Interviews

How This Café Owner Went From a Boring 9-to-5 Job to Baking Oprah’s Favorite Cookies

How This Café Owner Went From a Boring 9-to-5 Job to Baking Oprah’s Favorite Cookies

Oprah and I have very few things in common. Yet despite our many lifestyle differences, the media mogul and I happen to love the same cookies. In 2017, Oprah featured Maman® cookies on her famous list of “favorite things.” I, too, had been fawning over this Manhattan café’s treats since I discovered its first location in SoHo, circa 2014.

Within that first year, I had spent an embarrassing amount of money on Maman’s well-known nutty chocolate chip cookie. Because I was a food writer at the time, I internally negotiated that this was “research” and told myself it was a great opportunity to stretch my legs during a mile-long trek. Truth be told, I wasn’t writing a year’s worth of cookie stories, but I digress. 

I was introduced to Maman’s co-founder Elisa Marshall in September 2015, around the time Maman added a brunch menu in SoHo. Four years ago, I distinctly remember Marshall genuinely greeting guests and personally thanking them for spending their time in her eatery. 

As I enjoyed seasonal savory and sweet dishes inspired by North American and French cuisine, I noticed the decor at Maman was similar to Marshall’s demeanor: charming and warm. In short, there’s a home-like familiarity in the space, and when Marshall kindly welcomes patrons. (In case you don’t believe me: I actually posted a photo of my food plate to Instagram® with the caption “We want to live here.”)

Pleasantly satiated, I couldn’t resist ordering a cookie to-go as I departed brunch. I told myself, “She has amazing skin. I wonder what products she uses,” making a mental note to ask her the next time I saw her working. (Transparently: I failed to do so — until now.)

Since 2014, she and her fiancé, Ben Sormonte, have opened eight additional locations including Marché Garden, Tribeca, Nomad, Hudson, Meatpacking and Greenpoint, in New York. The Canada locations are in Montreal, and Toronto, where Marshall is originally from and currently residing. 

Although the couple has been undoubtedly working hard, they make time for family. Marshall and Sormonte became parents to a baby boy Yves in September of 2019. They plan to come back to New York City in early 2020. I decided I couldn’t wait that long to ask her about her skincare regimen (I had procrastinated, already). I also needed to know if other people felt the same way about those cookies, but more importantly, how she and Sormonte started this dream café. So, I made a point to connect with the 34-year-old and discuss these topics, as well as her big break, her stance on anti-aging, what it was like to make a jump from fashion into hospitality, and more.

Spotlyte: How long have you been baking? 

Elisa Marshall: I have been baking for as long as I can remember. Most of my favorite childhood memories were in the kitchen sitting on the counter helping my mom and, of course, licking the beaters! In school, I studied fashion design, and baking was always a passion — but I never envisioned that it would turn into a career.

Spotlyte: You worked in fashion PR. How did you become interested in that field?

EM: I started my career in fashion very early on, starting in retail from high school, to wholesale sales and buying after graduating school. I worked for many years for Paige [Premium] Denim® from 2005, which was a wonderful experience, and following that, moved over to work with Dutch brand Scotch & Soda® in Canada. Working with those two brands, I touched on everything from sales to visual merchandising, eventually finding my strength in PR and events. 

Spotlyte: How did Maman come to be?

EM: I was always baking and with a catering and event planning company on the side, I wasn’t fulfilled and was doing a little too much of everything. I had too many passions. I was unable to find a career that embraced everything I loved: working with people, food, retail, baking, design, and events. So, I created it with Maman.

Spotlyte: How did you transition your career?

EM: I met my fiancé in Canada. He had the same frustrations with his career and passion for the industry, so together we decided to quit it all and move to Spain, where we partnered with some of his friends in the hospitality industry. We opened a beach restaurant and wedding venue. We lived and worked there for three years, and made our way to New York City in the off season. I always wanted to create a small bakery and coffee shop, so we decided to open our first location in SoHo in 2014, just as a small side and passion project for myself. That quickly gained popularity and grew into something much bigger than we ever expected! 

Spotlyte: What has been your favorite thing to bake?

EM: I love making and decorating naked cakes. You can have so much fun with seasonal flavors and especially, when it comes to décor. From florals to edible treats, decorating them and gifting them are my favorite part. 

Spotlyte: What would you be doing, if not for baking and running a business?

EM: Event planning specializing in kids parties. I get to do this via Maman as well, just not full time!

Spotlyte: What does a day in your shoes entail? 

