Young entrepreneurs, especially those in the food world, often fail to make it past their first year. Kristine de la Cruz of Crème Caramel L.A. started out in 2010 making savory desserts and bread puddings from her home kitchen, then expanded her business to local farmers markets. Now with her first brick-and-mortar shop, which opened in September, she's an example of what success can look like if you stay focused, work hard -- and sleep with a kickass 52-page business plan under your pillow.
Building her customer base through food festivals, markets and social media outlets, de la Cruz has been able to reach a wider audience for the desserts that are the centerpiece of her shop. She and her partner-boyfriend, Sean Gilleland, took over a former Armenian bakery in the San Fernando Valley and set up, as she calls it, "a mini artisanal urban bodega."
Squid Ink caught up with de la Cruz to chat about her journey from sweet dreamer to shop owner and get her advice for other aspiring small business owners.
Squid Ink: You've been open for a little over a month now. Is the shop experience what you expected it would be?
Kristine de la Cruz: It's exciting and scary. But this is what we wanted to do and we're putting ourselves out there. You know, we wanted to expand out, and this has been the biggest expenditure to date. We have been investing in it ourselves.
Our first week, we rolled out everything we wanted to do, but naturally we had to adjust. We had grand ideas at the very beginning, but now we're scaling back and introducing them slowly, things like our Spanish tortillas. Other to-go items, like the Ben-Tea boxes, we decided will wait until summertime. It just makes more sense. People know us for our custards and desserts, so that's what is really selling right now. Plus, we know the holiday season is going to make or break us.
SI: Well, this is a great time of year for a dessert shop. Will you be featuring any special seasonal desserts?
KC: We have a killer bourbon pumpkin cheese cake, a pumpkin crumble, chocolate pavé, sweet potato coffee cake and a Bûche de Noël -- the traditional yule log -- things like that. We just started selling a budino, too. A customer asked for it for her daughter's wedding, and they loved it so much we decided to start selling it in the shop. It's important to listen to your customers and give them what they want.
SI: You guys got a lot of support and aid from local communities when you were first getting off the ground. Would you say that's important for young businesses?
KC: Of course! We came up through the farmers markets and a whole bunch of food events like the Taste and Unique L.A., which we were lucky to be a part of. We wanted to be able to showcase other products, too. I always wanted to have this market element within the shop, so yeah, we're carrying some of our favorite vendors. They are just a few relationships that have developed over the years of working in the farmers market circuit.
I've been curating and hand-selecting favorites, business that are on the cusp, and we wanted to highlight them and give them an opportunity to sell. We're like an incubator for small businesses and startups. It's great to be able to give back in that way.
SI: Would you consider yourself a bakery or a boutique food store?
KC: We are not so much a full bakery; we're a dessert shop. We know that. We do market items and light breakfast and are selling the things that we enjoy. It's like our home -- like inviting someone over to our house and saying, "So what do you want to eat?"
SI: How has the neighborhood taken to your shop?
KC: This particular Sherman Oaks community is very tight-knit. They've been spreading the word about us and we couldn't have asked for a better neighborhood.
SI: Has the brick-and-mortar been the plan from the beginning?
KC: Yes. And we really did have a 52-page business plan. I've been working off of it for the past 2 ½ years. I've literally be going back to the plan and saying "Oh, OK, now what's next?" It's not like we are reinventing the wheel or anything. I know what my limitations are. I think that's important for a business owner to recognize. I wanted to highlight people who are amazing in what they do. My team is all very motivated and we've been attracting really good talent. I don't know what I did to deserve such great people.
SI: Any advice to other young entrepreneurs thinking about starting a business?
KC: I definitely don't want to convey that it's all been roses. It has been hard-ass work. When people go into business for themselves, especially food-related business, it has to make sense financially. I'm going into the food business because I love the hospitality part -- I really enjoy it.
I can only say what worked for me, and it may not work for someone else. But one thing I do tell people is that if you're OK with missing out on social functions and working 60 or 80 hours a week and not getting enough sleep for at least a good year or two, then yeah, definitely do it. To be able to meet the goals we needed, that's what we did. I don't know if it's efficient, but that worked for us.
SI: Any other helpful discoveries you made along the way?
KC: Well, it's good to have a wide supportive network that are willing to work for volunteer credit. For the first year of our business, our awesome friends and family helped us at the farmers markets and at events.
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SI: Would you credit your prior business and marketing background to your success?
KC: I've definitely been applying the skills I learned in marketing. I know I'm not going to make millions of dollars from this. We are in this simply because we enjoy it. If we can provide a good work environment for our employees, serve great food and provide a nice spot for people to stop by in the community, that would be amazing. That's all we want.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Amy T. Shuster tweets at @backyardbite and blogs at backyardbite.com.