Elisa Marshall on creating warm, French-inspired spaces with Maman, a collection of NYC-based cafés and venues

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Describe your business in a few words?

Maman is a New York City-based collection of cafés and event venues, offering family inspired recipes with French influences in a warm and welcoming home like environment 

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

Before I opened Maman, I had many passions and there was never that one answer to my ‘dream’ job. I was at a point where I had a 9 to 5 paying the bills, and too many passion projects and side hustles. I felt that I was doing a little bit of everything but nothing whole heartedly. I wanted to create a world and job for myself where I could combine all of the things I love: food, baking, coffee, design, events, friends and family. 

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I started off studying fashion, starting in design and then moving towards more of the business side of things; everything from marketing and branding to merchandising and store design for brands like Paige and Scotch & Soda to name a few. I was then drawn into fashion PR and events, which I loved. After hosting and working on many branded events, I tried out personal events, which quickly became a passion of mine. From weddings to birthdays, I loved planning more intimate occasions and celebrating people as opposed to ‘things’.  After years of interning with top wedding & event planners and gaining as much knowledge as I could, I founded em events, a full service event planning company. Seeing a void in the market for customized sweet tables and lots of demand from my clients, alongside a friend, we founded a confectionary catering company specializing in customized sweet tables & baked goods. That only reinforced and reminded me of my love for the kitchen. 

Following the path of event planning, as that was the most lucrative business being in your early 20’s and one I really enjoyed, alongside my now husband, we partnered up with friends who owned a hospitality company, where we moved overseas, and had the opportunity to open, build and run a restaurant and event venue. We spent an amazing 3 years with them, learning a lot about the industry and is what led us to NYC.

I’m very thankful for my early professional experiences, I feel every aspect of it from branding to baking, to events & sales all provided me with the stepping stones to get me where I am today. As a business owner,  I am using so many of the skills from my previous experiences. When looking back on the most valuable, I think branding and developing a clear identity of who and what you are is one of the most important things. If you don’t have that foundation, you can’t tell your story. 

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

My father was an entrepreneur, and at a young age he always instilled the importance of creativity, independence and a great business sense in me. I started my first business at the age of 6, making Christmas tree angels out of toilet paper rolls and doilies and selling them to my family and parents’ friends whenever they would come over.  No one could say no to a 6 year old hustling her arts & crafts over the holidays! At the age of 12, when Girl Power & the Spice Girls were taking over the globe, I was pulling in over 1k a month profit, with a self started Ebay business where I realized that Canada offered many exclusive Spice Girl licensed products that were not available in the US. From dolls to jewelry, I was buying and flipping many items to collectors and fans all across the US – some items making x200% profit! Shortly after that and with my love for arts and crafts, I founded a company and product called ‘Booty Binders’ where I would recycle denim and wrap them and stuff them around binders creating fun branded school accessories, which I sold at my school to friends and solicited door to door to local neighbourhoods clothing and  boutiques.  I could go on and on with about 5 more until now, so I guess you could say it’s in my blood.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

When we first launched maman, we really underestimated what it would become today. Our intentions were to open a small coffee shop cafe that would  host intimate partes on the weekends and never anticipated for it to turn into a 9 store {and growing} enterprise. we knew opening in NYC was not going to be easy as there was so much competition around us, and we had to get the word out. 

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

There were so many mistakes we made early on, and still many to this day I am making and learning from them, but one of my earliest most impactful ‘mistakes’ that was the most challenging was losing a strong personal attachment to such a public space, yet still keeping it’s authenticity and ‘soul’. This is still I would say the biggest challenge I am facing today as we grow. When I opened maman, I treated it like it was my home, and that I was having glorified dinner parties and entertaining friends (aka strangers) on a daily basis. My collection of blue & white plates started from a collection that was passed down to us from Ben’s grandmother that we were using in the restaurant on a daily basis. The dining room tables were custom made in France and modeled after my family dining room table my father built. The photos hung on the bathroom walls were all old childhood photos of our friends and family. Each piece of perfectly matching mix-matched cutlery and plate had a story and memory to tell of weekends  antiquing or garage sailing. So much love and thought went into every single details, many of which a few weeks in quickly vanished. Only one week in, I vividly remember being in the kitchen watching the dishwasher throw dirty sheet pans on top of a bus bin full of thin fine vintage china and hearing it all smash to pieces. Tears were shed, and I wish I could say that was a one time instance! Cutlery, plates, vases and even something as simple as a beautiful candle I would light and put in the bathroom would vanish on a daily basis, and the photos of friends and family were quickly covered with graffiti and mustaches. ‘Welcome to NYC’ said one of my staff members with lots of experience in the local industry. I quickly had to detach myself personally from many elements in the space, and learn not to cry over spilled milk (or broken plates). I had to channel my efforts into creating a warm and welcoming home like experience in other ways, without having the space lose the charm and warmth I worked so hard to curate. It is is still a challenge I am facing today as we grow to multiple doors, but I do keep my family heirlooms at home 😉

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Having our cookie be named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2017 and making the O list!

