: | The French Pastry School


'Every happy occasion, there’s dessert,' baker says
Melissa Wylie/ Bizwomen |
August 22, 2017

After six years running a French bakery in Chicago, Sophie Evanoff no longer feels like an impostor.

She took her first trip to France this year and traveled from city to city to see the sights. But during her two days in Paris, all she did was visit pastry shops.

“When you just admire these stores for years and years online and on social media...now I could finally taste it and see it,” she said.

Evanoff is the president and owner of Vanille Pâtisserie, which has three locations in Chicago. Evanoff purchased the struggling bakery from a former culinary instructor in 2011, and turned the business around with boosted branding efforts and an expanded product line. Vanille, which means “vanilla” in French, specializes in custom wedding and celebration cakes and French pastries such as macarons, petit fours, and croissants.

A Detroit native, Evanoff moved to Chicago to attend The French Pastry School in 2009 after earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan. Since she was kid, Evanoff saw herself running her own bakery. She spent some time as a pastry chef in restaurants and worked in chocolate manufacturing, but she seized the opportunity to be a business owner when Vanille went up for sale.

Evanoff partners with nonprofits and local businesses for events to keep Vanille involved in the Chicago community, and she’s opening a fourth bakery this fall. (Interview lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

What’s your connection to French culture?

I was always joking that I was an impostor to run this French pastry shop. For me, it’s what the French, especially with pastry, what they’re known for and what they represent is being the best and high quality. That’s a personal value that I have. We strive to be the best and that’s what the French pastry reputation is.

Does Vanille have a lot of competition in Chicago?

There is a lot of competition. However, because Chicago is so large, not one bakery could support the demand that’s out there. I feel that every bakery complements each other here. You can’t walk into our store and find a chocolate chip cookie. It’s not what we do. You can go to other bakeries and you won’t be able to find a French macaron. I think that’s what’s nice about this city. Chicago is also an international city, so we do really well too because our pastries are European based. They’re not that sweet.

When you first bought the bakery, how did you build its brand identity?

We were much smaller when I acquired it. I primarily focused on the front-end aspects and really building the brand, treating it like a luxury brand and making sure all the branding and marketing was in line with that. And it took off.

We have branded boxes and bags. And how we package things – they’re not just coming in a white bakery box. Everything we do looks like a gift you could give to someone. Even if you buy it for yourself, you still feel special because of the way it’s wrapped.

What are some of your challenges as a bakery owner?

We have such a hard time finding skilled labor, especially for cake decorating. It’s such a niche skill. People are good at it, but the speed isn’t there, the efficiency isn’t there. The bakery industry is one of the worst industries for margins, especially cakes. So, it’s tough.

Right now, I think the demand is so high for culinary labor. I’ve had this discussion with other culinary businesses too. A lot of the kids coming out of school are expecting to be paid a lot more with no experience, and that’s not how it works.

And I think the general consumers...they don’t realize how long it actually takes to decorate and to make their son’s fifth birthday cake with all these crazy cutouts. They think it’s just a $50 cake, but it’s really not. There’s definitely a disconnect with education. No matter how much you try, people don’t think their cake is worth $200.

What is it about pastry that you’ve always liked so much?

To me, it’s really what pastry represents. Every happy occasion, there’s dessert. Everybody gets excited when dessert comes out. We’re part of birthdays, weddings, first communions, anniversaries. There’s always cake or some sort of pastry. It’s exciting that we get to be a part of that.

Numbers at glance

Vanille locations: Three, with a fourth bakery opening in the fall

Employees: 35

Revenue in 2016: $2.5 million

Revnue in 2011, when Evanoff acquired the business: $500,000

French macarons made each week: 10,000

Custom cake prices: Round 6 in. buttercream cake starts at $35; Round 6 in. fondant cake starts at $44


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