Twenty-five years ago, Lisa Maronian conceived the idea of opening a bakery in Greenwich that focused exclusively on designer cakes for special occasions. To her surprise, the insurance agent assigned to handle her new business was skeptical.
“He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do a specialty bakery. What does that entail?’ she recalled. “And I said, ‘There are a lot of great bakeries, but I don’t want to be another bakery. I want to do something unusual. I want to create really interesting cakes for different occasions in peoples’ lives.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if that’s going to work out. You may want to do a retail thing as well.’ And I was like, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that. This is where my heart is.’”
Despite her insurance agent’s misgivings, Sweet Lisa’s Exquisite Cakes opened in 1993. Maronian did not hear from the insurance agent until her first anniversary in business approached.
“A year later, I got a letter from him in the mail that said, ‘Congratulations, you made it. Ninety percent of businesses fail in their first year,’” she said with a loud laugh. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I guess he had no faith in me at all.’ Looking back, I should have framed that letter, because 25 years later, here we are.”
Maronian, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, also received a degree in pastry arts from the International Pastry Arts Center in New York City. She worked as a pastry chef at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and L’auberge de France in Belleville, Ontario, before an inheritance from her late father enabled her to become an entrepreneur. She launched the business with her husband Stephen, also a Culinary Institute of America graduate and an executive chef at The Milbrook Club in Greenwich. Although Stephen remains co-owner of the bakery, he is now an executive chef at Flik International, a corporate dining and hospitality services group in Rye Brook.
Sweet Lisa’s began in a subleased space in the basement of a Greenwich Avenue store, and initially it seemed the pessimistic insurance agent’s doubts were justified. “We started doing little cakes, plus restaurant desserts to make ends meet,” Maronian said.
Business slowly began to pick up via word-of-mouth referrals. By 1997, Maronian moved to a one-time residential property on Field Road in Cos Cob that had been transformed into a commercial florist operation.
Maronian said Sweet Lisa’s business waxes and wanes during the course of the year, with 25 to 30 cakes baked per week in the slower months and 50 to 60 during the more active seasons.
“January through March is a down time for us, and we have five to six people working here. “From April to June, we have eight to 12 people. I call May the trifecta because it’s Communion, graduation and weddings. Summer tapers off, although there are a lot of weddings and things gear up again in the fall for weddings and the holidays.”
Thursdays and Fridays are the baking days at Sweet Lisa’s, with Saturdays devoted to decoration and deliveries. The business is closed on Sundays and Mondays, although Maronian takes advantage of the quiet Mondays to catch up on paperwork.
Over the years, the company signed up country clubs and wedding venues as clients, and they recommend Sweet Lisa’s for the pastry portion of special events hosted at their locations. Even the Food Network got wind of her baking skills, inviting her in 2000 to be a contestant on one of its “Food Network Challenge” competition shows, for which she won a silver medal.
Maronian welcomes assignments that mix baking with engineering. One of her proudest achievements was a three-tier carousel-inspired cake created for a batmitzvah that had sugar-sculpted horses circling on an electric turntable. She noted that some cake concepts require more than a little extra planning, especially when asymmetrical designs create an uneven balance of cake.
“When you look at a high-heel shoe, the heel is very, very, very delicate,” she said. “You cannot make that out of cake. So, construction comes into play. We need to make the heel itself out of wood and then make a wooden structure to support the cake. Another customer wanted a martini glass as a cake. But when you think about that, the weight is all on the top. To do that out of cake, it is very, very difficult. We had to put up a PVC pipe and a flange at the base of the cake. Then we built the base of the cake and the stem out of sugar and used wood at the top to support the cake.”
The more popular cake designs have fallen into familiar patterns based on celebrants. Children’s cakes often feature Disney or television cartoon characters, while women order cakes with floral designs or recreations of high-ticket fashion items and men like to have their favorite sports teams’ logos in icing and sugar. Maronian prices her items at a $100 minimum for the more basic cakes that can serve 10 to 15 people, while larger and more elaborate designs can start at $500 and go higher. A recent cake designed to resemble the client’s sprawling Greenwich home was priced at $1,500.
However, not everyone can enjoy Maronian’s creations, and she goes to great lengths to be cognizant of the dietary restrictions of clients.
“We are not a nut-free facility,” she said. “Many things we make do not have nuts in them, but we take the utmost care and I always tell the customer in advance. It is a very tricky with gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free, so I always try to warn them in advance. But people with the allergies are extremely sensitive to what they eat and are usually on top of it.”