January 27, 2012
French-style macarons, made of two delicate – almost air-like – cookies sandwiching a complementary filling is a far cry from the chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons most Americans are familiar with. A new breed of food artisans are whipping up these traditional European delicacies and adding a twist with their own unique flavor combinations that has customers clambering. Today we sit down with one such artisan, Rhiannon Devine of Seattle-based Lilli-Pilli Patisserie who is gearing up for her second year of business.
Macarons aren’t as widely known in the US as, say, chocolate chip cookies. When did you first become interested in macarons? What appealed to you about?
I first became fascinated with macarons in pastry school. I went to Seattle Central’s Culinary Academy and completed their ‘Specialty Desserts and Breads’ program. It was the first time I was exposed to macarons and it was there that I learned how finicky they can be as well as how versatile they are (they pair incredibly well with most fillings).
What were you doing prior to starting your own company last year?
I’ve been a student for a long time. Initially, I studied to be an epidemiologist, decided that statistics really didn’t appeal to me, so I thought that I would try to do something that I always done to relax myself, namely baking. Then I went to pastry school, and after finishing the program, I worked as a chocolatier at “Grendel Sweets” in Bellevue, WA and eventually came to the realization that I wanted to be able to create things on my own accord. So, I eventually decided to start a macaron business.
What made you decide to go into the macaron business?
In September 2010 I visited my family in Melbourne, Australia. I noticed that French Macarons were incredibly popular there. Also, that the macarons had some really lovely flavors: cucumber and mint, cherry blossom and sake, for instance. I always knew I wanted to bake, I knew I wanted to have a small business based around seasonal, local produce, and I knew how to make macarons. It all really fell into place around that trip to Melbourne.
One of the things you specialize in is creating macarons based on local and seasonal flavors. Where do you get your inspiration for new flavor combinations?
Honestly, a lot of the time I simply wander around a farmers market and see what inspires me. I’m incredibly impressed with Washington State’s produce, it’s really beautiful stuff. I think that people don’t always recognize that there are many varieties of the same fruit. For instance, I adore “Hood” and “Shuksan” strawberries as I find they tend to have a beautifully condensed flavor profile with a touch of acidity. I am constantly talking to produce vendors about what’s available, what their favorite fruit variety is, and what they like to make with the fruit themselves. My customers are pretty awesome as well. I made a peach cardamom macaron last year due to a suggestion from a customer. I also look at various confiture, cake, and pastry books for inspiration as they are always a good source.
Did you have one stand-out best seller this year? What about you, do you have a personal favorite flavor?
By far my best seller is the Fleur de Sel Caramel macaron. It’s a really simple caramel made from sugar, organic cream, butter, and Fleur de Sel, but it outsells any other flavor I’ve made. I have to admit, I suspect that part of its success is the fact that it is also my favorite flavor. Of course, I’m much better at selling things that I really like!
How hard was it to gain traction and get customers’ interest since you were a new company this past year? Other than your presence at farmers’ markets, your website, and social media, did you do any other marketing of your company?
I don’t do any marketing outside of the ones you mention. I really had incredibly low expectations at the start of 2011 about how well the business would do, I decided that as it is just me (although my husband Joshua Weier has helped in a lot of decision-making, customer service, web-site development, and the making of my logo) I’d take it easy and concentrate on what matter most to me – flavor.
This past year was a pleasant surprise, as I did far better than I thought was possible. I think concentrating on what I’m passionate about and being the one who both makes and sells everything lets me interact with my customers in a positive manner because I’m genuinely excited about what I make.
Speaking of your website, it’s absolutely gorgeous! Did you create it yourself or did you hire someone else to do that for you? Along those same lines, your photos are top-notch, again, did you take those yourself or hire a professional photographer?
My wonderful husband Joshua Weier made my web-site which was lovely because he’s an incredibly creative person who really understands my taste.
The amazingly talented food photographer Charity Lynne took the photos. I decided that I needed really nice photographs to sell my product, so good photography was essential . I met Charity at a farmers market, looked at her portfolio and decided that I’d love her to be my photographer!
Starting an artisan food business is all about making decisions. What would you say your top three decisions were in terms of positively impacting your business in Year 1.
I think the major one is base your business on something you love to do. It’s so much work, long, long hours, and constant fretting. But it makes it worth while (or at least better!) if you really believe in your product and enjoy making it.
Secondly, if you’re in the food industry, get a commercial kitchen that is close to home. Traveling really sucks, trust me you’ll have a ton more energy if you don’t have massive commute times!
Thirdly, try to get a support network. There are so many awesome people out there in the industry who are great to talk to, bounce ideas off of, and get obscure ingredient recommendations. from
Any things you wish you’d done differently this past year?
I wish I had organized more days off. I felt pretty burned out when it came to the end of the farmers market season. Balance in life is incredibly important!
Where do you hope to take your business to in Year 2?
I’m hoping to continue to make seasonal macarons in year 2. But I’m also hoping to expand into making some jams, jellies, and jarred caramel. I already make these, but I think that it will be a nice expansion and allow customers to make the best of summer produce in the depths of winter.
Lastly, you’re currently taking a much-deserved Winter Break. What made you decide to take a little time off? When can people start ordering from your website again?
I needed to really think about where I want to take my business, but I find it so hard to do when I’m constantly working. It just made sense to take some time off so I can organize my business in a well-considered and vaguely objective manner. I hope it works!
People can start ordering from my website in February for Valentines Day, but my full season will begin in May when a lot of the seasonal farmers’ markets open. I should be in full production mode by then!