One bite of Cocoa and Fig‘s sweet offerings and you’d never know that owner Laurie Pyle’s original career plans were in the complete opposite direction from the culinary world. In fact, as the buttercream melts in your mouth, you’ll swear the owner of the two-year-old catering company — and the recently opened Cocoa and Fig retail space in Gaviidae Commons — was born to bake.
Spending some time with her, however, the Heavy Table discovered many things about Pyle, including a surprising start into the culinary world, her “go-getter” approach to business, and her unlikely choice for a birthday dessert.
An unlikely entrance into the culinary world:
I went to Tufts and actually studied psychology and child studies. But I thought, since I would not only need to get a masters and a PhD, I really better make sure this is what I want to do. I was super into food at the time — had always cooked. Every single job I’d ever held was in the food business, I just had never thought of it as a career. So I did a little soul searching and found the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York and enrolled there. I moved to New York and did their two-year culinary program.
Getting influence from Sara Foster, an American culinary force on seasonal, fresh cooking:
During the program [at the CIA] you’re required to do an externship. I went down to North Carolina and worked for a woman named Sara Foster. You’ve heard of her? She was a catering chef for Martha Stewart when Martha had her catering company before she had everything else. She had written her first cookbook and the foreword was by Martha, which caught my mother’s eye when she saw the cookbook on the shelf. She said: “You have to contact this woman — it’s exactly the type of shop you want to own someday.”
I went down to visit her and asked if she’d ever taken interns and she hadn’t at that point. I asked if she’d be willing to and ended up going down and doing my externship with her.
It was awesome! She’s an amazing person. I was an amazing experience. I learned a lot about cooking from her — a lot about using fresh, seasonal farmers market ingredients. We would often go to the market together on Saturday and then that would be the special for the weekend. I absolutely loved it!
A move from culinary focus to pastry:
I was doing the culinary part first, but I always knew that I had more of a passion for pastries. But people had said that you get pastry in the culinary program, so maybe I should start there. And I don’t regret that at all because I think I’m very well-rounded from it.
After completing that degree I moved back here [to Minnesota] and worked for a while and then decided that I really wanted that full-on pastry experience. So I went to the CIA’s campus in Napa Valley and completed their pastry degree. I worked for Thomas Keller, first at Bouchon making their desserts and then moved into the bakery and the full line of pastries.
From East Coast to West Coast and back to the Midwest:
When I graduated from there [CIA in Napa Valley], Joe [Pyle’s boyfriend] was in Miami so I moved down there to spend time with him and took jobs at two different catering companies, which is where I got my catering background. We loved Miami and had great jobs — it was kind of the good life — but thought there was no way they could raise kids there, so we moved back here.
Starting Cocoa and Fig in January 2008:
I started Cocoa and Fig just over 2 years ago. It was January ’08 when we opened. We opened as a catering company and Joe Lin, my boyfriend, is a very big part of it. I own the company solo, but he’s with me working as his full-time job as well. So it’s the two of us.
I always knew that I would want to own my own business someday. My parents have owned their own business for 30 years (a wholesale lumber manufacturing business). When we moved back we started looking for a retail bakery. We loved the South Minneapolis area but couldn’t find a space that we liked and thought would work — size, location, and price — because it was in ’07 and was a high time for price. We didn’t know if people would respond to our products — we hadn’t done this before. We thought maybe we should take a step back and think about putting in a kitchen somewhere where it’s not location location location and run a catering company from a kitchen that’s far out.
It just so happens that my parents were remodeling this building where their corporate offices are located. They were redoing the upper level and had never used the lower level. We were having dinner one night and they were saying that perhaps they would also remodel the downstairs like the upstairs and rent to someone looking for office space. I said, “Well, we need to build a commercial kitchen and would need storage space and office space” and all of that. And they laughed it off, thinking it wouldn’t work to put a commercial kitchen in the basement of an office building. Then a couple weeks later came back to me and said they spoke to the fire marshal and found out about zoning and it’s possible.
So we jumped on the opportunity — and now we have this kitchen in the middle of an industrial park in Shakopee. But it works for us.
Pyle’s go-getter approach to building her business:
My biggest thought [when we opened] was, how is anyone going to know that the two of us have started this tiny little catering company in an industrial park in Shakopee? We loved going to farmers markets and went every Saturday and Sunday mornings to the different [markets]. And I thought that maybe if we set up a booth at the market and had a gorgeous table display, people would see it and think, “Wow, if they can do this at the market on a Sunday morning, what are they going to do when they come to my house?” And we planned to hand out menus and that’s how we would get the buzz about.
We thought we would sample and do more advertising but then we started selling out every week. People loved the muffins, scones, and brioche filled with cream cheese or Nutella. We started bringing cupcakes and cookies and just kept expanding the line because they were buying it. And so it became this thing.
We did two markets the first year — Prior Lake (where Pyle’s from) and White Bear Lake. The second year, last year, we decided to go to more markets so we did the Nicollet Mall on Thursday, White Bear Lake on Friday, Prior Lake on Saturday, and the huge Minneapolis one on Sunday.
That is busy!
Yes, [and that was] on top of everything else. We had only done four weddings the first year and one was a family friend. People had seen us at the farmers market and said, “Oh my gosh — your cupcakes are amazing. Do you think you could do cupcakes for my wedding?” We had never thought about doing weddings, but since they became so popular we thought maybe we would do a wedding show in the beginning of ’09. So we did two wedding shows and last year we did 50 weddings.
So we went from four [weddings] to 50 in one year, doubled our farmers markets, and our catering just kept increasing and increasing.
