For some reason, it's frowned upon to have fun with your food. However, welcome to 2018, where everyone is breaking the norms in some way or another. That's where Risa Magid Boyer comes in: a dessert-enthusiast, she decided to elevate the entire dessert experience with Vanillamore Dessert Kitchen located in Montclair, New Jersey. But don't be fooled, she's also serving up savory items on her dinner, lunch and brunch menu. Here is a little bit more about her story, how she got to where she is, and her favorite foods to make when she's not on duty.
Hungry Grl: How did you get your start in the industry?
Risa Magid Boyer: I grew up in the kitchen with my mom and sister. Some of my earliest memories are centered around helping my mom set up for parties or holidays that were hosted at my childhood home. I didn’t realize that I could make food my career until I began working a part-time job in Boston, while studying graphic design at Northeastern University. I was working the savory line in a restaurant called Finale, and I fell in love. While in that kitchen, I had two kitchen managers that taught me that I could create more tangible art through food than I could on the computer. I (not so) bravely told my parents that I was planning to leave college to pursue a career in the food industry. I immediately knew that I still wanted to earn a degree and I knew that when I applied to the Culinary Institute of America it would be the perfect place for me to study. Deep down, I knew that someday I’d want to own a place of my own and that education would be invaluable. I had a couple of months off between leaving Northeastern and starting at CIA, and It was during that time that I fell even more in love with the industry. I worked three part time jobs/internships and learned 3 very different versions of the industry.
HG: Where did the inspiration for Vanillamore come from? What was the process like for bringing it to life?
RB: After graduation, I worked briefly at a very high end Italian Restaurant (Armani Ristorante, 5th Ave) and quickly realized that it was not the right environment for me. I then spent 2 years at Sweet Revenge, a cupcake, wine & beer bar in the West Village. There, I was able to work my way from pastry cook to assistant manager, learning all aspects of kitchen operations and many aspects of front of house operations. When it was time to move away from NYC to start a life with my then boyfriend, now husband, Bobby, I got serious about starting my own business. While working part time at Sur la Table as a pastry instructor and eventually a resident chef at the Yonkers NY store, I simultaneously began working with a brand developer and started to create what would become Vanillamore. Michelle Lawton, of Joyful Plate, and I ate our way through every bakery, pastry shop, and restaurant known for their dessert program to figure out exactly what was missing in the market. Vanillamore was designed to exist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After considering the financial side of the business plan, and a desire to live back near my parents in NJ, we began analyzing the different marketplaces in NJ towns that would support the type of brand that we were developing.
Vanillamore was created as a place for all types of people to become immersed in a culinary experience, with a focus on desserts. While other dessert ‘bars’ have existed, I dreamed about a place for people to watch their food being created in an open kitchen, sit at a communal table and interact with other guests, and explore desserts with different flavors, textures and colors. I also knew that from both a business perspective & desire to give guests a full experience, I wanted to have a complimentary savory menu for our guests to enjoy. Over the course of nearly three years, my dad (and business partner) and I worked with experts to bring Vanillamore to life. We surrounded ourselves with people who understood what we were trying to bring to life and guided us through their areas of expertise. From the beginning, our intention was to ‘do it right’ and not move on to the next step in the process until we were ready.
HG: What do you want people to take away when walking into Vanillamore? What is your ultimate goal for your customers to take away from this unique experience?
RB: Simply put, I want everyone to walk out of Vanillamore feeling like they’ve had an incredibly delicious and positive experience.
Three main things that I want our guests to feel are:
Exceptional Customer Service. I want our guests to feel like they were treated like regulars, whether they are or not. I have an incredible front of house staff that embrace our customers and guide them through their culinary experience.
Unique Culinary Experience. Whether they have lunch, dinner, brunch, dessert or some combination of our menus, I want our guests to feel like they had the opportunity to try a new flavor combination or enjoy something that brings them back to a happy food memory from their life.
