It all started in January of 2009, with a bacon salted-caramel milk-chocolate cupcake. Inspired by Xocolatl de David's bacon caramel, Jessie Smith really just wanted a cupcake. But when a friend suggested that she should take her culinary talents to new levels, the idea stuck and Confectionery was born.
Three years and thousands of macarons later, Jessie and her business partner, Nicole Trueblood, have found success with Confectionery's inventive flavorings and deliciously gluten-free offerings. Farmers markets were a natural choice for their small-scale operation; Jessie began peddling her wares at the Hollywood Farmers Market, and the duo has now expanded to the Moreland and Montavilla markets. They also spend their time selling at events such as Crafty Wonderland, Indulge, and New Deal Distillery's Season's Eatings, and delivering wholesale to Whole Foods, First Cup Coffeehouse, and Da-Pressed Coffee. Their macarons in a palette of pastels have become a familiar sight at the Hollywood Farmers Market, along with half-pint jars of herb-flecked salted caramels, and miniature cupcakes topped with fresh flowers and berries.
Though both Jessie and Nicole have day jobs and work up to seven hours a day for Confectionery, they are still able to infuse fun and creativity into their business. "Flavor ideas can come from anywhere, randomly," Jessie says. "It could be from listening to a song, smelling elderflowers, even just thinking of a color. The lavender pistachio macaron came from thinking about green and purple."
"I like to come up with names first," Nicole adds. "For October, I came up with the name 'Ichabod Crane,' then we asked each other, 'what does that taste like?'"
Market season often drives their creative thinking. Being surrounded three times a week with so many food options and people excited about food is energizing, says Jessie. Local produce has also inspired them to keep their flavors seasonal: "We're not going to do berries year-round, no matter how much people ask," Nicole says. "We're not going to use frozen strawberries."
In addition to the farmers market scene in Portland, Jessie and Nicole draw inspiration from local businesses whose product or approach they admire. For flavor and craftsmanship, they look to artisans such as Xocolatl de David, Alma Chocolate, Salt and Straw, and Kim Boyce, author of "Good to the Grain" and owner of Bakeshop. But they also appreciate businesses whose dedication to a small-scale model has proven successful, naming Oui Pressť as an example.
Jessie and Nicole are no strangers to the challenges of running a small business in this city. With just one intern for support, they do everything, from picking up ingredients to producing the product to making deliveries to staffing the market booth. Working out of a shared kitchen space at Salt, Fire, and Time in NW Portland, they have to coordinate their schedules with five other producers. The other producers happen to be all women, which Jessie says has been a great atmosphere for them. In the past, cross-contamination of ingredients and cleaning up after other producers on their own time plagued Confectionery's shared kitchen experiences. Now no more; and with a gluten-free product, the cleanliness and efficiency of their workplace are not just preferences, they're requirements.
It's not just concerns over cross-contamination that make gluten-free confections a challenge. Jessie and Nicole experiment with a wide range of flours in search of the perfect flavor and texture, from rice and oat flours to even teff and coconut. Their customers have requested that they avoid typical gluten-free binders such as tapioca and potato starch. On top of that, they have to combat many people's conceptions that gluten-free products are oddly-textured, bland alternatives to the real deal. So why become a gluten-free confectioner if you're not gluten-free yourself?
"People originally started coming to us because macarons [made with almond meal] are naturally gluten-free," Jessie says. "But more and more people couldn't eat them because of the possibility of cross-contamination with our other product. So we decided to switch-but to be more creative with gluten-free products than anyone else."
With dedicated followers among both the gluten-free and gluten-philic populations, the gamble seems to have paid off. So what are the next steps for Confectionery?
"People are always asking when we're going to open a retail shop," Jessie says. "Even without a commercial kitchen attached, we'd like to create a destination place."
"Our community is so supportive," Nicole adds. "We get constructive criticism from our customers, and that only helps us to make a better product and grow. Meeting people, making connections with other people who care about food-that's what it's about."
Confectionery's macarons, cupcakes, cookies, caramels, and other treats are available at the Hollywood, Montavilla, and Moreland Farmers Markets, at Last Thursday on Alberta, at most Whole Foods locations, Da-Pressed Coffee, First Cup Coffeehouse, Fuchsia, Crafty Wonderland, and by mail-order or delivery at www.confectionerypdx.com.