Everyone’s business journey is different. For one-time lawyer Bridget O’Sullivan, bringing delicate, beautifully crafted macarons to New Zealand has meant learning to let go of a lawyer’s risk-averse approach and embracing her creativity.
by Annie Gray
A macaron is not a macaroon, explains Bridget O’Sullivan, the founder and owner of J’aime les Macarons in Christchurch. For a start a macaron has two meringue and almond shells which sandwich a filling, such as a chocolate ganache, jam or buttercream. They are known for their texture, a crunchy exterior, gooey centre and slight chew, and come in many colours and flavours.
A macaroon, she says, is the dense coconut-based sweet, made up of coconut, sugar and egg white, piped into the peaked shape, and sometimes dipped in chocolate. “I’m partial to a macaroon myself, but macarons are in a different league, in my opinion anyway.”
Bridget started the business in 2008 after returning to New Zealand from London where she had worked for five years for Accenture UK and British Sky Broadcasting.
Originally from Canterbury the journey home saw her decide on a career change and she moved to Christchurch to investigate a “foodie business”, and stayed.
“The earthquake hit and it sparked a sense of loyalty in me and a sense of wanting to stay to be part of the creative rebuild.”
Right from the start she wanted a business that provided a beautiful experience, from start to finish. “At that time, the New Zealand food scene was into giant portions of rustic baking. I couldn’t find anything more refined and thoughtful. Macarons were hugely popular in Asia and Europe, but new to New Zealand. There was a gap in the market and the timing was right.”
She now has six full-time, and six part-time employees and runs a commercial kitchen and store in Christchurch. The kitchen produces around 20,000 hand-made macarons per month, plus other patisserie and confectionery items, and delivers nationwide. The delicate little biscuits come in a variety of flavours, updated each season. Winter 2016 includes peanut butter and jam, apple and walnut, salted caramel espresso and coconut chai.
Bridget says that being a lawyer has, in some ways, made her business journey easier but in other ways, not.
“It gave me invaluable experience with contracts, negotiations, analytical thinking, and taught me responsibility and prioritisation. As an in-house lawyer, I was involved in a wide variety of work, so I had experience across all aspects of a business, and was lucky enough to work with some very smart people.”
But she also thinks the legal roles curbed her creative side for a while.
“It took a while to kick-start the creativity in me, and have confidence in my own ability. Also, part of my legal role was to look for the pitfalls in every idea. I’ve had to let that tendency go, and learn to take risks and back myself.
“Owning your own business means endless decisions and risk analysis, the business would have gone nowhere if I had retained that risk-averse approach. So once I’d let go of some learned behaviours and the creative outputs started complementing my business skills then the journey became much easier.”
Bridget started the business at the Canterbury Farmers Market, and has grown it organically.
“I keep to a tight budget and I’m a strategic spender; small budgets force you to do that.”
As to the product itself, she has always loved baking. “I’m a perfectionist, and baking requires attention to detail, so it was a natural fit for my personality type. Growing up, both Mum and Grandma set the bar high for the standard of baking in our family. They both turned out the most beautiful cakes, puddings and sweet treats.”
Lonely at the top
Being in business isn’t all jam and cream (so to speak) and Bridget says it can be lonely.
“Most of my friends are in the corporate world, so I had to actively seek some new people in my life who understand the good parts, and challenges, of owning a business. I also realised that I needed some professional support, which took the form of an excellent business coach. When I found these people, it was like breathing a massive sigh of relief.”
The biggest business challenge has been the 2011 Canterbury earthquake.
“How can you possibly foresee and prepare for an event like that? I was so lucky in that both my new commercial kitchen and retail store were unaffected, but customers, supply chains, transport, employees, everything and everyone else was affected in some way.
“From a personal perspective, I lost my home and have been pursuing its demolition and rebuild ever since.
“Owning a small business is full of daily challenges, but that event threw me a curve-ball like no other. The business became about survival, as opposed to growth, for a period of time. But like any of life’s challenges, you learn some lessons, and the key one for me is that I have more strength than I realised, and that the business is resilient.”
Today Bridget enjoys the ability to follow her own passion and vision. “There’s a massive sense of satisfaction in seeing your idea go to market and do well. From a thought in your mind, to a product that customers’ love, that feels good. And I like the contribution factor, creating jobs and providing a positive work environment, it’s a good feeling.”
Harnessing social media
Bridget sees social media as a powerful marketing tool, especially for the food industry.
“Firstly, it’s free (mostly). I’m a little obsessed with Instagram, which is exceptionally popular amongst foodies and I’m able to post products at any stage in the production line and keep customers informed and involved.
“Secondly, it’s a tool for product research. I get a lot of inspiration from Instagram, not just food accounts, but also design, photography, fashion. You get a sense of trends towards colours, flavours, and styling.
“Thirdly, it’s a way to reach a market beyond New Zealand. People from all over the world comment and give feedback on what you’re up to. How amazing is that?”
She sees social media as a must for business owners. “Even if you don’t love it personally, it’s a game you need to be playing for your business.”
So what does the future hold for J’aime Les Macarons?
“I would love a spot in Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown, and potentially further afield. I want to explore creative ways of doing business and find out how my customers want to experience JLM.
“It could be about online activity, it could be pop-up and spontaneous, or a traditional retail experience; either way I love the challenge of asking myself ‘what’s the next trend, what are my customers looking for?’ and seeing if I can meet that challenge.”