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BY DANIELLE STROLIA

The sweet scent of butter drifts though the air at Mille-Feuille Bakery on this cold March day, and the customers waiting in line to exclaim their admiration. “God, it smells fantastic,” “How can you guys work in here without gaining 500 pounds?” and of course, “What is it that they are baking back there that smells so good?”

Flaky, buttery croissants are in the making. Eight eager baking class students gather around a tall, slender man and an array of baking equipment. Once a month, New Yorkers sign up for the Croissant Baking Class at this quaint Greenwich Village bakery tucked away on LaGuardia Place. Concentrating intensely, these beginners watch as the man in charge guides them, with a dash of authority and a pinch of humor, in their quest to bake the perfect viennoiserie.

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“And now we wait,” he says, in a heavy French accent, as he shuffles the last pan of raw dough into the oven. Olivier Dessyn is his name, and as the owner and head pastry chef of Mille-Feuille Bakery, it is hard to believe that he hasn’t been doing this his whole life. As Vogue described him late last year, he “possesses the precise phenotype of French pastry chef: a thin, high-boned face; big, deep eyes; shapely eyebrows; sharp hairline; well-defined nostrils that suggest large parts of the day spent anticipating what people are about to do wrong.”

Just five years ago, Dessyn was a software engineer in Paris, yearning for more. Baking was still his passion, and it was becoming harder and harder for him to ignore it. During a trip to New York with his pregnant wife in 2009, he fell in love with the city. The seed was planted, and in 2011, after help from eight private investors, he, his wife, and their two toddlers uprooted their life in the City of Light to start their second chapter in the City that Never Sleeps.

Dessyn and his family accomplished something that many only dream about: pursuing a passion, jumping through the countless hurdles relatively unscathed, and prospering. In 2011, Mille-Feuille Bakery opened in Greenwich Village, and recently it expanded to two additional locations in the Upper West Side. What prompts someone to leave a secure job to jump into the abyss of opening a small business? And how did Dessyn and others like him succeed and continue to thrive in New York City, where the competition is fierce and so many others fail in their small business ventures? Indeed, while 70 percent of small food businesses in New York City survive two years, that figure drops to 50 percent after five years, and to only 35 percent after ten, according to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2014. To put this into perspective, 8,611 food establishments are today listed on Yelp within New York City. Trusting these statistics, about 5,600 will have been indefinitely closed for business by 2025.

The challenge of keeping a food business going, however, is nothing compared to what it takes to start one, says Jennifer Lewis, a Seattle-based small food business expert and founder of the website Small Food Business. When she attempted to start her own business in 2006, she quickly realized the lack of information available for specifically the food industry. “Food businesses face very specific challenges that are very different from what other entrepreneurs in other industries face,” she wrote in an e-mail. These challenges include city, state, and federal legislation about where the products can be made, how they can be stored, and how they must be packaged. “When I first started my business, simply trying to wade through all the legislation and understand what was actually required of me was incredibly time consuming,” she continued.

When Lewis realized that the other food entrepreneurs she worked with in a commercial kitchen were facing the same problems, she decided to start the how-to website. “I wanted to create a ‘one-stop-shop’ resource for food artisans and aspiring food entrepreneurs to find out all that information that stumped so many of us for so long,” she wrote.

In New York, the biggest issue aspiring business owners face are costs, says Lewis. Renting commercial kitchen space is significantly higher than in other parts of the country, and food entrepreneurs in New York have to charge more for their product than competitors from other areas of the country that sell in the same region, she explains. Unlike with chains like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks, which can mass-produce tasty treats and have them frozen and shipped across long distances, local bakeries do not have this ‘luxury’. “So finding ways to cut costs where appropriate without cutting corners was the biggest hurdle that entrepreneurs faced,” she wrote.

One recent early April morning, Dessyn, now 41, sits in the commercial kitchen he has rented since 2013 in Williamsburg overlooking the bright Manhattan skyline. As he reflects over the challenges he faced while pursuing his dream, three of his pastry-chefs-in-training hustle to prepare tomorrow’s orders. The specialty is the namesake Mille-feuille, known to most non-French speaking-customers as “Mill-few,” “Mill-fell,” or “Milly-foi” (Mil/fœj is the correct way). To those that don’t dare attempt pronunciation, it is simply a Napoleon, a vanilla cream pastry with puff-pastry layers. With a watchful eye on his employees’ work, he explains that from time to time, he has to let others do the baking. There is simply no way he could do it all himself. “Before we opened it was hard but after it was horrible. It was too much work. You can’t do everything and that’s what I was trying to do,” he says.

