classes with many different chefs. It was a big commute to lower Manhattan each day for job that paid almost nothing, but I considered this more like an internship – I was there to learn. I really loved being at the school and I just started cold emailing bakeries and restaurants, being very transparent about my skill level, asking for part-time assistant positions. I left the school and I ended up getting hired as a full-time pastry cook at a restaurant, which was amazing and also terrifying. I almost didn’t take the job because I thought they were crazy to hire me. In this job I was working the line and I was doing production in the morning alongside another pastry cook.
For those reading who might not have a food or restaurant background, can you explain what working the line and production means?
A pastry cook at a restaurant has a lot of different responsibilities. You work production in the sense that you’re baking pastries, you’re preparing custards and creams and sauces, everything that you need to compose dishes. When you’re working the line you’re plating, but you’re also making items to order, and you’re ensuring that the plate is designed as per the chef’s instructions. I had never done any plating. I’m a fairly visual person, but I’m also very logical and analytical, so this trained my brain differently. Working both production and the line, was a tremendous learning experience and at the same time grueling work. A lot of people don’t know that if they haven’t done it themselves.
What restaurant were you working at?
I was working at Vanillamore Dessert Kitchen. I was hired before the restaurant opened, so I was part of the opening team, which was very exciting. Risa Boyer, who is the chef and owner, assembled a really tight pastry squad. I was at Vanillamore for a little more than 6 months and I loved it there.
Why did you leave if you loved it so much?
I finally decided that I wanted to put my time and energy into my own business. My first step was going to be trying to sell at farmer’s markets. However, I didn’t have a clue how to do this. It just seemed like the next logical step, I felt like it’s what a lot of small food businesses do when they start out. So, I started making calls and sending out emails. I got a call back from the Westfield Farmer’s Market and then they ran down the list of things that I needed. I didn’t have insurance and I had not secured a commercial kitchen. Because prior to this, I mean, really what I was doing was like on the border of being a hobby. So it was this manic rush to get everything together. I went online and I got my insurance with the Food Liability Insurance Program. It wasn’t hard, but that was $300 I didn’t anticipate spending. I took me two months to find a kitchen.
How did your business progress once you took care of all these requirements and were able to register for the farmer’s market?
When I started at the farmer’s market I spent more time on menu development than anything else, knowing that I was going into Westfield, an area where nobody knew me. There was another baker at the market so I had to make different things so that I wasn’t in competition with them. I’d been to a lot of farmer’s markets and always seen scones, so I thought to try that. I never made a scone before spring of last year.
Can you tell us more about the process of developing your menu?
I test everything I make exhaustively and if I’m not happy with it I don’t sell it. If I’m okay with it then I give it out to people I know, my dog walker, my mother, friends, other pastry cooks I know, etc. I ask them to tell me what they really think. I just want to make sure everything is just right.
So how did your first farmer’s market experience go?
At the end of that first day we had maybe 10 items left on the table.
That’s amazing! You’re menu development worked!
I went from never having prepared scones or liking them, quite frankly, to having them become my best seller. People are talking about them, I’m getting to know people because I see the same faces every week with pre-orders, people are following me on Instagram, starting conversations. I went from believing that baking and being on my own working in the kitchen was my favorite part of entrepreneurship, to realizing it was not – interacting with these people, and making these connections was really taking its place. The farmers market taught me so many things, but the main thing was the importance of building a customer base in person. It was also a huge lesson on being the face of my brand.
Wow! So are you participating in more farmers markets this year?
So far I only have Westfield on deck. This is mostly because I have built a pretty devoted following and I’ve been doing a lot of monthly sales. I’m also teaching more classes and working on my business plan. I would love to do another one or two markets but I have to be mindful of overextending myself.
It’s great that you’re teaching more classes! We’re super excited about the class you are going to teach at
Garden State Kitchen on April 25th! Can you tell us more about it?
