by Beth D'Addono, contributing editor
Miel Patisserie AT A GLANCE
Primary business: 50% specialty wholesale, 50% retail
Pastry Chef Robert Bennett displays large and small cake varieties next to one another, "like a mother and a baby," he says.
Miel Patisserie sells about 100 lbs. of Canine Crumpets each month.
Miel's Piedmont features a crispy hazelnut praline base, milk chocolate mousse and a marbled mirror glaze.
Bennett oversees all departments in the business, but admits that chocolate and sugar work are his two passions.
Napoleon Bonaparte adored bees. The diminutive emperor admired the humble insect for its work ethic and selfless obedience to an undisputed leader. He loved the bee so much that he ditched France's national symbol, the fleur-de-lis, in favor of the Napoleonic bee, a symbol that is still common in France today.
When Pastry Chef Robert Bennett was looking for a name for his upscale patisserie in Cherry Hill, N.J., he wanted something short and sweet that spoke to his French training. Miel, which means honey, was perfect, and where there's honey, there are usually bees. At both of Miel Patisserie's locations, in New Jersey and downtown Philadelphia, the Emperor's bee is everywhere, from the custom wrought iron door handles on the front door to the bakery's logo and the imprint on the place cards that announce the pastry line-up in the sparkling showcases. "Miel is easy to pronounce, and I like the idea that bees are so hard working," says Bennett, who at 6 ft. 1 in. would give Napoleon someone to look up to. But Bennett's stature isn't limited to his height; his pastry is truly fit for the royal court.
Bennett earned a degree from the esteemed New England Culinary Institute, where he discovered his passion for pastry and accepted the position of executive pastry instructor after apprenticing at Arnaud's in New Orleans. During that time, he created a cake for Ronald Regan's second inaugural celebration, a to-scale replica of Capitol Hill, complete with the U.S. Capitol building, that fed 44,000 guests. Bennett left the NECI to accept a position at the ultra-lux Jumby Bay, a private island off the coast of Antigua. But, his next position as executive pastry chef at Le Bec-Fin, the internationally renowned French restaurant in Philadelphia, truly allowed Bennett to come into his own.
Earns Le Bec-Fin fame
During his 14-year tenure at Le Bec-Fin, Bennett sated the sweet tooth of presidents and royalty, rock stars and corporate kingpins. He made Sigourney Weaver's birthday cake, custom chocolates for Prince Andrew and breads and pastries for director M. Night Shymalan's movie set and cast. His triple-tired dessert cart won Le Bec-Fin accolades from Bon Appetit, Gourmet and Wine Spectator magazinesñand made dessert everybody's favorite course at the $135 prix fixe restaurant.
"I have to hand it to Chef (Georges) Perrier," Bennett says. "He put so much trust in me. He didn't want to worry about the pastry end of things, and I made sure he never had to. It was a good relationship, and when I left he wished me well."
Bennett's dream of owning a patisserie came true in April 2002, with the help of partner Marshall Weinerman, who owns the Village Walk shopping center in Cherry Hill, home to Bennett's first retail shop and his production kitchen. "Marshall told me he'd build everything for me if I was ready to run the business," Bennett says. "And I was ready." Some $1.5 million later, he opened his bee-adorned doors.
Bennett spent $1 million on equipment alone, outfitting his kitchen with production-fueling machinery including a blast freezer that has its own direct phone line to tech support. (If somebody accidentally leaves the door open, Bennett gets a call in 15 minutes.) The freezer takes product to 40 below in less than 5 minutes, leaving every last fresh strawberry untouched by frost and crystallization. A French enrobing machine coats up to 3,000 chocolates an hour, and a combination grinder/mixer grates, mixes and whisks. His ice cream maker allows his glaciere to make 10 gallons in eight minutes, and a new cookie depositor handles 800 lbs. of cookie dough an hour.
Production-efficient equipment proved a worthy investment for Miel Patisserie. From day one, Bennett's reputation had customers literally clamoring at the door for the privilege of paying $36 a pound for artisan chocolate and $30 for a signature 7-in. Miel Gateau, layers of heavenly chocolate sponge moistened with rum and filled with dark chocolate mousse and a vanilla Bavarian center. "I definitely went for an upscale, higher price pointñthat's our market," Bennett says. "And that's what we deliver."
He's fanatical about quality ingredients. Tahitian vanilla-beans cost $210 a pound. Only the finest chocolate and butter will do. And, his dedication pays off. Miel's chocolate has replaced Godiva at some area gourmet markets.
A second Miel location opened in downtown Philadelphia in December last year, and plans are in the works for a third Miel to open possibly in Princeton, N.J. All business comes to Miel by word-of-mouth and by referral. And the numbers are impressive: Miel in New Jersey racked up $600,000 in sales in the eight months it was open in 2002. In 2003, the business jumped to $1.5 million in sales, with $3.47 million projected this year.
