Rais­ing the bar

What started as a hobby has be­come a suc­cess­ful busi­ness in­spired by de­lec­ta­ble French con­fec­tions

Financial Mail - - ENTREPRENEUR - Adele Shevel shevela@sun­daytimes.co.za

What started as an “in­dul­gent hobby” has taken Karen Sch­neid from an 18-year ca­reer as an ad­vo­cate at the Jo­han­nes­burg bar to cre­at­ing classy, de­lec­ta­ble con­fec­tionery for her brand, Ooh La La.

It of­fers more than 50 prod­ucts, from sub­tle marsh­mal­lows to crunchy nut peb­bles, en­tic­ingly pack­aged with char­ac­ters that tell the “sto­ries” be­hind the prod­ucts.

We meet in what was once the law li­brary in her home, a few steps from her man­u­fac­tur­ing base. Authentic French fur­ni­ture sets the scene. Ex­quis­ite at­ten­tion to de­tail shines though in her home as in her con­fec­tionery.

Sch­neid looks more like some­one ready to trawl fash­ion houses than study the chem­istry of sugar, but that’s part of the charm of her story.

“I never meant to make this into a busi­ness; it was re­ally an in­dul- gent hobby, but hav­ing been at the bar helped.

“Grow­ing up I had an un­cle who was a judge, which ini­tially at­tracted me to the world of law. I knew I wanted to travel and I had ex­pen­sive tastes, so I thought I’d best sup­port my­self,” she says.

Sch­neid was al­ways drawn to the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties in bak­ing, cook­ing and en­ter­tain­ing. Birthday par­ties for her two girls be­came her artis­tic out­let. The par­ties were leg­en­dar­ily lav­ish af­fairs, with in­tri­cately crafted cakes and sweets. “It was never even about who came to the party; it was more about the pro­duc­tion.”

The par­ties took on the theme of a dif­fer­ent coun­try each year. When it was Rus­sia, the con­fec­tionery was in the shape of ma­tryoshka dolls and Fabergé eggs. For Venice, she cre­ated St Mark’s Square. Ev­ery­thing in­volved travel, re­search and learn­ing.

Her jour­ney as con­fec­tioner started in a vil­lage near Aix-en­provence in France, where she fell in love with calis­sons, tra­di­tional French con­fec­tions made of can­died fruit and ground al­monds topped with a thin layer of royal ic­ing. She started cre­at­ing these in her big farm-style kitchen at home.

Sch­neid en­joyed work as an ad­vo­cate. “It’s an ec­cen­tric world. Ev­ery­body works for them­selves, yet you have great in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion, ca­ma­raderie and a sup­port sys­tem.”

But cookie cre­ations beck­oned. “Sit­ting in court one day in the ap­pel­late di­vi­sion in front of five judges, I was dream­ing about my next-flavour marsh­mal­low. It was con­sum­ing.”

She “came out of the con­fec­tionery closet” in 2009, af­ter her hus­band sug­gested sell­ing at a lo­cal mar­ket. She was too em­bar­rassed, so he manned the stall.

“I didn’t re­ally do it as a busi­ness but be­cause I was ob­sessed with it. In the be­gin­ning I would be in court in my robes and in the af­ter­noon I’d be de­liv­er­ing to the back of re­tail out­lets be­hind the bread trucks, so proud.”

Sch­neid de­vel­oped ev­ery­thing from scratch and stud­ied the chem­istry of sugar, sourc­ing the best in­gre­di­ents and learn­ing the authentic way from par­tic­u­lar re­gions of France. She’d learn to make can­died fruit in one French vil­lage one year and head to an­other to mas­ter some­thing else the next year. She trav­els to food fairs around the world and goes to France re­li­giously. Not long ago she searched Japan and found a tiny re­gion with “the best matcha I’ve ever had”.

To­day she has 23 peo­ple work­ing in the busi­ness and not a batch leaves the bak­ery with­out a taste and sign-off from her. “I used to come back from my trav­els with cases of cloth­ing, now it’s equip­ment and in­gre­di­ents.”

Each prod­uct has a char­ac­ter with a charm­ing story. She sourced the il­lus­tra­tor, who lives in the US, from a pic­ture she once saw. “The lit­tle char­ac­ters are im­por­tant, they’re like my chil­dren. I’ve writ­ten sto­ries about them.”

The busi­ness has been prof­itable since 2016. “I put back in as much as I can. I don’t want a part­ner; I don’t want to be funded. The prod­ucts have won 54 Great Taste Awards in the UK, the Os­cars of the food in­dus­try.

“At the bar you can be fi­nan­cially char­i­ta­ble but I am now proud that I create so many jobs. I up­skill my em­ploy­ees, and as a re­sult ev­ery­one is pas­sion­ate about our prod­ucts.”

The fac­tory is part of her fam­ily’s farm-style prop­erty, as if in a French vil­lage — all part of the whim­si­cal world of Ooh La La.

“The science of con­fec­tionery is pre­cise, there is a lot that can go wrong,” she says.

That might be, but when you taste it, there’s so much that can go so right.

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