Chef Chat, Part 2: Vanessa O'Donnell of Ooh La La Dessert Boutique
Vanessa O'Donnell decorating cupcakes
Photo by Mai Pham
Yesterday, we chatted with Vanessa O'Donnell, the pastry chef who owns Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, about how she got started in the industry. Today, she tells us how she started her business and what it's like being an owner of multiple locations.
EOW: It's been a crazy week for you, opening this new location, tell me about it.
VO: I live in Katy, so it's 30 minutes away. It takes me an hour to get dressed, get up at 4:30, out of the house by 5:30, get here by six. I wouldn't leave -- no joke -- until midnight. And doing that six days a week, you get so tired, you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you get discouraged. My ultimate goal is to float between all three and to be able to be in the kitchen at least three days a week, because that's what I love doing. I love baking.
EOW: Why not just hire managers?
VO: When we first opened, I tried to hire managers, but what I found is that being an owner, you have to be available, or you don't know what's going on. But I've got a great executive chef at my Park Row location, where everything baked in our 3,000-square-foot kitchen.
EOW: I didn't realize you only bake out of one kitchen.
VO: The most successful bakeries bake out of a single location, because having equipment in each location is expensive. We have a delivery truck that delivers everything to the Cinco Ranch and Town & Country locations between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. And our kitchen is going basically 24 hours a day. We have two shifts, an a.m. shift and a graveyard shift. My morning crew are the people who have been with me the longest, and they have kids. My night crew -- one of my shift leaders started as a dishwasher, but he learned so much by watching, that he's in charge of the kitchen at night -- and there are a lot of students at night. That's when we do cupcake baking -- the not-so-hard stuff.
EOW: What's considered hard?
VO: There's decorating cakes, making the pies, pulling the dough... at night it's a lot of making the cake mix and scooping it -- not too hard. We try to teach the students a lot, but when they first start you can't have them doing these things, because then you get into this issue where your quality isn't consistent. That's one of my biggest challenges.
Interior of the new Town & Country location
EOW: So getting back to...how did Ooh La La start?
VO: Well, I always wanted to have my own bakery. When I was in school, one of your last classes before you graduate, there's this project where you have to build your own restaurant. You have to do the portfolio, the finances, so I did it, and I called it Ooh La La. In Katy at the time, there was no bakery at all. We would always go to the Chocolate Bar, or the Dessert Gallery, and I told my parents it would great if we had something in Katy. Well, there was this little coffee shop where my Cinco location is, it was the cutest shop, it had a drive thru, and I said, "What a great location that would be." Not kidding, mark my word -- one week later there was a for sale sign in front.
EOW: So you started at the Cinco location. How long before you had your new kitchen?
VO: It was two years. When we first opened our Cinco location, we didn't know if it would work. We were working out of a 600-square-foot kitchen. It was tiny. We were working out of reach-in refrigerators. At that point, I thought, the only way for me to make more money was to take more orders. But I couldn't do it where I was at because I was out of space. So we went to Fry Road and Park Row and we opened a kitchen there because it's affordable. In Cinco, I couldn't afford a building to make into a kitchen.
EOW: Did you have to purchase it outright, or did you lease? How did you finance it?
VO: All of my locations, I lease. It would be great if I owned it, but no. The first one, I went to the bank and got a loan approval, but my parents had this money set aside for me since I was little, so they gave me that money. And the blessing part of it -- I think this is why I've grown -- is that I didn't have to pay interest, and everyone knows interest alone will kill you. My profits from Cinco opened up the Park Row location, and then my profits from my Cinco and Park Row opened up Town & Country. I had a little bit of money left over from my parents, so I was able to make this one a bit nicer.
EOW: This one's [Town & Country] big, so much bigger than the Cinco location.
VO: Yes, so I hope it does well, I hope for good things. But I think after this, I'm done. I'm serious. It's really hard, it's not just putting sprinkles on things. You have this staff, you have this HR you have to deal with...
EOW: I know it's tough. I'm just so impressed by you. So, you're 30 now?
VO: I turned 30 on November 5, and I was having a pity party for me, because we didn't do anything, because we were getting ready for this store to open. And I was so discouraged, and I thought "Oh my gosh, I don't have kids yet, and all my friends have kids, and they're stay-at-home moms, and I'm working myself to death..." So my husband told me "Okay, look what you've accomplished," and then I started thinking, I'm healthy, I am blessed, my business is doing well. But yeah, there's a lot of things I've had to give up along the way.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of O'Donnell's desserts.
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