Having launched a successful business founded on handmade confectionary, Gena Karpf is floating on a sugar high. The award-winning Sweetness The Patisserie owner talks with Australian Baking Business about spreading the word on all things sweet.
Gena Karpf has good news to share. Squeezed into an impeccably clean Epping kitchen alongside pastry chefs pouring hot toffee and hand-cutting marshmallows, the Sydney patisserie owner proudly displays her prize; artisan winner in delicious magazine’s Produce Awards 2012.
It was Gena’s petit florentines that won the award. And because the florentines are one of the business’ biggest sellers, the national recognition gave Sweetness The Patisserie the exposure every small business craves.
“We are a company that has very little competition in what we do,” Gena tells Australian Baking Business.
“It gives us a chance, through that product, to raise the profile of a company that is about passionate confectioners.”
With more than 30 products available – including caramel popcorn, sour citrus gummies, fudge, peppermint patties, pâté de fruits, nougat and hazelnut crunch – the 49-year-old has made it her mission to become Australia’s top artisan confectioner. But with supermarket shoppers bombarded by rows of packaged chocolate, Gena says she has plenty of work ahead of her.
“In Australia, there’s this idea that confection is chocolate. It’s not,” Gena explains.
“To say that confectionary is all about chocolate is just so narrow.”
The quality of Gena’s products is based on a belief that small, handmade methods are worth striving for. Everything in the shop is made, cut and packed by hand. And despite being packed with sugar, Sweetness The Patisserie is not aimed at children.
“When you start making a lavender marshmallow or you start making a maple and lime marshmallow, it’s really unique and very grown up,” Gena says.
Gena believes Sweetness’ product range, techniques and mission are unique in Australia. She has benefited greatly from industry involvement, having been trained and mentored by Le Cordon Bleu teacher and Team Pastry Australia captain Andre Sandison. The day that Gena and her husband Kris went to open the freestanding shop, she had her builder and Andre on hand as part of the business development.
“He’s a terrific influence for us and he’s a great sounding board,” Gena says.
“I think Andre has been very open to following the development of one of his alumni. I think he felt that he wanted to do everything he could do to contribute and help that endeavour be successful.”
Gena’s love of sugar started when she was a four-year-old playing with a toy oven. As a six-year-old she watched with interest as women from her church community made lollies. Nonetheless, her career took a long detour through hairdressing, youth work and corporate marketing communications before she decided at the age of 43 to pursue her passion for cooking.
“This is where it stops for me; this is absolutely what I was put on this earth to do. There’s not a doubt in my mind,” Gena says with conviction.
According to Gena, sugar is an “extraordinary” medium to work with due to its capacity for expression.
“You can make it chewy, you can make it crunchy, you can make it fluffy, you can make it textured, you can make it brittle and amber-coloured,” she says.
Having a clean kitchen can also help the baking process, she recommends.
“I never stop wondering about the beauty in this kitchen. I love it when the pest inspector comes and I love it when the stainless steel man comes. They say they have never seen a kitchen as clean as our kitchen. They can’t believe it,” she says.
“People have to be responsible for the environment in which they work. We have too much at stake in this company to let it degrade. So, everyone takes care of it; that’s how we operate.”
While Gena doesn’t consider herself a recipe developer, she is proud of her Sweet Mellows handmade marshmallows. She first shared her flavour ideas at Le Cordon Bleu, which led her to start selling her products at farmers markets.
“I couldn’t believe the outpouring of affection for marshmallows. The marshmallow is a pretty humble thing. And I saw people respond to it and I thought, ‘There is a huge untapped opportunity for this product’,” Gena says.
Gifting is an important part of her business model, which when broken down is roughly 80 per cent retail and 20 per cent wholesale. Bundled food and custom-wrapped products are available on request to customers. Marshmallow bags are provided as a gift item in a frosted gift bag. Sweetness the Patisserie marshmallows are often taken as a party gift, to dinner parties or afternoon tea sampling.
“I think the product has found its place in that gifting space because it’s the kind of product you choose when you feel that you deserve something very unique and special,” Gena says.
“That whole process where you put them out into a bowl and you sit there and you taste the flavours it’s an experiential thing.”
With no budget for above-the-line marketing, Gena relies on word-of-mouth to spread the word and to find new retail and wholesale customers.
“What we do is we put ourselves out into the community every single weekend doing markets, and we have this conversation about what the company is, we expose people to it.”
Having launched her business following the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and having survived the global financial crisis, Gena says having confidence in your product is crucial.
“You have to have the gut to say, ‘this is a product that people want. This is a product when I put it in my mouth, it tastes the best that it can taste in the category its in’,” Gena says.
“I know this is the best I can make, and I’ve put it out there. And so the response is unbelievable!”