(This interview appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
The storefront seems to rise implausibly from the ashes, or at least the New York City concrete. Behind the tiny glass entrance, its luminous colors, somehow misplaced from a gallery at the Met, take their place near the laundromats and manhole covers in a storefront of 750 generous square feet wedged into Gotham’s Nolita neighborhood. How could such a bashful looking storefront produce such lustrous, elegant chocolates? The answer comes from Susanna Yoon, the studious owner and creator of Stick With Me Sweets, who has neither the stature, nor the temperament, to speak as forcefully as her creations. “I love chocolate so much,” she says simply, as if all the complexities of the creation, the business, the passion could be distilled into a friendly mantra. Yet here they are: not just peanut butter and jelly and dulce de leche, but yuzu and kalamansi meringue pie, no doubt a favorite among reformed I-used-to-eat-Oreos-and-Snickers jet setters.
Yoon’s bonbons are first a feast for the eyes, testing the limits of the spectrum. How do you classify bananas foster with its brushstrokes of yellow, brown and something that looks off-red? Yoon paints some of them, splashes paint – i.e. colored cocoa butter — on others, sponges, air brushes and thumb smudges with a purpose to create the effect of something you want to admire more than eat. The colors hint at the treasures inside. A red-on-white bonbon she calls Cassis Yogurt seems to evoke a puff of clouds set against a Wyoming basin. “It reminds me yogurt, with that fruit on the bottom, before you mix it together,” she says.
Her imagination was sparked when Yoon was growing up in Mill Creek, Washington, a town of 18,000 about 20 miles Northeast of Seattle. “I always had stashes of sweets under my bed,” she explains. “I always wanted to try new things. That was where the inspiration started.” Yoon also drew inspiration, as many gifted chefs seem to do, from her talented and generous grandmother, Shin Chil Rye. “I would sit and watch her in the kitchen all day,” Yoon says. “It made me happy.” Yoon saw the sense of sharing and community her grandmother forged, and though food wasn’t her first calling, she never lost the memory.
After college at Western Washington University and Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, Yoon went to Shanghai and then Beijing, where she founded a corporate identity and branding company named Urbane Solutions. She spent time in Europe, looking after her love of music in Germany, where she played acoustic guitar and wrote songs that were recorded for an album that featured background vocals in Korean dramas. For someone who drew upon such varied influences, Yoon still needed the melting pot of New York to find her calling.
In 2010, she enrolled in the pastry arts program at what was then the French Culinary Institute, where she couldn’t wait to explore and create the sweets she loved. “I was so excited, I would buy tools I didn’t really even need so I could make them a day ahead,” she says. “I wanted to make them perfect. Anything that would give me the best result.” Pity the poor flour sifter that soon sat with nothing to sift. After a week’s worth of specialized chocolate instruction within the six-month comprehensive pastry course, each student produced a chocolate showpiece. Many were simple; hers was a grand piano that opened to a keyboard of truffles. (Yes, I’ll see your Milky Way and raise you a Steinway.) She also spent her free time scouring the city for bakeries, sweet shops and restaurants known for desserts.
Yoon completed an externship at Park Avenue and then arrived, heavily recommended, as a pastry cook at Café Boulud, a satellite of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire, where the restaurant called her in for a tryout and then held a position for her for three months. Again, the vigilant aspirant who bought kitchen gear a day in advance was way ahead of the game.
At Café Boulud she learned speed. “I had to be quick and efficient; otherwise, people were going to be upset,” she recalls. That was never truer than during one brunch service when Yoon was alone with two machines that took four minutes each to make waffles, the one treat that every diner seemed to order on a day there was no time to waffle. “I thought it was going to be my last day,” Yoon says.
From Café Boulud, she took a stage at Per Se and joined a team of five working for Thomas Keller. She recalls that most chores were not overly technical: cleaning berries, tying ribbons, tasks that prized attention to detail more than rapid repetition. “This needs to be neater, cleaner, shinier,” she’d repeat to herself. “Why does this not look as comfortable as it should?” Yoon learned about angles and images. Make sure the quenelle points this way and not that way. She still sees an image of one particular dessert, s’mores with two chocolate tortes, that contained two tuiles at perfect 180-degree angle from one another. “And I was always hungry there, always on my feet,” she says. “I had to taste everything.”
After two years of 14-hour days at Per Se, Yoon left the culinary world to relax on some Australian beaches and eventually opened Stick With Me because, she says, “I wanted chocolates to be accessible.” Yoon went searching for a spot to make bonbons, caramels and cakes. She searched more than 100 locations, none above 20thStreet, before snaring the one on Mott Street. But before she opened in December, 2014, Yoon endured both growing and building pains in a spot that needed both a dedicated area for her to make the chocolate and another for customers to view and purchase them.
“They told us 750 square feet, but it was more 650,” she says. Indeed, when people walk to the back, they must first momentarily displace a rolling section of counter, making sure not to kneecap any bystanders. “We have no interior design,” Yoon says, sounding like an honors student apologizing for a modest dorm room. “We wanted to emphasize products and packaging. An architect guided the design. It was like a game of Tetris, fitting everything in.”
Yoon needed a place with a vent that could also house two chocolate makers and a Hobart machine, among other pieces of equipment. When a Selmi tempering machine from Italy started giving quick jolts of electricity to Yoon and her staff, she called in an electrician who found that there was faulty wiring in the machine, which could have been deadly had metal touched metal.
Yoon is not a natural in today’s media-savvy world that rewards a boastful conceit, and a fair handle on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. “If I had a choice, I’d have no accounts,” she says. “But for any business today, good use of social media is necessary. There’s always a new chance to talk to customers, tell them about new products.” Yoon initially paid a few thousand dollars a month to utilize a PR company, but instead shifted priorities to emphasize glamorous packaging. She works with several graphic designers and illustrators, but sometimes dreams up the concepts like gifts from under the bed. She has still managed to land a place on Oprah’s favorites and favorable mentions in Forbes, So Good and Bloomberg.
Yoon has made concessions in some areas, while emphasizing others. She has tabled plans for cakes to concentrate more on bonbons. She imports yuzu, black sesame and matcha from Japan. She opts for Eliot Pecans from Oregon when she wants a nut flavor with a softer, more malleable texture, but uses Piemonte hazelnuts when she wants some crunch. Her flavors often inspire her whimsical designs. Black sesame has black specs on the outside. Yoon also layers many of her bonbons, placing distinct sections of guava atop passion fruit and resting pistachio filling above a base of marzipan. Somewhere in the tasting comes a collision of umami and viscosity in one bite-sized package. So what if one customer inquired during our visit: “So what a yuzu, anyway?” It’s part of the learning curve.
The growing curve won’t take the business too far from its roots. She’d like more counter space to display more items, since there are surely more scents and flavors to meld and brew. Yes, keep that thought under your hat: Stick with Me Sweets is only going to get bolder and better. You might want to stick some under your bed, too.
Photo Credits: Dailing Jiang, Evan Sung