The Sweet Story Behind Dana's Bakery
ICE alum Dana Pollack talks changing careers at age 30, opening her own bakery, social media for small businesses and more.
Dana Pollack worked as a magazine photo editor for a decade before quitting her job and enrolling in ICE's Pastry & Baking Arts Program. "I’d always loved baking," she says. "I'd been baking since I was very young; that’s how I would relieve stress, make people gifts and entertain. It’s always been something that I was passionate about but never really thought about doing for a living – until I had that light bulb moment."
We ask Dana about what switched the light bulb and led to three locations, more than 80 macaron flavors, Instagram fame and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award since Dana's Bakery opened in 2012.
How did the decision to study pastry come about?
I went to Parsons School of Design for photography, and when I was the photo editor at Muscle & Fitness magazine, I asked for a raise and didn’t get one. I was sitting in my cubicle looking at men in Speedos and body oil, and I was like, what am I doing with my life? That was when I knew it was time to make a change, and I thought, what am I passionate about? What am I going to do if I go in a totally different direction? Editorial was changing, a lot of the magazines were folding. Everything was turning digital and it felt like not a great industry for me to be in anymore. I felt the winds of change and I said "okay, time to make a switch".
I love to bake and I wanted to turn my passion into a living. I wanted to go to culinary school to get formal training if I was going to switch my career at age 30 after 10 years in another industry. I decided I should go about it the right way and that education was probably a good thing, because I wanted to learn all the technique and skill and history.
What was your experience at ICE like?
Before, I would just do very basic baking — it was either recipes that I found online or it was cakes and cupcakes, it wasn’t really pastry and different types of cakes and learning about knife skills and cheese and learning about the history and all that stuff. I just wanted a more extensive, well-rounded education and I wanted to stay in the city, so I chose ICE because it was a little bit more well-rounded. It wasn’t strictly French curriculum and that was really appealing to me. We learned ice creams and different breads, and that’s something that I had no knowledge of, even though I love to bake and love to eat. So that was a huge deciding factor for me and that’s why I wanted to go to culinary school, because it’s a much different experience and education than just baking out of your house and looking up recipes in cookbooks.
Did you have an externship or job placement upon graduation?
I did my externship at Food52, which was really great for me because I could use my photo background to food style for photo shoots. I was able to learn about ordering and making the food, then have it look pretty for camera, so that was kind of all encompassing, which is really cool.
When I was in school, I actually found a pastry chef, Gustavo Tzoc, who was with EMM Group at the time. I met him, I wanted to do trails and work in restaurants while I was in school because I knew that I didn’t want to waste time after school gaining that restaurant experience. So he took me under his wing, I worked at Lexington Brass, I helped open that as a pastry cook and then I worked at Abe & Arthur’s, which is now closed.
So I was in school nights and weekends, and then the one or two nights off that I had, I was doing service at restaurants and doing production during the day, so it was really 24/7; I kind of dove in. Then when I graduated, I did my externship at Food52, because I had already done restaurants and in doing that, I realized I didn’t want to work in restaurants. The kitchen was not for me. That’s when I knew I wanted to do my own thing, and that’s when I decided to do Dana’s Bakery.
How did you come up with the concept?
When I was in school, I fell in love with the French macaron. We learned how to make macarons with Chef Gordon, and the photo editor in me loved how they looked because they’re so pretty, and I loved the texture — so unique and something that I’ve never really experienced before, because it’s not a cookie. It’s kind of hard on the outside, it’s soft and chewy in the middle and that’s not your classic chocolate chip cookie or cake. Even though they were becoming more popular in the States — this was seven years ago, macarons were just starting to come over here — no matter where I found them, it was the same French flavors: lavender, rose, pistachio. And I didn’t understand why people weren’t making American flavors like s’mores, peanut butter and jelly, and birthday cake, so that’s where my spin came into play. I saw a market that wasn’t being tapped into and that’s how the concept of the bakery was born.
Were you worried about straying from a traditional French pastry?
Some people said it was a disgrace to the macaron, but I kept the integrity. I made my recipe a little bit different — I have a little more almond flour and a little less sugar so it’s not as sweet, but it is true to form for a macaron. It has the same texture, it looks the same, I just do vibrant colors. We do custom colors, custom flavors, we can print on the macarons, do different designs...
