meet molly: baker and pastry maker in milwaukee

Molly’s personal favorite is her lemon poppyseed cake with strawberry jam filling. She picks the strawberries in the summer and makes her own jam. “The flavors are just bursting,” Molly says.

Molly’s personal favorite is her lemon poppyseed cake with strawberry jam filling. She picks the strawberries in the summer and makes her own jam. “The flavors are just bursting,” Molly says.

How do you decide to make an idea into a real thing?
Where do you go for honest feedback?
What do you need to be able to move forward?

For me, all those things involve other people. Their opinions, experiences, skills, resources, expertise. Even just their presence, so I can speak something out loud and make sure it doesn’t sound too ridiculous. (A little ridiculous is okay with me.)

Lately I’ve been surrounded by a lot more targeted teamwork: The yoga studio I attend and absolutely love recently transitioned to two owners, no longer just the one amazing woman who has run it for years. My boyfriend, who owns a composting company, is working with aligned businesses and organizations to transform a Milwaukee warehouse into a hub of urban agriculture, bringing together innovative projects with positive momentum so they can grow together. Escuela Verde brought together a team of people to start a school they all believe in. Who else comes to mind for you?

Truly, no one ever starts a business venture solo—you have to count those supportive family members, colleagues, spouses and friends!—so this week we want to especially highlight the value of collaboration. Here’s one really special example:

Molly Sullivan, 29, is the PR manager and pastry chef at Braise. She’s also the owner of Miss Molly’s Pastries. As Molly has built her business, her local-food-system-strengthening employer, Braise, has fostered her growth and supported her along the way. As she’s paving her pastry-making path, Molly is not alone. [Help her on her Kickstarter here through June 2016!]

Check out Miss Molly's menu for gorgeous confections like this one.

Check out Miss Molly’s menu for gorgeous confections like this one.

People with Panache: Going from getting a degree in sociology to making delicious confections for special events, what made you make this leap?

Molly Sullivan: I thought I’d go to grad school for social work, counseling or something like that. But a semester abroad in Paris really got me thinking about cafe culture, coffee shop culture. It’s always been in the back of my mind: I really want to own a business, a neighborhood café. Going to Paris really solidified that for me.

When I graduated college, I lived up in Door County, Wis., for a few years. After working in a restaurant as the pastry chef and a coffee shop as the baker, I realized I wanted to go to school for that. My ultimate dream is to have a little café.

PWP: From there, you went to culinary school in Minneapolis. So how’d you get back to Milwaukee?

MS: I worked in a couple places in Minneapolis, and then I went back to Door County and helped start a bakery at my friend’s coffee shop. After that, I lived out in Seattle for a little while to see their progressive food scene. I moved back to Milwaukee four years ago when I got hired at Braise as pastry chef, and I started my pastry business then, too.

It started off super small, my mom and her friends placing orders for cakes. It seems to finally be coming together, and soon I’ll have my own place.

PWP: As you’ve learned and gained all these experiences you’ve brought with you back to Milwaukee, have you had any mentors?

What’s something Molly has learned both helping run a restaurant and running her own small business? “I think that just having humility is really important. If you don’t know something, find a person who does and pick their brain. I’ve met with so many different people from so many different fields. I’m not an accountant—I don’t know how to do these things. Relying on other people can help you along your way.”

What’s something Molly has learned both helping run a restaurant and running her own small business? “I think that just having humility is really important. If you don’t know something, find a person who does and pick their brain. I’ve met with so many different people from so many different fields. I’m not an accountant—I don’t know how to do these things. Relying on other people can help you along your way.”

MS: Nell Benton, a Milwaukee chef, has helped me along the whole process. When I originally started my business, I started by renting kitchen space from her. She’s a big proponent of small business people, especially women. I gave her a recipe that she needed, and in return, she looked over my whole business plan.

PWP: Her story is really interesting, too, especially how she got her restaurant space for $100! Both of you two so creatively bring people together to make both delicious food but also beneficial community work happen.

MS: There are countless opportunities for creativity in food, pastries, desserts. Flavors are a whole different type of art.

Another thing that has shaped me: When I was in high school, I decided I was going to be vegetarian. My mom was like, that’s fine, but you have to cook for yourself—and learn to cook for yourself in a healthy way. I bought cookbooks, did all my grocery shopping, really got into food in a much deeper way. It was gradual, becoming more mindful about what you consume and its impact.

I’ve always been very into environmental justice, food justice, and I always worked for restaurants that share that philosophy, too. It’s hard enough to run a small business, but to also have a truly positive mission behind it is really special.

PWP: What helps you decide whether to use a particular ingredient or not? Or a certain farm?

MS: The whole Braise RSA (restaurant-supported agriculture) has been really instrumental in my being able to use local ingredients. I think it would be a lot more challenging for local or small businesses like mine otherwise. Because of the RSA, I can purchase local dairy, produce that’s in season, Wisconsin-milled flour—it’s pretty special to be able to use that.

PWP: So with doing both of these jobs, working for Braise and then running Miss Molly’s, how does your actual time work?

MS: I work part time at both. Being a small business themselves, they have the ability to be accommodating. We figure it out as we go.

I’ve actually been running my business out of Braise for over two years. Even when I was hired, I was really up front: I want to own my own business. They were fine with that. We’ve kind of worked together along the whole way, figuring out the steps to keep me working for Braise, because I’m kind of integral to the business at this point, so the owner has been flexible.

What’s Miss Molly’s most popular wedding order? Huge spreads of different small desserts with a small cutting cake for the ceremony.

What’s Miss Molly’s most popular wedding order? Huge spreads of different small desserts with a small cutting cake for the ceremony.

PWP: Your discipline must be amazing to balance both small businesses! What are some of the things about yourself you’ve been working on?

MS: I’ve come to be a really organized person. I always had the potential to be, but now it’s a necessity. I don’t have much free time, so I have to have more of a systematic way of doing my life in general. I don’t have the freedom to just go out whenever I want. I’ve got work events every night after work.

PWP: What are you preparing for next as you get ready to actually acquire your own building?

MS: Financials of the business. I’m still tweaking my business plan, working with a small business development center through University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which offers free services to help you write your business plan and grow your business. It’s been amazing. I also took a business plan writing class through WWBIC three years ago that got me started, and the development center has been helping me hone in on what banks and investors look for—not just the ideas of the business plan but the implementation.

PWP: Amid all this planning and baking and planning some more, what makes you happiest?

MS: I’ve always been a very driven person, so building my business has been very rewarding for me. I’m someone who can’t stay stagnant for too long; I have to move on to the next thing that challenges me. Sometimes it doesn’t make me “happy” per sé, but the rewards of working hard, knowing I’ve done something to the best of my ability, and having it work out, well, fulfillment would be the better way to describe it.

PWP: Any last words of wisdom?

MS: If there’s something you want to do, even if it’s different from everyone, don’t let yourself stop you. Really starting Miss Molly’s Pastries has been difficult and a lot of work, but it’s been worth it. And hopefully in the long run I’ll be a successful big caterer with this little neighborhood café where people can feel at home, come in with their kids and family, and have that special kind of community gathering place.

If you can bear to choose between the macarons, tartlets and heavenly cakes, place an order with Miss Molly’s Pastries for your next event. (Tell her we sent you!) And then support her Kickstarter so she can open her brick-and-mortar shop!

[Photos by Alysse.]

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