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The couple opened a small cafe in New York: now their business brings in $50 million a year


ForumDaily New York

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Eliza Marshall and Benjamin Sormonte spent all their savings to open a cafe in New York in 2014. Last year their business brought in almost $50 million, reports CNBC.


“It was a little dream: we needed to open one cute, quirky and cozy coffee shop“, admitted Marshall.

"Quirky" little a cafe in the fashionable Soho district of Manhattan they called it Maman. It's now a fast-growing bakery-café chain with sales of about $34 million at its 47,2 locations last year.

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Oprah Winfrey mentioned Maman's pecan chocolate chip cookies on her 2017 "Favorite Things" list. This helped the new brand gain national recognition. But Marshall and Sormonte, a married couple with two children, firmly believe that the atmosphere, beyond coffee and baked goods, is what sets Maman apart from its many competitors.

Atmosphere at home

Maman means "mother" in French, a reference to the home-cooked meals that mothers prepared as children. Marshall grew up in the Toronto and Sormont area in the south of France.

According to Eliza, the name of their cafe evokes “a feeling of warmth and home, which is exactly the atmosphere we were going for.”

“You come here for the atmosphere, for the beauty of the space,” she noted. – Good food and coffee are easy to find in many places. So you need something beyond that.”

Childhood in the kitchen

When the couple met in Montreal in 2011, Sormonte was a corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer at an international law firm. Marshall worked full-time in marketing and part-time in event planning and interior design.

After a short period of helping friends run a beach club in Ibiza, Spain, the couple moved to New York in 2012 to open their own restaurant.

“We asked ourselves: who is our favorite chef? We both answered “mom” in the sense that we both grew up in the kitchen with our mothers,” Sormonte explained.

The couple started out with Michelin-starred chef Armand Arnal, a friend of Sormonte's. They worked to create a menu of French classics from their childhoods. For example, the cafe serves quiche and tartine, as well as family recipes such as Marshall's chocolate chip cookies. Some products, as Elisa says, have a “fun twist.”

“The salty chocolate chip cookie sandwich with white chocolate ganache is like a fancier French version of an Oreo,” she elaborated.

Their business inexperience showed from the very beginning. Sormonte and Marshall didn't know how much it would cost to open a cafe in New York. They ended up spending $250—emptying their savings—so they borrowed money from family and friends.

“This was one of the biggest financial risks we could ever take,” Marshall said. “We really took a big risk by investing not only all our money, but all our time and energy.”

"The Most Impressive Cookies in New York"

The couple and some of their family helped build Maman's first location. They painted the walls and installed the baking equipment, as Sormonte says, “with sweat, blood, tears and love.”

When the cafe opened in 2014, the couple focused entirely on running the business. Their long days began at 6 a.m. baking the day's produce and ended at 8 p.m. preparing dough for the next morning.

Opening the business required “a lot of sacrifice,” Sormonte said. They worked 80 hours a week, no days off and no pay. They were "very lucky" to receive financial help from family and live in a nearby apartment in New York's Tribeca neighborhood.

Despite the sacrifices, Sormonte remembers those early days fondly.

“When you start, you want to be here every minute,” he shared. “Because we did it all together, we became special.”

A month after the opening, an article appeared on New York Magazine's food blog Grub Street. She advertised "the most exciting new chocolate chip cookies in New York" from Maman. The praise brought in a wave of customers. In its first full year, the cafe generated approximately $2 million in revenue.

Stand out in the industry

In 2015, feeling "close to burnout" from working long hours, the couple hired additional staff and brought in outside investors. The capital injection began with $1,5 million from Sormonte's brother Julien, managing partner of the Parisian hotel group.

By 2020, Maman had multiple locations in New York and Canada, and had a deal with private equity firm TriSpan for between $10 million and $20 million in funding. This money helped Maman expand - the couple opened cafes in Florida, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Marshall and Sormonte retained a 50% + 1 share controlling interest in the business.

As Maman gets bigger, so does the level of competition in the American coffee shop market. The couple hopes Maman's style will help her stand out. Its premises also serve as venues for various kinds of events. Events and catering account for about 20% of the company's revenue.

Sormonte and Marshall sell the Maman cookbook and clothing, including children's clothing, among other items. They collaborate with the children's clothing brand Lalo. The company hopes to generate total revenue of $65 million this year.

The couple plans to open new locations and expand Maman beyond the cafe.

One option is to sell Maman dishes, as well as vases, candles and other household goods.

“My vision for Maman is more than just a regular restaurant with four walls,” summarizes Marshall. “I really see us growing into a multifaceted lifestyle brand.”

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