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

I always like to ask in an interview what their 5 year plan is and future goals are for them. The restaurant and service industry is a job for so many and a career for very few. It can be a great way to make quick money while on the path for an alternate career or in school. Though many in this position have been wonderful employees for us, oftentimes it is short lived and we have high turnover and lose many to their ‘real’ jobs. From experience, when they say they want to open a restaurant, or something in a related industry, they tend to be much more passionate, eager, willing to learn and to wear many hats, as they see the industry as a future  and learning experience as opposed to just a ‘job’. I see much more growth within from these employees and overall they outperform the rest!

I also am always fascinated by what they like to do outside of work. Although it doesn’t always pertain to the job itself, Interviews can be so stressful and intimidating so it’s nice to talk and hear about them as a person. The hospitality industry is the business of people and humans, so showing that in an interview I think speaks wonders about what kind of company you are and that you will not only value them as an employee but as a person as well! 

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Like so many, especially being in the restaurant industry, we have been hit very hard from the COVID 19 pandemic. I could go on and on with ways it has hurt us and affected our business. Most very obvious and relatable to so many others entrepreneurs, but rather we are looking at the positivity that has come out of it, what we have learned and how we have pivoted our business to be successful within the current environment. There are many examples, but COVID has opened our eyes to the love of cooking at home for so many of our customers. Based on necessity, when we found ourselves with restaurants that had to close and fridges filled with cookie dough, we got creative and started selling rolls of our dough, which ended up being a huge hit. We are now offering that in all stores in addition to shipping nationwide and starting to look into the CPG world in expanding our offerings. 

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We are excited and very fortunate to say that we will be actively growing our business, as unfortunately so many cannot say the same after the year we have all experienced. We are expanding our locations within the NYC and surrounding area,  and we are starting to explore CPG items, more retail and lifestyle products and ultimately to grow an ‘epicerie’ division of our brand offering and encouraging more to bake and cook at home. But the most exciting of them all (for me at least!) is our cookbook launching in September. I have always dreamed of writing a cookbook, and I actively started the process about 2 years ago. It was a labour of love (and a lot of cookies) but I am so proud to say alongside my amazing team and our cookbook family at Clarkson Potter, it’s currently available for presale at most major book stores & outlets.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

The importance of family!

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

You can’t do it all alone. I wish back then I was able to better identify my weaknesses. We all have our strengths, and often times it is very easy to point those out and know exactly what you excel at, but it is also very important to identify your weaknesses and what you are not good at. For examples numbers were never my thing and we would have closed down within a week of business if I had anything to do with the books so I ensured that I had someone to cover me in that department, however there were many other elements of the business that I thought I could take on and would be able to teach myself and be good at. In the end as you grow the company you have to understand that you are only hindering your growth by not asking for help and support in those areas and trying to be superwoman. Don’t think that you can do it all yourself.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Having a baby would be the biggest and most obvious thing that will ground anyone. I was very fortunate in terms of timing, giving birth only a few months prior to the first lock down. I always joked around that the quarantining came at such a perfect time for me, as I would have been working from home anyways in my PJ’s all day. I was very fortunate to have my husband and business partner Ben at home with me every day as well, and that all our emails and work completely slowed down! It just all worked to my advantage (from a personal perspective – not business)  and really made for an ideal new family situation! 

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

Carve out time for yourself. I am juggling a baby, a puppy, a husband and growing a chain of restaurants so it’s very easy to forget about ‘me’ and put my needs aside. I try to make sure to carve out one hour a day to look after my needs. Some days it may be taking time to sit and actually enjoy a meal,  to put on a face mask, or to go for a walk by myself. that keeps me happy, grounded and makes the rest always feel more enjoyable.

Minimize Negativity. My mother is the most positive person I have ever met & can find a ray of sunshine in the rainiest darkest day. She has been my light and inspiration to always have a positive outlook and pushed me to surround myself with likeminded people and see positivity in every situation. I have come across a lot of doubters out there, people who do not understand what I do, why I do it, or understand my vision. It is so easy to be negative, judge others and complain about issues and life without trying to fix it yourself. Though not always an easy task, I try to avoid these people and surround myself with supporters. My time is so precious these days and I don’t need people in my life who only see the negative & bring me down and I want to only surround myself and spend my time on things that inspire me to move forward. 

Don’t follow the crowd & take risks. My parents always encouraged me to be an individual and be unique and in all I did and they encouraged me never to follow the crowd & that it’s ok to take risks. Be unique, be different and don’t do what everyone else is doing. To me, I see it as aspiring to attain your passion – if you don’t like what you are doing, stop. If you don’t like where you are, go somewhere else & be true to what you love and who you are. Without that support and reminder of that, I would have never taken the risks to do many of the things I have done in my life. I know too many people who settle for where they are and jobs they don’t enjoy because they are afraid to go out, take risks & pursue their dreams. It will not come to you and you have to not be afraid to go get it!

My personal motto, and inspiration can be wrapped up in my favorite quote: “I am going to make everything around me beautiful — that will be my life.”― Elsie De Wolfe

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista to me is all about recognizing that, and using your creativity, imagination and work ethics to not only create something wonderful for yourself, but to fuel the community that surrounds you.

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