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Dessyn’s wife, Nathalie, recalls how difficult that time was for him. “Three weeks in, I asked him if he’d do it again if he had known how hard it would be. He said no, never,” she said. “He was by himself and had to do everything without a network.” Nathalie arrived in New York two months after Mille-Feuille opened with their two young boys, three and one years old at the time. She admits that the first few months were grueling on her as well. “The first six months are a blank to me. I have no memories from that time,” she said. “Complete blackout.” For both of them, this period is not fondly recalled. “It took about eight months before I could breathe again”, Dessyn says.

And eight months in was about the time Dessyn realized that the narrow, backspace of the original Mille-Feuille Bakery wouldn’t cut it for all of the baking production. “You have to accept that it won’t work out as you expect it to. And it didn’t,” he says. Thus began the search for a suitable commercial kitchen. But it took time to find it. Most of the affordable locations, he says, were too far from the selling points. Each morning, the kitchen delivers their products not only to their (now three) locations, but also to about ten different bakeries around the city that also sell his pastries. A good location of the kitchen is essential to business running smoothly. After all, late deliveries mean hungry, irritated customers. And in 2013, he found the perfect place in Williamsburg’s Pfizer Building. With this attainment, a new project was born. The back-area of Mille-Feuille was converted into a seating area, making it possible for more customers to sit and enjoy their breakfast, lunch, or afternoon snack.

With about 2600 bakeries in Manhattan alone according to Yelp, competition also comes into play for other owners in New York. Lewis points out that while big cities have more potential consumers to choose from, the detrimental power of competition shouldn’t be underestimated. Before opening a business, entrepreneurs should do some research on whether the location will support the business. “Develop cash flow models to see if you think the business can be financially self-sufficient based on the traffic you’ll be getting from consumers,” she advises.

For Dessyn, the Greenwich Village location was ideal. Conveniently located just steps away from NYU, it was affordable and had ample opportunity to stand out amongst the various coffee chains.

But while the original location still is unique on the block to this day, the same cannot be said for Mille-Feuille’s Upper West Side location, located on Broadway and 77th. Dessyn wasn’t expecting the international French boulangerie Maison Kayser to open a few stores down in November last year, a mere six months after Mille-Feuille expanded to the neighborhood. They faced a slight dip in sales, but surprisingly, Dessyn took Kayser’s grand opening of the eight-store chain as a compliment. “I know for a fact that Kayser showed up there because of my bakery and the potential competition. I’m only one guy and they’re a huge company,” he says. Nathalie, however, found it more worrisome. “We expected the Broadway location to be easier, but it’s not because of our neighbor. So it’s a bit disappointing, and I don’t feel the location is secure yet,” she said. But for now, at least, Mille-Feuille is still going strong. It still consistently tops lists of the best bakeries of New York, such as in TimeOut and Serious Eats. And just last month, Dessyn opened its third location in the nearby Hotel Belleclaire, so that tourists, too, can be sure to have a taste of his mouth-watering croissants for breakfast.

While factors like location and competition are important, Lewis believes that defining what success means is the critical factor in creating a successful food business. “Is it important for you to sell your products nationwide and build a multi-million dollar business or do you have different goals and aspirations for your business?” Then, and only then, can an entrepreneur lay out a plan of attack on how to work towards achieving those goals.

For Dessyn, he defines success simply. “Having nice, happy people working, having our high-quality, high-end products, and having happy customers. That’s all I need.” But he’s always working on something. “Our next step could be expansion, or a new product, or coming up with a new, more efficient process,” he says. Just last week, Dessyn launched the Fraisier, a French summery strawberry-cream pastry, for the upcoming season. “I see every step as a small challenge that keeps me busy. Luckily, there’s always something to do. We can always get better,” he says.

Contrast this with Magnolia Bakery, which was founded in the West Village in 1996, and became known for its famous cupcakes and endless lines outside the door. Until 2007, it was the one and only. Then, with a change in owners, came a change in what defined success. “When the Abrams first bought the bakery, there were only a few people managing all aspects of the brand, store operations and productions,” Sara Gramling, Magnolia Bakery’s vice president of public relations, wrote in an e-mail. Today, Magnolia Bakery has seven locations throughout the United States, as well as abroad through franchise partners. Success, today, means more expansion. But with expansion comes some hurdles. “One of our goals—and our biggest challenges—is to ensure brand consistency at every location from décor to our product line,” Gramling wrote.

While the fame of having your name on a chain might sound appealing, Dessyn has not thought that far ahead. Handling more than one bakery is difficult and requires not only organization, but also the right people. “If you are well-organized, but don’t have anyone to rely on for the production, deliveries, food-handling, management, and customer service… Well, let’s just say that if you don’t have the key people, you’re in trouble.” Finding dependable staff, however, is a challenge and takes time. Mille-Feuille has had their fair share of pastry chefs and baristas quit without even a day’s notice, to Dessyn’s dismay. “It’s just hard to evaluate people right away and figure out who works well together. And to figure out who we can rely on for what, that’s the hardest part,” he says solemnly, perhaps reflecting on how his main pastry chef unexpectedly quit less than a month ago.