EM: These days, it’s pretty different, as I am at home with a newborn. It’s a lot of emails, feeding, and diaper changing. Prior to this, it was always exciting! Every day was something and somewhere different. Some days, a barista would call off and you could find me at the coffee machine. Other days, I would be setting up and doing décor and florals for some incredible events we host. It was always far from a nine-to-five desk job, which is what I love about it! 

Spotlyte: What do you consider your big break in the industry?

EM: Within our first week of opening — without us knowing —  we were named “the best cookie in NYC” by Grub Street®, The New York TimesTM;, and a few other reputable publications. That was a huge surprise to us and really helped to put us on the map!

Spotlyte: What’s the most popular item at Maman these days?

EM: Our classic nutty chocolate chip cookie still dominates our sales lists. When it comes to savory items, our quiches are something not to miss and always at the top in sales.  

Spotlyte: Who has been your biggest cheerleader?

EM: My fiancé, Ben. I would not be where I am today or have been able to turn my dream into reality without his help and support. I owe it all to him.

Spotlyte: What's the best piece of career advice you’ve received? 

EM: My parents always encouraged me to be an individual and be unique in everything I did. They always 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.

Spotlyte: What advice do you have for people looking to break into the restaurant industry?

EM: Be prepared to give up lots of your personal life and give it your 24/7. I was always told it was one of the most difficult industries and thought, “bring it on,” but they weren’t kidding. You need to be prepared to have it become a huge part of your life. We have had to make many personal sacrifices: putting off having a child, missing important family and friend functions, early morning and late night phone calls and long hard hours. I think people see it as a much easier industry than it really is, and you can’t compare it to a typical nine-to-five job.  

Spotlyte: When you aren’t working, what do you enjoy doing for fun? 

EM: In a way, Ben and I are always working, or at least have it on our minds. When we have some time to ourselves, we love to cook at home, eat ice cream, and drink red wine. And now, with a little one, it really does change everything and we value our time together as a family so much. I love a good rom-com, and can sing every word to Taylor Swift, Michael Bublé, and Ray Lamontagne!

Spotlyte: What products are in your personal beauty closet?

EM: My beauty routine is simple. I unfortunately don’t have time to spend in the morning or evenings, so I look for multi-purpose products with good ingredients. I use: Estée Lauder® Perfectly CleanTM; Crème Cleanser as my everyday face wash. Klorane® Floral Eye Makeup Remover is a staple that I have been using for years. I use Agent Nateur® Holi(Rose)TM; natural deodorant, as well as Eminence® Organics Rosehip Triple C&E Firming Oil. It’s an incredible line of skincare products from Vancouver that I am in love with! From By Terry®, I have Hydra Eclat Serum, CellularoseTM; Lift Essence Daily Cream and Baume De RoseTM; lip gloss. Finally, from Bastide®, I use Rose OlivierTM; fragrance, as well as the Figue D’EteTM; hand and body lotion.

Spotlyte: What beauty treatments do you love? 

EM: Facials are my favorite go-to, and I would often enjoy going to Heyday® when living in New York City. I have yet to indulge in one or have found the time with my newborn, but when I do, it will be for a 50-minute personalized facial.

Spotlyte: How has your Canadian background, Spanish residency, and French husband-to-be influenced your beauty routine? 

EM: Less is more. Skin first, makeup second. When living in Spain on the beach, in the sun, with the fresh air, you don’t need to over complicate your beauty routine, nor is it necessary to have that much makeup on.

Spotlyte: How has pregnancy and motherhood impacted your beauty routine?

EM: It has made me simplify it, so looking for multi-purpose products to shorten the routine. It has also made me enjoy it more that I did before. It sounds silly to say, but before it was a routine and a chore. Now I give the baby to Ben and take my time in the bathroom, focusing on “me time” and enjoying the process. I see it more as self-care, as opposed to a routine.

Spotlyte: What is your fitness regimen like?

EM: I am trying to get back into a routine with the new baby, which is difficult, but we love walking everywhere. We don’t have a car here [in Toronto], so my only and best form of transport is my baby as my “weights” strapped onto me and walking everywhere.

Spotlyte: We have to know: how many sweets do you eat every day?

EM: I have 20 pounds of baby weight to go, so I want to say none, but my weakness is, of course, our cookies. Especially this time of year — we are testing new holiday flavors for all for all of our pastries. I have been known to sneak in a bite…or two. 

Spotlyte: Tell us your mantra.

EM: “I am going to make everything around me beautiful, and that will be my life.” It’s my favorite quote from Else De Wolfe.

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