Both of his retail shops could easily-pass for a high-end jewelry boutique, if you substituted diamonds for the mousses and gateaus. Bennett designed the retail spaces and the 2,800-sq.-ft. production area in the Cherry Hill location without cutting any corners. Understated elegance abounds in the details of the shops, including hundreds of square feet of polished granite, creamy Italian tile, painted French armoires and antiques, crystal chandeliers and fresh flowers.
Wedding cake consultants
In the bridal room, Bennett or his wedding consultant personally meets with brides to discuss ideas for $7 per-person wedding cakes. Louis XIV furnishings, subtle lighting and lace curtains set a definite tone. Wedding cakes account for about 10 percent of overall sales, but that number is growing. Individual cakes are hugely popular, as are towers of "cupcake" cakes in flavors like chocolate ganache and caramel mousse. "We don't allow anyone else to set up our cakes," he says. "We have to be 100 percent sure that it's done right."
Miel's packaging also carries out the bakery's high-end image. Bennett specially designed glossy truffle boxes imprinted with the bakery's logo and coated boxes that spring away from the cake when they open.
Bennett pays close attention to details down to the packaging, but he quickly learned the difference between working for somebody else and running one's own business. "I like being able to make any and all decisions without having to ask somebody first," he says. "And, I learned to departmentalize to keep myself from going insane." He considers each of his 17-member production team to be specialists, and gives them the autonomy they need to run their area of the business. Key players include Executive Pastry Chef Rocco Lugrine, Head Pastry Chef Tom Heck, Head Baker Kurt Zalegowski, Chocolatier Christine Tallman, and Glaciere Melissa Laskowski.
Bennett floats among all departments, although he admits that chocolate and sugar work are his two passions. Bennett creates custom blown sugar pieces, such as a birthday cake designed to look like a sushi platter, complete with blown sugar shrimp and fish. Although he has won many accolades for his artistry, he says he is done with competing. "It takes too much time. I have a business to run now."
Production runs around the clock with much care taken to separate bread and pastry production. Pastry chefs arrive at 6:30 am to begin mixing sponge cakes, pound cakes, buttercreams and mousses. Pastry and cake products are baked and assembled throughout the day and decorated in the afternoon to fill orders that come through by fax the night before.
Bread bakers work the night shift until Bennett can double his production area to 8,000 sq. ft. within the next six months. The plan includes adding three more ovens, doubling the size of the office, adding an employee lounge and building a bigger room for ice cream. "We have a $1.5 million contract pending. If we get that, we'll need the extra production-space," Bennett says. "I want to separate bread and pastry completely. Airborne flour isn't good for French pastry." He also is customizing two vans with lift gates and zoned refrigeration to keep pastry cool and bread at room temperature. Miel's two drivers deliver seven days a week to wholesale customers, including hotels, restaurants and caterers within about 50 miles.
The business has shaken out to about 50/50 wholesale and retail. On the retail side, business breaks out to about 40 percent pastry, 20 percent chocolate, 15 percent wedding cakes, 10 percent bread, 10 percent breakfast and 5 percent miscellaneous, including ice cream, dog cookies and jam. On the wholesale side, pastry commands 60 percent of the pie, followed by ice cream at 20 percent, bread at 10 percent and chocolate at 10 percent.
Bennett doesn't worry about competition. "I subscribe to the lemonade stand theory," he said. "Everybody pulls in their own share of the business. Philadelphia was void of any type of French patisserie. So many people are out there making mediocre stuff. I wanted to make artisan pastry with the best ingredients available. The business is out there. We just have to be able to handle it."
French-inspired bakery wastes not
Robert Bennett is thankful for his classic French training. The pastry chef/owner of Miel Patisserie in Cherry Hill, N.J. and Philadelphia believes that French pastry chefs are highly industrious, incredibly dedicated to detail and hold themselves to the highest pastry standards in the world. Then there's the issue of waste. "Nothing gets wasted in a French kitchen," Bennett says. "Nothing."
Miel's pastry and bakery production follows the French tradition. Nothing is wasted. Fruit is saved from unsold fruit tarts to be stirred into jam. Cake and pastry cuttings end up in the Miel Melange, a 10-piece selection of ends and day-old pastry. He makes croutons from left-over bread, flavored with olive oil and butter, which retail for $2.25 for a 10-oz. bag. His wife, Co-owner/Pastry Chef Diane Taylor-Bennett, oversees production processes with a close eye on efficiency. For example, the chocolate strips that are cut from the enrobing machine are used to garnish the butter cookies "That's why I can get $14 a pound for them," Bennett says.
"It just makes good business sense to me," Bennett says. "The cost of ingredients is expensive. I just don't believe in waste."
A sampling of Miel Patisserie retail prices
Full decorated sheet cake .............$175