Not many couples could survive working together (half of them don't even survive living together), but for Rebecca VanderKloot and Luke Petillon, it's part of their dynamic. The real-life couple runs, owns, and operates Chicago's only artisan cream puff stand, Puffs of Doom, but they admit that when it comes to working with your significant other, it's not for everyone—and it takes a little adjusting.
"We had to learn how to communicate in a totally different way," says VanderKloot. "Because, you know, sometimes in a work environment, if it's just your co-worker, you can kind of get condescending, and when you know exactly what buttons to push, you can't do that because then your business is going to fail." Petillon adds, "On the upside, you know the person better than you know a co-worker, so it makes communicating a little easier in that sense. It also makes communicating a little more analytical and critical."
Opting to hit up to nine of Chicago's many weekly fairs, bazaars, and markets, Puffs of Doom has made a name slowly but surely in Chicago this past year. It did so by selling sweet and savory cream puffs all around Chicago in more than 300 flavors ranging from the classic (chocolate éclair) to the slightly wild (chocolate bacon éclair) to far-out favorites (BLT Puff and the just-debuted egg and sausage doom puffin, a play on America's favorite breakfast sandwich).
I caught up with the couple at The Wheeler Mansion Market last Wednesday to talk about catering to Lolla-like crowds, vending vs. food trucking, and how to make create the perfect, indestructible pâte à choux.
As a two-person operation, how do you handle big events like Lollapalooza, which has a capacity of 100,000 daily attendees?
Rebecca VanderKloot: The third event we ever did was The Renegade Craft Fair, and that kind of gave us at least a little taste, and we had no idea what we were doing. But we somehow managed to pull it off thanks to friends. After that, it was kind of like, 'we get it,' but even after that, with all the planning for Lollapalooza, with plans, and meetings and the help of volunteers, we still learned eight million lessons that will be beneficial for next year and any events after. We had to make some executive decisions though. Saturday night I fell asleep in the kitchen, and I thought, 'Enough is enough. What we have is perfect.' And it turned out that way—we sold out Sunday night. It worked out nicely, but it was like, 'You can say no.' That was a good lesson to learn. It's very clear we're doing what we want to be doing, otherwise we wouldn't work that hard.
What made you think of pursuing a life as a cream puff maker?
R.K: It happened on my 30th birthday. I made a couple of hundred cream puffs and my friends ate them in, like, 30 minutes and everyone was like, "You need to sell these."
Luke Petillon: She put out like 20-30 flavors.
R.K: And at the time, well still, I am working on starting a culinary non-for-profit, and so that was in the works. Somehow by the end of the night, I came up with the thought that this could help me fund that and I was like, 'Alright, I'm doing it.' And that was when we had just met. Throughout the time that we were dating, it just kind of came together, and we did it. We started out with five flavors and now we have 300.
What is an average day for you?
R.K: Well, I also have another job. I usually get up, depending on the market [we are doing that day], I get up at like two or three a.m. Bake and fill, and then go to work and either meet him at a market or go to a market, or, thankfully, there are a couple nights that I have off. But we just changed kitchens to the kitchen we used for Lolla, so now I can produce a lot more at once. I was getting up at like one o'clock every morning now I am going to get up at like, three, which is a huge difference because I work 9 to 5. Usually in the mornings I would bake from 1 a.m. until I go to work, now it's like 3 a.m. until I go to work, every day except for Fridays. I don't have to get up on Friday mornings because we don't have anything usually.
Summertime seems to be your busy month, how do you balance work and life outside of the kitchen seeing that you work together and live together?
L.P: We try to keep Friday off. Saturday we are always at Bridgeport. Sunday we have Independence Park and Logan Square. Occasionally there is the Bazaar and Nite Market. In the summer, we have street fests and music fests on top of it. At times, we are getting away with three or four events on Sunday, or six or seven events for the weekend. So we try to keep one day open for getting the table, getting the signs printed, to go get eggs...
R.V: Have a date...
Did you ever consider a food truck as an outlet for Puffs of Doom?
L.P: We actually saved up money for it and we did an incredible amount of research not only looking for trucks, but places to outfit them. Looked into laws, the truck policies, we talked to people that had trucks. We got involved with the University of Chicago legal team, and we got really, really involved in the movement. We had a couple trucks picked out that we had the money for that would work well. We were really ready to go for it. It was after meeting with some of the truck owners and getting an idea of the legislation (this was a year ago, before this new one was even drafted) and it was just a very disheartening picture. And if you have 20, 30, or 40 thousand dollars up-front, after the truck that you can kind of fall back on, then you are fine. You can kind of take that risk. It was just such a risk, and it didn't look good right away. Still doesn't. At best, it looked dangerous and like it was probably, if anything, not be friendly to the trucks; and that was the vibe we got back then.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to launch a business from a homemade specialty?
R.V: We threw a couple of tasting parties before we launched as a business and we invited people who we knew, who weren't necessarily close friends, but we also made it anonymous so that people filled out forms, because we wanted people to be brutally honest—and it worked. We changed some significant things about our product.
L.P: We changed a lot of things.
R.V: And we did realize that this product was good and that we could launch it and that was a big thing.
Seeing as you are definitely an expert at this, what is the key to making a perfect pâte à choux (cream puff dough)? How do you avoid flat puffs?
R.V: Don't open your oven, a.), and b.), if your puffs are flat, it means you aren't cooking them long enough. Before you put them in the oven, when you add the eggs to the dough, you aren't beating out enough of the steam, so that's also why they deflate. You want to cook them and then bring the temperature down. Don't open the oven and let them cook out. Those are the two big things people always forget.
L.P: After you take it off the oven and add the eggs to it, take a hand-mixer or standing mixer and beat the steam thoroughly. And it takes a while for it to work, but that one step makes a huge difference for steaming the moisture out of there.
R.V: It's really cheesy, but one of the main reasons I love making cream puffs is because the dough. When you start to add the eggs, it starts to look broken. But if you keep going with it, and give it a little bit of love, it always comes together. And that's how I feel about life: It always feels a little broken, but if you keep pushing with a little bit of love...there you go. Plus, I suck at cookies.
Puffs of Doom
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