(This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Pastry chef and chocolatier Katie Bonzer is not one to let the grass grow under her feet. After honing her pastry and chocolate skills at some of the country’s best culinary schools and working with some of its finest pastry chefs, she has spent the past few years channeling her skills into entrepreneurial endeavors. She and her pastry chef husband Jake are the co-owners of Towners Pastry and Chocolate, with locations in Gwinn and Marquette, Michigan, and Pizzeria Mozzi, also in Gwinn. For most small business owners, three businesses would be enough to manage and still retain a sense of sanity. But Katie Bonzer has more plans. Here she talks about the pros and cons of owning multiple businesses with her spouse, and what the future may have in store.
Are you self-taught or did you go to culinary school?
I attended Le Cordon Bleu Los Angeles for pastry arts, took an intensive course at ICE [Institute of Culinary Education] in New York City on pastry doughs, learned the fundamentals of chocolate at Chicago Chocolate Academy, and dragée technique through the Melissa Coppel School in Las Vegas. Beyond that, I focus on research and development and have had consultation from chefs such as Nicolas Botomisy, Julian Rose and Kris Harvey.
What made you specialize in chocolate?
Healthy competition made me become a chocolatier. My husband Jake is also a pastry chef; we went to culinary school together and are highly competitive, so chocolate was a great place to stake my claim while he specialized in viennoiserie.
What are the pros and cons of being a self-employed chocolatier?
The pro of my path as a self-employed chocolatier is having full creative control over my product, as long as it moves the needle for our customers. The con of being a proprietor of multiple businesses is that that freedom comes with great responsibility to uphold a first-rate place of employment for our teams, as well as a safe inclusive space for our community to gather.
Tell us about your business and some of your signature chocolate products?
Our business – Towners Pastry and Chocolate in Gwinn, Michigan – sells a range of chocolate products, including croissants, entremets, macarons, bonbons, tablets, truffle bars, chocolate-dipped items, and chocolate holiday novelties. We also own Pizzeria Mozzi, because as pastry chefs, dough is an area of special interest, so pizza dough fit in well. At Mozzi, we serve Italian favorites and bring chocolate into the restaurant via tiramisu and cannolis.
What are some of your favorite flavor combinations right now and how are you using them?
Each quarter our flavors change to represent the seasons. Leading into fall, I enjoy working with spices in ganaches such as allspice, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, ground ginger and star anise. Spirited caramels are a fine filling for colder months. Stone fruit pâte de fruits piped into bonbons, and intense giandujas bring richness when layered on mild ganaches.
The pro of my path as a self-employed chocolatier is having full creative control over my product, as long as it moves the needle for our customers.
Are you doing any vegan chocolates?
No, it’s honestly not of interest. Michigan is the Midwest – the dairyland force is strong in these parts.
What’s the philosophy that guides your chocolate making?
Cleanliness is next to godliness. A clean environment encourages a fine product, clean working enables a beautiful appearance, and after all is said and done, customers eat with their eyes, so a sloppy product will never meet the mark.
Do you have any technique or production tips revolving around chocolate you can share with us?
Learn how to properly temper and pre-crystallize. That’s the issue nine out of ten times with cocoa butter colors, couverture and ganaches. Study recipe percentages; chocolate is science and the rules always apply. Buy more molds, make larger runs and learn proper freezing technique. All of these can be found on my Instagram account, @katiebonzerchocolatier.
How did the pandemic affect your business, and what did you change as a result?
The pandemic was a rollercoaster for our business; it created times of feast and times of famine. We opened two restaurants during the pandemic, in addition to our patisserie. One was a preexisting business next door to the original Towners. The owners wanted out, and the opportunity was too good to pass up, thus the birth of Pizzeria Mozzi. The second Towners location came about because we needed space for a chocolate kitchen and with people “Staying Home Staying Safe” we anticipated a drop in holiday chocolate sales at our original Towners due to its remote location. We were wrong, we met the same chocolate sales in our first month in business at the new location as we had in chocolate sales the entire previous year at the original Towners location.
How do you and your chef-husband – and business partner – balance your work and home life? Do you talk business at home?
Business never sleeps, and neither does Jake, ha! We spend 80 percent of the day within earshot of one-another, so it is a consistent open dialogue for ideas to flow. Building business proposals, menus, and assessing financial risk is probably our favorite way to spend time together outside of entertaining our sons. For balance after working 12-plus-hour-days regularly, we take vacations, because if all you do is work, than you don’t have as much opportunity to spend your income, so we enjoy splurge trips like a couples romantic getaway to Paris or with our kids to Disneyland in California.
Any future plans you’d like to tell us about?
In keeping with the copious amounts of information we share via Instagram, we are launching our educational podcast, ‘Bonzer Method’ this fall. You can expect to learn about chocolate, food science, starting a business, strategy in the hospitality industry, guest interviews, and more. If that wasn’t enough, we also have a new venture starting January 1, 2022 that has been a dream of ours for 15 years. We’re radiating with excitement to see our vision come to life in the new year, and can’t wait to share with everyone, but for now it’s still under wraps!