A Desire to Return. Since many people come to Vanillamore thinking that we only serve dessert, we always show them our savory menu options so that the next time they dine with us, they come for more than ‘just’ dessert.
HG: Do you have a favorite dish to make or eat? What do you cook when you’re not working?
RB: I like variety. I don’t like making or eating the same thing over and over. Recipe development and testing out flavor combinations has always been my favorite thing to do in the kitchen. On the pastry side, my favorite thing to make are confections – caramels, candies, marshmallows. On the savory side, I am always learning and often make simple things, focused on technique and developing flavors. At the moment, I don’t have time to cook at home, and I often don’t feel like it after spending quite a bit of time on the line at Vanillamore lately. On Mondays, when we are closed, my husband usually cooks for me (yes, he is a total winner), or we treat ourselves to sushi.
HG: What are the biggest challenges and successes thus far? What is your favorite part about what you do?
RB: Many people believe that we only serve dessert, since the second half of our name is “Dessert Kitchen." When going through the branding process, we worked through many versions of this secondary name. We felt like we needed to clarify what Vanillamore was in a simple way. Knowing that there would be a learning curve from a marketing perspective, we developed the tag line Sweet. Savory. Social. to broaden the description further.
Other challenges, big and small, come up daily. Each challenge needs to be looked at as a learning experience. These challenges range from a recipe going wrong, to employees calling out, equipment breaking down, customer complaints, last minute reservation cancellations and everything in between. I remind myself every day that I am doing something that I’ve never done before, leading a staff of close to 20 people to bring a unique experience to the marketplace.
At the end of the day, the biggest success is hearing from customers that we have exceeded their expectations. We have a large number of regulars, and that is a testament to how much they enjoy our food, our customer service and their overall experience.
My favorite part is working with my staff to create new menu items. It’s fun to talk about flavor combinations and dream up new ways to express Vanillamore through our food.
HG: Why did you choose Montclair for your location? Why do you like being a part of this community?
RB: Montclair is so special to me. I grew up in Wayne, not far from here, and we always came to Montclair for special meals – many birthdays were celebrated at the former Café Eclectic, I interned at the former Table 8, and was the opening pastry chef at De Novo in Upper Montclair. In high school, I took many classes at the Yard School at the Montclair Art Museum. When we were deciding which NJ town would be the best fit to open Vanillamore, Montclair was always on the short list. There are so many amazing restaurants in this town and all of the business owners that I’ve met have been so supportive. The community here really supports all types of local businesses.
HG: How do you create and curate your menu — where does your inspiration for these dishes and ideas come from? What is your favorite dish on the menu to eat (for both brunch and dinner and dessert)?
RB: Our sweet and savory menus have similar formats. Both have charcuterie boards – traditional meat & cheese on the savory side, and inventive chocolate or vanilla options on the sweet side. Next, we have items to be shared - our small plates menus & dessert tapas. At the bottom of our savory menus are larger format, more traditional entrees, and our dessert menu is rounded out with dessert flights – three mini composed desserts that are part of a theme and perfect for an individual to enjoy on their own.
All new menu items are inspired by our brand & by the season. I love combining flavors, textures & colors on each of our plates. I am also always inspired by my staff’s opinions – they all have so many good ideas and we try to incorporate many of them into new items or daily specials. Some of our menus items have become staples – Sweet Potato Gnocchi, S’mores Tapas, Chocolate Obsession Flight… These won’t be going anywhere, but it’s so much fun to add new items and highlight seasonal items.
Right now, my favorite items are: Housemade Ricotta with Hazelnuts & Honey on our lunch & dinner menus, Prosciutto & Swiss Toast with a Poached Egg on our brunch menu, and the Very Berry Flight on our dessert menu.
HG: Where do you hope to see Vanillamore in 5 years?
RB: My dream for Vanillamore is to have a few locations in Northern Jersey. I don’t yet know if each location would be a replica in a different market, or if each will be unique with its own personality but all still fall in line with the brand. Honestly, I’m anxious to get year one under our belts so that I can take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
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