The artist in me — from my photo editing days — wants to make them like little works of art and make them prettier than your average macaron. So there was a little bit of backlash there, also some backlash in terms of how I say “macaroon”. I’m not from France, so I’m not going to say “macaron”. I spell it with one “o” and that’s fine. I’m just not pretending that I have a French accent.
Where does your flavor inspiration come from?
Flavor inspiration comes from everywhere. For summer, we just did watermelon; pink lemonade is our August flavor of the month; we have a snack pack, which is like a Rice Krispy treat, for September because it’s back to school; for October we do candy-inspired flavors. It’s really kind of seasonal and what’s around and what I love to eat — I just find a way to incorporate it into macarons.
The first step is recipe and development, where you do a small batch and you figure out how to make it. We make over 6,000 macarons a day and we just expanded the product line, so now we have cookies and we have black-and-white cookies, and the “Mookie,” which I trademarked, which is a cookie stuffed with a macaron. So now we have a more extensive menu and our ordering has quadrupled. We order from a purveyor and we are ordering hundreds of pounds of ingredients every other day, so it’s a little bit of a different scale than it was when I started, but we’re a lot bigger now than we were. The R&D happens small scale and then we produce it once we put it on the website and in our locations and we start to sell.
What’s been the most popular flavor?
So my favorite is the Mallomac it’s a Mallomar with a macaron; it’s dipped in chocolate and it’s amazing. For everyday flavors ... I would say birthday cake because it’s tie dye and it has glitter and it literally — they all taste like what they’re supposed to — but birthday cake really tastes like birthday cake and everyone’s so surprised; fruity cereal because it’s made with Fruity Pebbles; chocolate molten because it’s so decadent; and champagne because it’s gold dusted and actually has Champagne in it and everyone loves them. And for the cookies, I would say chocolate chip, red velvet and funfetti. Those are Mookies so they have macarons inside, and the funfetti is a sugar cookie with sprinkles and it has a birthday cake macaron in the middle.
What surprised you most when you opened?
I think that everyone thought I was crazy; I was quitting my job and only selling one product. There was a lot of doubt there from friends, family, everybody. But a pizza place sells pizza, they can’t be successful? If you’re good at what you do, I think that the product will speak for itself. Then in terms of the business, I was just really surprised how quickly it grew. Because of social media, people caught wind of the flavors that we were making and visually they looked really great and the flavors were things that people are more attracted to. Someone might not have an interest in lavender, so they never really gave a macaron a second look, but because these were birthday cake, glitter, fun and pretty, or red velvet – it was flavors that people know, so they were intrigued: I want to try this, what is this new dessert I’ve never had before? So we reached a wider audience with our flavor profiles.
When I opened the bakery, I was only doing local New York City delivery, because I lived in the city and just had one other employee and the website. We would make these macarons and I would literally hand deliver them around the city via subway. And then because of Instagram, people across the country — really across the world — found out, which was a little hard for me to figure out. I had to learn the logistics of nationwide shipping, and then from shipping came wholesale, and then location, expansion of the kitchen and expansion of the team. We’re currently 35 employees, all female, and I just recently built out a new facility because we were totally out of space. So it’s 6,000 square feet and our offices are here, our production, our fulfillment — I guess I’m surprised how quickly it grew.
What have been the highs and lows of owning a business?
I think that the high is being able to support people and create jobs for people. It’s also great getting to meet so many amazing people and really being one on one and hearing everyone’s feedback and just creating something that people are excited about. People love to eat the products, they love to send them as a gift; we do all these amazing partnerships and collaborations and corporate orders. The fact that we’re a part of these great things is just really fun for me. So that’s a really big high.
I would say that some of the lows are some of the learning lessons that come with owning a business. Every situation and every business is different, but I think that what sets a good entrepreneur apart is that you learn from hard lessons, you figure out what’s not working quickly so that you can pivot and make it better so it doesn’t kill you. That’s a lesson that I learned, where I held on a little too long to things and didn’t recover fast enough. Now I’m a lot quicker at making a decision and thinking on my toes and figuring out if something’s not working, how to fix it so that it doesn’t have more of a blow than it needs to.
