By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Gery Petrof
“When I was baking at home before entering the shop, I had taken over the kitchen, garage, basement, dining room, and living room,” Culey, owner of Coquette Patisserie in University Circle, says of the days she developed innovative French desserts in her home to sell to restaurants and customers at the Shaker Square Farmers Market.
Coquette Patisserie is regarded as one of Cleveland’s finest pastry shops, with unique offerings, such as It Takes Two To Mango (rum-soaked genoise with mango curd, toasted coconut, and mango mousse), French macarons in varieties ranging from Sicilian pistachio to blue cheese and bacon, and elaborately decorated specialty cakes. In addition, Coquette is a full-service bar, featuring crafted cocktails, craft beer, and a curated Champagne and French wine menu. Culey and her bartenders create or identify drinks that pair well with her pastries. The pairings are a big draw.
The University Circle shop came to fruition after Culey spent two years writing and rewriting a business plan, with the help of SCORE counselors, and procuring a bank loan. This was not her first foray into the business world. Several years earlier she had launched a wholesale-only version of Coquette in her native Connecticut with $4,000 she had saved while working at Financier Patisserie in New York City.
During a visit to Cleveland in early 2007, Culey and her husband, Shane, were inspired by the arts and cultural institutions, burgeoning restaurant scene, and affordable cost of living. By June of that year, they began winding down operations in Connecticut and planning their move to Cleveland.
It was a good move that eventually led to opening the 1,000-square-foot Coquette Patisserie, which includes a 600-square-foot kitchen, 28 seats inside, and 40 seats on a patio. Located near the Case Western Reserve University campus, business sometimes ebbs and flows according to the academic calendar, but it is profitable.
Culey, who trained at Au Petit Prince in Sorgues, France, concentrates on recipe development, production methods, and overall business management. Her husband, who works full time in marketing and graphic design, handles communications and relationship management. The shop employs nine people, but, Culey says, they have worked through a lot of staff to arrive at their current team. Initially, she hired 22 workers, mostly college students who worked on a part-time basis—sometimes only one shift a week.
“It was difficult to manage that many people and their schedules,” she says. “Now we have four (employees) in the kitchen and five up front. It’s much more efficient, and they’re all professionals.”
Other staffing challenges stemmed from the birth of two children in a short period. Culey’s son was six months old when Coquette opened, and her daughter was born about a year later. While pregnant with her daughter, Culey was placed on bed rest, so she had to hire a full-time pastry chef to cover for her. Additionally, she hired a front-of-house manager to support Shane while he spent more time with their children.
“That’s additional, unexpected overhead,” Culey says. “The original plan was for me to be the executive pastry chef and run the front of the house, and Shane would oversee the marketing. It gave our staff a great opportunity to take on different responsibilities and learn new responsibilities, but it definitely cut into our bottom line.”
Culey, who holds a pre-med degree and whose formal training is in biology, says she learned how to run a hospitality business through observation and on-the-job experience. She also credits networking for contributing to her success. From the onset, her business strategy included meeting and getting her product in front of as many potential customers as possible. This included participating in charity events, selling pastries at farmers markets, and working to be active in and contributing to Cleveland’s food scene.
“That really gave me a presence in front of my target clientele,” she says. “It put me in front of the people I wanted to sell to, people who understood my product. I didn’t know if anyone would appreciate my work, but it was so well received from the beginning that it gave me the confidence and motivation to not only continue, but also expand.”
Now a successful entrepreneur, Culey serves as treasurer for the Cleveland chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization for women in the culinary industry, and is an active member of the James Beard Foundation.
“I’m working with multiple well-respected organizations to continue raising awareness about Cleveland’s food scene and the University Circle neighborhood,” she says.
For more info: coquettepatisserie.com