It’s called All About Caramel, and this will be the second time I’m teaching it. I had the idea because I do a lot of cake work, and I do caramel drips on top of cakes, but I also use caramel to flavor buttercream. I love using the sauce both on its own or as a flavor component, it’s something that is very versatile. I also make caramel candies which is something that was really big during holiday season. Cooking caramel can be a little intimidating if you don’t know the right pot to use or if you’re not working with a thermometer. The thing is, if you know what you’re doing caramel is ridiculously simple. It requires very few ingredients, but you really need to rely on your senses to make it. That is what I love the most about cooking it: it is really a sensory experience. In this class, we’ll do some sampling before we get started cooking, so people can really get a sense of what caramel sauce can be.
That sounds incredible, we’re really looking forward to it. Is it ok if we ask you some more question about your business and your experiences as an entrepreneur?
What do you think makes your business unique?
Our name is A Butter Life. This is not to say that everything I make has butter in it, that’s not the case, but it’s the idea of always using the real thing, that drives my decisions and my baking. I don’t use any shortening in my baking, not a drop. Everything I use is chosen to aid my goal of having the optimal flavor and texture experience. My goal is very simple. I want the customer to have good time eating my dessert, I want them to feel joy.
Do you ever have second thoughts about quitting you full time job and starting a small business?
Yes. My vision of success for this is to make a living from it and I’m not doing that yet. I mean it’s a weird position to be in. I’m sure you got this from a lot of the entrepreneurs: you’re working your tail off your 7 days a week. Then you look at your bank account and you always have these questions in your head. Did I make the right choice? I’m much harder on myself as a boss than anyone I ever worked for. But this is my show, I get to call the shots, and that’s a huge benefit.
How do you see A Butter Life growing or evolving in the future, so you can be successful in making a living from it?
The dream, the goal, is to have my own shop. It’s not going to be a big affair, I want to keep it simple, but I want to have a home for A Butter Life. I want a friendly counter with a nice espresso machine, I want to be able to serve things hot right out of the oven.
That would be super exciting! Do you have any idea when this dream might become reality?
Optimistically I would say summer 2020, but I don’t know if I’m there yet. My objective is to get the business plan done by the end of this summer, and then it’s just going to be all about financing, and after financing, finding a location.
How do you tackle the parts of running a business you may not know to much about?
I look for low-cost opportunities to learn. Rutgers-Newark’s Small Business Development Center runs a four-week workshop on how to write a business plan for a hundred bucks. So worth the money! I do my own photography, I do all my social media, but I know nothing about building a website and if I tried to it would be a mess. I have a very good friend of mine that codes and designs. He takes care of my website. My husband is a designer and artist. He designed my logo, he’s done all of my branding, all of my signage. My mom is a retired accountant and now working with me on bookkeeping.
You’ve mentioned all of these things that people have done for you. Did you pay them?
I usually start by saying up front that I don’t assume this work is for free, tell me what you think it’s worth, I trust you. If I can pay you I will, if not I’ll try to work something out. The first thing I always say is, feel free to say no. But my husband’s not getting paid for anything and he was at the market helping me set up the tent every Saturday. My mother, thank God for her, she was at the tent with me every week. In many aspects of this business I wear a lot of hats, but I could not have gotten to this place without the support of the great people behind me.
Who are your culinary inspirations?
Rose Levy Beranbaum, who is a cookbook author and a legend in pastry. I know what I know about cake from working my way through her books. Dorie Greenspan, another cookbook author, who I absolutely love. I went to see her at a 92nd Street Y talk in December and posted about it shortly after. Then she started following me on Instagram. I felt like screaming and jumping up and down because she is an idol to so many of us who work in pastry. Also, my old boss at Vanillamore, the chef there, Risa, has been super supportive. She’s fantastic and always available to answer questions which means the world to me.
Do you have a mantra you live by or that is important to you?
“Perfection is the enemy of good”. I like that one because sometimes when you’re the inventor and the salesperson we can get ourselves so caught up in this idea of making something perfect, that we lose sight of everything else. You need to get it to a place where you’re happy and you can make other people happy, and then you need to be consistent. I think when it comes to food, consistency is much more important than perfection. I don’t think people go out for a meal or go out for a store looking for perfect thing, they go out for an experience of something that makes them feel good and makes them want to come back. So I would say the overriding mantra is “Consistency is Key”.