We were in our old kitchen and we expanded space and that’s scary, and then we grew into our space and I was comfortable. Then it happened again and I was forced to buy new equipment because either things broke or we needed it because our quantities were going up, and those things are huge cash outlays. All these different things happen that push you out of your comfort zone, but I think that they’re good because it means that you’re growing and if you’re not growing you’re dying.
Running a business is difficult, because you need to hire the right people and you need to retain the people that are good. I have two locations, I have this office here with a lot of people – there’s HR, payroll, books, production, there are so many different elements. I guess my biggest challenge is being able to have other people handle things, because I still very much want to be a part of everything. In order to continue to grow, you need to find people that are better at things than you are and you have to be able to let go of the reins and let them take the lead so that you can focus on other things that no one else can do, like building the brand, building the business, being the face of the business. It’s hard to let go of some of the other day-to-day operations when you are balancing so much.
You mentioned partnerships and we’ve seen some on social media, how have you been collaborating with other businesses?
I only align with brands that I think resonate with us or that I personally love or use. Even with our wholesale partners, I’ll only work with people that I think are very on brand with us. We did "Macs and Manis" (macarons and manicures) with Sally Hanson. We have such a similar demographic: it’s primarily female, the ages range from like 15 to 45, and even though it’s two totally different things, we are all into the same things and like these things for obvious reasons. Nail polish and macarons are both colorful and vibrant.
I don’t like to partner with things that are too similar to us; I wouldn’t necessarily partner with food. I would do something with a non-food-related item, so that we have larger reach and it’s more of a complement than contrast. There’s a couple of really great ones that are in the works, that I can’t talk about, but they’re going to be launched soon. I’m all about partnerships, cobranding and aligning with brands that I love and think we have similarities to in other ways besides food.
How has social media impacted your work?
Social media is the best tool ever. First of all, it’s free. And it’s a way for you to test things, so you can put things out there and people will genuinely tell you if they like it or not. When I started the bakery, we were online first. People didn’t understand the concept of an online bakery, because it didn’t exist at the time. So everyone was like, where’s your store? And I was like, well, we don’t have a store, we will deliver right to you. So I would put something out and people would tell me if they thought it was a good idea or not. If people have a package or an experience, whether good or bad, they’ll tell me. It’s a direct line where I can talk to people and they feel like they know me, and then they’re more invested in the brand. They see the actual owner and another side of the bakery besides just a website where you can order things from.
You know, the recipe for success is two-fold: the product has to look good to buy it and it has to taste good in order for people to order again and tell their friends to order. The Mookie was really created because of an Instagram contest. We were opening our location in Dylan’s Candy Bar and I said, “what are some things that we should sell? Leave them in the comments and I’ll pick a winner.” And someone said, “shove a macaron inside of a cookie,” and I was like, oh my, that’s the most amazing idea. And that’s how the Mookie was born.
Social media is huge and it’s free and everyone needs to utilize it, especially if they’re starting a business.
ICE offers recreational classes that cover social media for food businesses, such as Improve Your Digital Presence in December.
What’s the key to opening your own bakery or dessert shop?
I would say in any business, not just a bakery or dessert shop, what sets you apart from everyone else. What are you doing that people are going to come to you rather than the guy on the corner selling the same exact thing? That’s so important because you don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. Do your own thing so someone has a reason to come to you. In any business, what’s your spin? How are you different from the competition? What makes you unique? Because then you’re offering something different regardless of whether it’s the same product or not.
What’s your advice to pastry students?
Try everything to see what’s the best fit for you. Is it owning your own business? Is it working in restaurants? Is it working in something that isn’t specifically a restaurant – is it catering? Are you a personal chef? There are so many things you can do with the skills that you learn when you’re at ICE.
I also think you need to utilize your network. ICE is very connected and they will either know someone or can answer any question that you have, or know someone that will. Utilizing your network is the most valuable thing that you can get from being at ICE in addition to the skills that you’re actually physically learning.
What’s next for Dana’s Bakery?
Dana’s Bakery just expanded with two new products and two new locations. There is a lot of exciting stuff in the works.