Despite the significant increase in business, Cocoa and Fig focuses on a boutique approach:
But we still keep it very boutique style. We do a lot of baby showers and bridal showers, corporate lunches and breakfasts, and a lot of hors d’oeuvre events. We try to keep it under 100 people. A lot of people come to our wedding cake tastings and ask if we would do food at the wedding, but we’re just not set up for that. It’s not our niche so we’re very careful about the types of catered events that we take. We do a lot of in-home dinner parties for eight to 10 people, hors d’oeuvre functions for up to 100, and a lot of brunch- or baby shower-type events.
What can we expect this year at the farmers markets?
I don’t know — we’re trying to find out what our workload will be like. We’ll definitely be at Prior Lake, which is where we bring the biggest spread. We have two 10-foot tents and do our pastries in one tent and made-to-order hot breakfast in the other — crab cakes benedict, a fried sandwich with avocado and rosemary maple bacon, a blueberry bread pudding french toast, huevos rancheros, and a weekly special.
You are obviously influenced by seasonal, local food and farmers markets — do you incorporate this in your current business?
This has always been very important to me. We love going to farmers markets. They’re awesome and we enjoy having the interaction and the personal connection with our clients. But it’s so fun to meet other farmers and other people who get up at four in the morning to pack up their trucks and drive out just to do that. So we’ve made some really good connections there.
As for local products… we work with Dehn’s a lot for our herbs and vegetables in the summer. We’re working with Bull Run for our coffee and want to showcase Rustica breads. We also want to partner with people who do more candy / confectionery things that we don’t do. One would be Thomasina cashew brittle. She’s awesome! She’s a singer and is in productions here locally. And Sweet Goddess Chocolates. She makes toffee products and pistachio toffee and almond toffee we’re very excited to showcase. And our butter and cream is from Wisconsin.
You have a new retail location of Cocoa and Fig in Gaviidae Commons:
We really wanted to open a retail location because we were getting so many requests for small orders, but as a catering company you can’t just make those orders. We started out really wanting a retail bakery / cafe so that’s really the direction we think we’ll move to in the future. We opened Valentine’s Day week so it was crazy hectic. It’s taking a while to figure out how much product to make and the logistics — Joe drives it there every day.
The current space offers cupcakes, brioches, and other sweets — any plans for other offerings the future?
We are in talks with Rustica to provide bread for us. We want to do homemade soups served with bread and a limited selection of sandwiches — very Parisian style, you know, where you walk down the street, and they have all these little vendors and you can walk in and have a sandwich and they have like four different kinds. We also have quiche in the morning as a savory item for breakfast. We’re working on more savory items for breakfast.
Any signature items to Cocoa and Fig?
We do a cupcake called the Black Velvet which is, by far, our most popular-selling cupcake. It’s our take on a red velvet. A bride came to me early on and said, “Will you make red velvet cupcakes for my wedding?” I said, “Sure,” but I had never made them before. So I began testing out recipes and as we were tasting them, our mouths were turning red because of all the red food coloring. I thought, this cannot be good. The bride, nor the guests, are going to want to have red mouths. I couldn’t believe how much red food coloring was in there.
So we tinkered around with the recipe and drastically cut out the amount of red food coloring. We still put a little bit of coloring in them and we use Valrhona Cocoa powder, instead of a domestic cocoa powder, which is a lot more rich — darker in flavor and color. We messed around with a few other ingredients an came up with our Black Velvet, which we do with a traditional cream cheese icing. People go crazy for it.
And it doesn’t turn your mouth black?
No, it’s actually a lovely bordeaux color but Bordeaux Velvet just didn’t work, so we named it Black Velvet.
Other signature items?
We also make our own brioche. We make our own brioche dough here. We bake them in cute little molds and when they finish baking we poke holes in the center and fill them with either our lemon zest and vanilla bean cream cheese filling or Nutella.
And we also have the peanut butter pops and cake ball lollipops. The cake ball lollipops are simply just cake. We kept making all these wedding cakes — triple layer cakes — you cut them to level them and we had all these cake scraps. So we started mixing them with buttercream, rolling them into balls, and dipping them into chocolate. They sell so well that we now have to make cake in order to keep up with the production.
Any personal favorites?
Pastries are my favorite. I like the variety of things. I really like a challenge. Our French macarons are amazing and it took me probably three years to perfect them. I started making them in Bouchon in California. We had a great recipe there but it used an Italian meringue instead of a French meringue — there’s all this debate about which to use — so I started using a French meringue when I moved back here. Depending on the humidity and the type of almond flour that your use and the different flavorings, they are incredibly temperamental and most people hate making them because of that. But I think we finally figured them out. I enjoy that. It’s very very frustrating at times but to finally master something…
Desserts are really popular right now and a lot of shops are opening in the area…
I think people love dessert. People look to food for comfort so even in a bad economy people don’t stop eating. I think high-end restaurants are seeing a hit because that’s a bigger luxury. But I think if you have food that’s affordable and that’s really well-made, people can feel like they’re having a tiny luxury or indulgence. The highest price item that we have in the shop is $5 or $6. So to be able to have a cupcake for $2.75 or a cake lollipop for $2 is not really a stretch.
What’s next for Cocoa and Fig?
[We have] big plans for doing a space where we can all be under one roof. We’d cook in the back and have more seating in the front so it’d be more of a bakery / cafe. When I try to explain what we’re doing, I say it’s a Lucia’s Take Away meets French Meadow meets Yum! — all those things combined. We’d like to have food, a huge pastry counter, and also retail items using all the connections we have from the farmers market from people who are making small-batch local products, kind of like a Golden Fig or Local D’Lish as well, within that space.
Oh yeah… and what was Pyle’s answer to the question of her favorite birthday dessert?
My birthday is early November and I’m not really a cake person — so pumpkin pie from Baker’s Square.