starting from scratch: passion, pastry, and parenthood with adrienne blumthal

Posted on Location: , 8 min read

Adrienne Blumthal is no stranger to creative problem solving. When she realized she felt unfulfilled on her corporate career path, she faced her fear of the unknown, made the leap, and pursued her dream career as a pastry chef. And when she faced another problem – finding the perfect way to transport her desserts across town – she made the solution into a business.

 In collaboration with her husband, Steve, and her sister, Carol, Adrienne developed a prototype for PieBox – a lightweight, wooden box that could safely transport pies and other baked goods without compromising on style. After seeing the demand for the product from home cooks and professional pastry chefs alike, Adrienne, Steve, and Carol made PieBox into a full-fledged business.

PieBox has been featured everywhere from Martha Stewart to The New York Times, and has been sold in bakeries and specialty shops across the United States. There are now even carriers for other desserts as well: CakeBox, CookieBox, and BiscuitBox.

Despite her recent decision to sell the company last spring,  Adrienne has used that same innovative mindset and entrepreneurial spirit in her work with baking, food styling, and recipe testing. We sat down to talk about how it all started, her plans for the future, and her exciting new role as a mom.


You began your career in marketing and PR. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to transition into a career as a pastry chef?
AB: About 7 years ago I had a major moment of self-realization. I took a serious inventory on my life. I was 27 years old, unhappy and unfulfilled with the direction things were going. Life was good on paper, but the truth was that I was creatively unfulfilled and ultimately unhappy.

I loved to bake and I wanted to bake all the time, so I did! I realize now that baking was an outlet for me. It allowed me to escape from my existing reality. It took me to a new creative place and challenged me in ways I hadn’t been challenged before.  The whole idea of transitioning my existing life into the kitchen seemed daunting. Since finishing college, I had been on a solid corporate career path. Becoming a baker would be a complete 180.

Photo: Steven Karl Metzer

Self-discovery has taught me that accountability is both my strength and my weakness.  Once I say I will do something, I will. And if it doesn’t happen, it means I’ve been to hell and back trying to make it happen. I decided to test the waters of my baking fantasy with a neutral source at work. I nonchalantly mentioned the whole idea of starting a nighttime pastry program to a colleague named Troy. His response was put so simply. He said, “well, do you want to be writing press releases or do you want to be baking cakes?” It was an easy question, with an even easier answer.  That was it the kick I needed. The very next day I applied to the nighttime pastry program at Kendall College in Chicago.

Have you always had a love for cooking and baking, or is it something that evolved over time?
AB: Yes, I’ve always loved to bake, but it also evolved over time. I grew up in a small town where there were no bakeries besides the ones at the grocery stores. So if you wanted something different, you made it yourself.  My mom was a killer baker too. She and her friends would make fancy cheesecakes every year and sell them at our town’s fall festival. I think that’s when my interest in baking began.

Photo: Steven Karl Metzer

How did PieBox first come about?
AB: The idea for PieBox came while in the midst of a career change from marketing to pastry.  As a night student in Kendall College’s (Chicago) pastry program, I was looking for a simple way to fix a common frustration: how to safely transport desserts in a way that ensures both safe arrival and beautiful presentation. I started using a wooden wine box, but the size wasn’t the most suited for desserts. I was obsessed with pie making at the time, so I had a woodworker friend build me a box that would perfectly fit my ceramic pie plates. I soon realized that if a wooden box for pie was something I needed, perhaps others needed it too. I decided to make 100 units and sell them on Etsy. They sold quickly and the PieBox brand was born.

Why was it important for you to create a sustainably and locally-sourced product?
AB: There is so much waste in the food industry, especially when it comes to transporting food. Disposable containers certainly make sense when you are traveling and sharing baked goods, but I wanted something more sustainable. When I created PieBox it was important that the end product be used over and over again.

What was your journey like as a young entrepreneur with PieBox’s success? Was it stressful, overwhelming, exciting?
AB: All of the above. It was such an unimaginable journey that’s hard to explain in words.  In the beginning it was simple and easy. I was intoxicated with anticipation, everything was new and exciting. But as the business grew, there were, well… growing pains! For PieBox things moved quickly and we dove head first into the deep end and learned as we went. We certainly made great decisions, but like all businesses, we also make mistakes, but they were the types of mistakes that you had to make, before you even knew they were mistakes. Most importantly though, we really tried to stay true to our core mission: to make quality, sustainable USA-made products.