But to be successful in the long-term, organization and dependable staff is not sufficient. Small food business expert Lewis points out that bakery-owners must stay up to date on consumer trends and be open to making adjustments to their product offerings to stay in front of changing consumer tastes. A case in point: Crumbs. Crumbs opened on the Upper West Side in 2003, riding the wave of the cupcake craze. It quickly became a chain, but in 2014, went bankrupt. The introduction of the ‘crumbnut’, a take on Dominique Ansel’s Cronut, was not enough to save it. “The food business is sometimes a bit like being in middle school in that what’s popular today may very well not be popular tomorrow,” she concluded.

Dessyn knows this very well. “It’s never safe for business in New York. Never. There’s always ups and downs,” he says. New products are needed to keep the business fresh, and Dessyn admits that he almost felt forced to jump on the Cronut trend by introducing the ‘French Doughnut.’ “In New York, you’re either in or you’re out. But once you’re out, it’s too late to do anything about it. You have to put all of the effort in ahead of time, by evolving but also by keeping the regulars happy.”

Starting a food business in New York City is a big risk. But when it comes to following a dream, sometimes there is no other option. There are a few factors that come into play when someone decides to leave their day job to pursue a more fulfilling career, according to Kary Oberbrunner, the author of “Day Job to Dream Job.” People that seek personal growth, a freedom to go as they please, the ability to earn as they wish, and fulfillment to live as they like, are those that tend to transform their lives mid-careers, he bullet-pointed in an e-mail. Although he says that the process “unleashes them,” “fear and self-limiting beliefs” can come into play. Oberbrunner knows that not all dreams come true and advises accordingly: “Be a sideprenueur first. Don’t jump in cold turkey.”

But that’s exactly what Olivier Dessyn did. His dream had been brewing for over a decade, having spent a year at the Ritz Cooking School in Paris in 2001. Baking all of the pastries for his wedding did nothing to satiate his need, and after he made the decision to dedicate his life towards the baking business, he made sure he was ready by completing his 2001 training, this time with the legendary Pierre Hermé. And the factors that Oberbrunner listed above that typically prompt people to change careers are exactly what make Dessyn so happy with his new life. “The best thing about it is that I’m able to do whatever I want every single day. I can plan my day the way I like, whether it is going to the park, baking a cake, or working on management issues at the bakery,” he says. His wife, Nathalie, was happy to follow Dessyn in his pursuit of his dream. “I love people that live for a passion. Olivier’s passion was to open a bakery, so I followed him and I didn’t hesitate,” she said. She states that while Dessyn wasn’t unhappy with his life in Paris, she still felt it was important to support his vision.

For Dessyn, being in charge is also a big plus. “I can change my mind on something I decided the day before, and no one can tell me not to. Of course, I listen to people, but at the end of the day, it’s my choice,” he says.

Former nurse-turned-pastry chef Susan Holding feels the same way. “I love being my own boss.  It’s fun to realize that if there’s something I don’t like, I can change the course and make my work just the way I like,” she said. Initially, Holding had only planned on going for a weekend class to learn how to bake French pastries. Once she realized that she could go to Paris to learn, however, she promptly took a leave of absence from her nursing job in Wisconsin to study at Le Cordon Bleu. “It was very exciting, and scary. I had no idea when I left that I would be leaving my career,” she said. It would be two years until Holding returned home to Wisconsin. Today, fifteen years later, she runs a bakery, teaches baking classes, and has authored “The Little French Cookbook.” But it took time to get there. While she felt prepared from an education point-of-view, she didn’t feel ready to market herself and her new skills. “It was scary, but quickly fell into place,” she said.

Today, she is happy with the way things have evolved. But there are downfalls to pursuing a career aspiration. “Sometimes I resent the fact that my baking hobby became my job. I’ve had to find new hobbies since baking is now my work,” she said. She also had difficulty adjusting to her new identity and insists that preparation is key when following a passion and making a career change. “Study, learn, investigate, and do the homework. You’ll know when you’re ready to take the plunge.”

Dessyn knew he was ready to take the plunge. But still, he admits that there was a point where he wanted to give up. When the original investors fell through, the concept of opening a bakery seemed more remote than ever, and Dessyn considered backing out himself. “But you can’t. Some people give up but I just couldn’t,” he says. He rallied friends, family, and even his old boss to acquire the capital needed. “You have to give it a try and see where it goes. And luckily, I did.”