Interview with Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections

We wanted to dedicate this Mother’s Day to all the moms who work to make your special day a little sweeter. Valerie Gordon and Christine Moore began as confectioners who grew their small candy businesses into successful cafes, restaurants and carefully curated shops, all while raising kids and employing dozens of people.

Valerie Gordon has always been a force of nature. She and her partner Stan run Valerie Confections in Silver Lake, Valerie at Grand Central Market and Valerie Echo Park.

I interviewed Valerie to find out more about how her childhood, mother and mothering has channeled her creativity and drive.

Good morning Valerie! Thank you for taking the time to talk. I’m so intrigued by your story. What was your childhood like?

My childhood was a little non-traditional. I am the youngest of 4 girls. I grew up in San Francisco and would say that the most discerning aspect of my childhood was a lack of definition. I did not receive an enormous amount of instruction or limitations.

Was there anything that did define your upbringing?

One of the big things that informed my childhood was my mixed race. There was no one cultural thing or norm that I had to follow. We are who we are. The #1 question I would get from people in the 70s was “What are you?”.  There weren’t a lot of mixed kids, we were the anomaly. I really look back at my childhood as a life without a preordained future.  As the youngest child, I was left alone a lot to figure things out. I started baking when I was 8 by myself. So I really enjoyed making things in the kitchen and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. I would read a cookbook and I would follow that pictures. I never used toys or easy bake ovens.

Did you bake to pass the time, to challenge yourself or because you wanted to share?

Every Wednesday I would bake cookies and Thursday would bring them to school and share them with my friends. I loved baking desserts and giving them to people.

Tell me a little about your mom.

My mom is unorthodox. She is an incredibly liberal, very strong woman. She is a very hard worker. My mom did office work when I was a kid, and when I was 16 she bought a café in the suburbs. She has since owned a series of small restaurants.

Did she manage the restaurants or cook?

My mom mostly cooked. My mom is very spirited. She has a lot of energy, sort of a go-for-it kind of lady. She still lives in San Francisco. As a mother, she directed us towards a level of self-sufficiency rather than dependence. My mom has a very logical mind. And she had four girls in five years.

Four girls in 5 years?! What traits do you think you inherited from her? And her mother?

My grandmother did not speak English. We were not taught Chinese, so though we knew her we were not very close. She was very smart.  She immigrated from China and was also a business owner; she had a sewing factory (chuckle), it wasn’t a sweatshop! My grandmother and mother have both lead their own careers.

I think that my work ethic is a trait I inherited from my mother. I have a tireless work ethic. I am unrelenting, and I recognize that not everyone is built like me, I have a very specific level of energy, like my mom. My daily commitment to working really hard comes from her.

Were both your parents in the food business?

No. My mother owned a few small restaurants, but not until I was older. My grandfather, who was an immigrant, held down three restaurant jobs. He saved every penny, worked hard, bought property and had all his kids and grandchildren went to college. So yes, the food industry was a part of my family history.

What was the food culture like in your home?

Everything was fresh. We went to the farmers’ market on Alemany. My mom cooked a lot of traditional Chinese food and everything was homemade. Eating quality food was a philosophy that was encouraged.

Did your parents encourage you to bake?

People always commented on my ability to bake anything. There was always acknowledgement of my ability to make desserts, and it was interesting because it wasn’t something that everyone in the family did. My sister, for example, was a tomboy who raced cars and played baseball.

So how did you happen upon the business of chocolate and confections? Did you go to culinary school?

I was an actress and a yoga teacher, but I also always worked in food. It was the thing that I was always supposed to do and I kept denying it. When I stopped denying it is when everything fell into place.

Was there one particular event or catalyst that made your start your own business?

I would say that there were a number of factors. I came to the realization that I really disliked acting and that I wasn’t really good at it. It’s what I studied and got a degree in, but I didn’t have a burning desire to act, whereas I always felt that way about food, particularly desserts. It was really growing up, getting a little more honest with myself and about how I wanted to live that changed things. I went through a period of illness and I think that period forced me to look at my life and what I wanted to do with it. It definitely gave me a sense of urgency.

