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When Elisa Marshall couldn't find the ideal spot in which to plop down her laptop and order a cookie—like her mother used to bake—she decided to create one herself.

Jillian Kramer
January 16, 2018

Working from coffee shops across New York City, Elisa Marshall became fascinated with the city's coffee culture. "The café and coffee scene was very trendy, 'hipster,'" describes Marshall, "and it was lacking a warm, welcoming environment. From the people to the décor and even the food, it was all so focused on trends, and I was just in search of something with a homelike feeling, as I am sure many New Yorkers are."

So when Marshall couldn't find the ideal spot in which to plop down her laptop and order a cookie—like her mother used to bake—she decided to create one herself.

That café was Maman, now the uber-popular chain of shops throughout New York City serving up baked goods, Toby's Estate coffee, and a selection of lighter bites. (Maman's eighth location opened today in NoMad, its first spot north of 14th Street.)

Camila Gutierrez

"I guess you could say we did it selfishly," says Marshall the decision to open Maman by herself and her partner, Ben Sormonte. "[We had wanted] a beautiful and welcoming place to eat, drink, and gather with friends and family to entertain, that would combine all things we love—alongside the person we love—under one roof."

But for the relaxing and comfortable environment they created, the duo also took on an immense amount of stress. "Being a business owner—especially ones with the additional challenges New York City presents—is something you must be willing to commit 100 percent of your time to—all in the hopes that one day, it’ll only take up 80 percent of your time," Marshall says. "I think many people—myself included—go into [this business] not realizing how much work and sacrifice is really involved. It is even harder in a city like New York City, where the food and beverage industry is so competitive and challenging—and you have to be so on top of things at all time."

But that doesn't mean it's impossible—or not worth it. So, if you want to follow in Marshall's footsteps, here's her advice on how you can open a bakery in New York.

1. Get comfortable with risk. At the time Marshall and Sormonte opened Maman, they were working as event planners. It was a risk to leave those jobs and open a bakery—especially in a city where it's almost as common for restaurants to close than to open. "My parents always encouraged me to be an individual and be unique in all I did," recalls Marshall. "They encouraged me never to follow the crowd and [told me] that it’s OK to take risks. Without that reminder, I would have never taken the risk [of opening Maman]. I know too many people who settle for where they are and for jobs they don’t enjoy because they are afraid to go out, take risks and pursue their dreams. It will not come to you and you have to not be afraid to go get it."

2. Learn to wear many hats. When Marshall opened Maman—and still, to this very day—she was not just an owner of the bakery. As she explains, "I've never actually given myself a title, because my job changes every day, from owner and creative director to waitress, catering manager, or often times dishwasher," Marshall says. "My days range from emails to venue visits for events, meetings with brands for collaborations, tastings with the kitchen, and sometimes hopping into service if someone is sick or they need help." But even if her job didn't necessitate it, Marshall says there is value in wearing many hats at work. "I like to make sure I can do every position in the company to better understand how we work, how we can improve things, and to see it from the perspective of my employees," Marshall explains.

3. Concentrate on what really matters. When Maman opened its first location in Soho, Marshall painstakingly chose every detail, " from beautiful, hand-painted recycling signs to hand-made flower pots," she describes. And she was onsite, every say, to oversee the bakery's upkeep. Now, with eight locations, "I am constantly going store-to-store, getting so frustrated that no one is watering the plants—that there are dead flowers in vases, the logos on the cups are facing the wrong direction, that the display in the window fell down and no one has noticed," she says. "Finding staff with the same eye for detail and ultimately caring about these things has been and still is the biggest challenge for me. But over the years, I’ve learned to pick my battles and realize that, although these things may be important to me, they may not be things everyone notices or are game changers for our business. We may not get a bad Yelp review if the frame in the washroom is not straight, but we just might if the quiche is cold. I need to realize where to focus my energy or I'll drive myself crazy."

4. Identify your weaknesses. "We all have our strengths, and often times it is very easy to point those out and know exactly what you excel at," says Marshall. "But it is also very important to identify your weaknesses and what you are not good at—especially when you are starting a business." Marshall says she was never very good at math and so, in operating Maman, she doesn't look at the books. Instead, she has passed that duty on to Sormonte, who is more comfortable with numbers. Marshall recommends identifying your own business weaknesses, and then, "ensure you have help and support in those areas. Don't think that you can do it all yourself."

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