Photo: Steven Karl Metzer

How did you become a contributor for Martha Stewart? What was that like?
AB: PieBox was one of the first small businesses to be part of the Martha Stewart American Made Program. I actually got to meet Martha Stewart with my sister Carol on my 30th birthday (best birthday ever!) Because I have a background in pastry with a focus on recipe development, they approached me about also being a contributor. I’ve been working with them since 2014 and it’s been wonderful.

Can you tell us a bit about your decision to sell PieBox, as well as your current work with food styling and recipe testing?
AB: The decision to sell didn’t come easy, but it was the right thing to do. We’d grown the business as far as we could without substantial investment and expansion. I started PieBox because I loved to bake and I wanted to inspire others to bake. But as the business grew, I found myself spending less time in the kitchen and more time in the office.  I was ready to start a new chapter in my life, which right now, is being a mom.  (Fun fact: I went into labor with my son Elliott exactly 10 hours after the sale! ) We sold PieBox to our manufacturing partner, Demis Products, Inc. – a great family owned company whose values align with our own.

I started doing freelance test kitchen work as soon as I finished my pastry program. Teaching others to bake or giving them ideas on what to bake is so fulfilling. I do freelance test kitchen work for several corporate food clients as well as editorial food content work. My husband is a commercial photographer, so he introduced me to food styling about 6 years ago.  During my final quarter of pastry school I was bringing home 3 to 4 cakes a week – I started sending those cakes with him to set, and the producer he was working with was impressed and eventually introduced me to food styling.

Photo: Steven Karl Metzer
Photo: Steven Karl Metzer

What was the driving force for you to become an entrepreneur?
AB: Wanting to be happier in both my personal and professional life. I was very fortunate to have encouraging and supportive people around me. My dad has been a successful entrepreneur for 30+ years, plus my husband has a very successful photography business. Surrounding myself with positive and encouraging people really contributed to my success.

How do you define success?
AB: Success for me is about happiness and quality of life. A good balance of work life and family life.

Do you have any piece of advice for other entrepreneurs looking to start off on their designated path?
AB: I’ve always been inspired by a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”

Taking the jump into an entrepreneurial life is scary, uncomfortable and really, really hard. But I think the reward is worth the risk.  If it doesn’t work out or go exactly as planned, don’t look at it as a failure, but as a learning experience.

Making a meal is not just about eating food, it’s also about the time spent together preparing the meal and the conversation had while eating the meal.

Why is it important to take time to prepare real food from scratch?
AB: Understanding the process makes the meal so much more meaningful. We live in a world filled with the need for instant gratification. Making a meal is not just about eating food, it’s also about the time spent together preparing the meal and the conversation had while eating the meal. I grew up in a family that sat down for dinner every night and I am so grateful for it. Now as I’m starting my own family we carry on this tradition. We cook dinner as a family nearly every night and are counting down the days until we can teach our son to cook!

Photo: Steven Karl Metzer

If you could bake and personally present your favorite dish to any person in the world, who would it be and why?
AB: My husband Steve. Because he has always been my number one fan and my number one critic. He inspires me everyday and pushes me to think differently about food and how it’s prepared.

What do you do to stay inspired?
AB: Conversation keeps me inspired. I love print magazines, too.

The last book that you read that made an impact:
AB: I have a 5-month-old son, so I’ve mostly been reading about sleep! I’ve also been reading Jenny Lawson and am a forever fan of David Sedaris. Perhaps I’m prone to books that make me laugh hysterically out loud.

Current favorite podcast to listen to:
AB: Planet Money on NPR. It’s hands down my favorite podcast. Rarely do they discuss food, but I love to geek out on econ!

What are some of your business goals for the future?
AB: I’ve been going full steam for nearly the past decade. Right now, I’m grateful to be in a position where I can take an extended maternity leave and slowly transition back into work. I’m mostly figuring out how to be a mom and balance what’s next in my career.

 

 

To keep up with Adrienne, check out her website and her recipe contributions on Martha Stewart.

All photos provided by Steven Karl Metzer

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starting from scratch: passion, pastry, and parenthood with adrienne blumthal