How did you start Valerie Confections?

Stan and I were making these elaborate food gifts, baskets filled with fancy products. We branded everything Tall and Small productions. We had a logo, cards, we had the packaging and made all the products. At a certain point, people starting saying that we needed to do this for real.

I remember meeting you for the first time at Surfas – their first location over 13 years ago – and noticing how clean and professional your branding was as you were merchandising your toffees. What did you start with?

We needed to start a company and we started with luxury chocolates. I had always been really into specialty foods and packaging; the branding and execution of it all. We created this company from a bunch of different elements: design, packaging, the experience of it and the baking. I don’t just like to bake, I love to put together the entire thing, so we created a company around that. And we saw a hole in the market.

Describe a typical day at work.

Well, it’s interesting. It’s a big juggle and a life of constant compromise. However, the great thing about owning your own business is that you create your own schedule. What I think is great about the food industry is that you can incorporate your kids in the best way. Bringing the kids to the farmers market, selling and working –  it’s a very consistent thing in the food industry that you don’t see in a lot of other industries.

I tend to get up early. I check in with a couple of my kitchens and I really rely on a lot of technology to keep me informed. I walk our son to school. I really love walking him to school and having that time with him.

Then I come back and spend 1 hour responding to emails, suppliers, clients, catering proposals. I handle all the marketing and media stuff. I prefer to do it from home and then my day can take a variety of directions. I try to be at just one or two of our locations per day. I might be developing recipes, meetings, fiscal analysis.  It’s any number of things under a huge umbrella.

I wind that down around 4:30, pick up my kids and at that point my daughter loves to go to the gym with me. She plays while I work out. Then I come home, or I will go straight home and deal with homework and dinner. 5:30-8pm is really just about family stuff. Dinner, homework, reading, bedtime. After the kids go to bed I go back to work from 8:30-11:30, dealing with all sorts of coordination for the following day as the CEO and creative direction of my company.

How do you and Stan handle childcare?

We don’t have any family here, which is hard. We rely on after school care activities. The one thing that is hard about owning a business in food and having kids is that times when a lot of families have time together off, we don’t. We work every Saturday, so our kids are generally with a nanny on Saturdays. We reserve Sundays as family days. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas the four of us are never together; Stan and I are constantly switching off.

Do you think that you would be a different business owner without having had children?

For sure. I don’t know what direction that would be though. Women who have children just structure their lives very differently. More travel would have been involved, and we would probably have more locations. I never envision my life without my family.

Do you want your children to go into the business?

Both our kids, at times, have said that they want to work at Valerie when they grow up. I would be absolutely fine with that. I think that it is one of the most dynamic industries. They love it, they don’t resent it. August is our number one biggest fan. They definitely have a lot of respect for how hard we work and love coming to our locations. They are very familial with all of the staff. It teaches social skills, math, work ethic and how we pay for everything. They’re into it and I wouldn’t steer them away from it.

What is your favorite Mother’s Day memory?

Growing up, we always got my mom See’s Candy, so I would say there is a very deep connection between See’s Victorian Toffee and Mother’s Day for me. I love receiving beautiful, handmade cards from my kids.

Do you work on Mother’s Day?

No. And that is probably the one day when I do not work.  I don’t care about birthdays, but on Mother’s Day, I want to enjoy my family.

What are you doing across your businesses for Mother’s Day?

A lot of gift sets that have a variety of products: chocolates, tea, teacups. Our historic cakes are really popular on Mother’s Day because they tie generations.

That is such a neat idea. Which cakes are the most popular?

The Blum’s Coffee Crunch, because sons will get it for their moms who used to go to Blum’s. And the Rose Petal Petit Fours.

At our Echo Park location the croque madame is most popular, and this year we will have them at the Grand Central Market location for Mother’s Day as well.