After her first semester at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Gina Conedera discovered that going to school in Vegas from her native Portland, Oregon, was not for her. She left school, moved back in with her parents in Portland and began baking to keep herself busy. She enjoyed it so much that she decided she wanted to try culinary school. Ten years later, she’s gone from being a pastry chef to owning her own food consulting business, Pavé Consulting, and starting her own specialty food business, Chunky Pig.
Gina’s formal pastry training began when she apprenticed at a local bakery in Portland to prepare for culinary school. After being at the bakery for about a year, her first mentor was able to convince her that she didn’t need to go to culinary school to do pastry. Instead, she’s gotten her education from the chefs she’s worked with along the way.
“I was lucky in that I was able to learn from three very different styles of pastry chefs. One was very precise and into details so I learned how to work that way. Another was a hot mess—he would say ‘Here’s a 25-lb. box of pears—what are we going to do with it?’” she said.
Gina trained as an assistant at bakeries in Portland for about three years, and then struck out on her own and began working as the head pastry chef at a number of restaurants throughout the city. After moving to the Bay Area to be with a former boyfriend, she also did stints as the pastry chef at B44 in San Francisco and at Barlata in Temescal.
But the recent economic downturn was no more kind to pastry chefs than to many other workers. According to Gina, pastry chefs are often the first to go in a restaurant kitchen if there’s a need to lay off staff. After being laid off herself, she decided to begin consulting and offering her pastry skills and knowledge to restaurants that no longer had pastry chefs on staff but were relying on line cooks to design desserts. In addition to offering classes and onsite instruction as a part of Pavé Consulting, she works with restaurants to design dessert menus and writes recipes for different food businesses. She also caters special events, complete with custom desserts and does the occasional wedding cake for people who, as she says, want a cake that tastes great instead of just looking pretty. She enjoys consulting because she can work directly with her clients to develop something specific for them and their occasion.
It was a consulting gig that led Gina to start Chunky Pig, her candied bacon treats business, after one of the early executives from Facebook contracted with her to do desserts for a school fundraiser. The theme was childhood favorites, so one of the menu items she came up with was a candied bacon caramel corn, a definite twist on an old standby. She received such good feedback on the bacon caramel corn she decided to put it in a bag and sell it.
“That was the extent of my research. That’s really typical of me—I just figure it out. Had I sat down with a business plan, I probably wouldn’t have done it!”
Instead she forged ahead with her idea to make bacon-themed treats, and she hasn’t looked back. Her specialties include Candied Bacon Caramel Corn (with or without peanuts), Dark Chocolate and Candied Bacon Cookies and Candied Bacon Chocolate Bark. A version of the bark with peanuts is due to come out soon.
In just over a year, she’s put her product in stores such as Bi-Rite, both Oakville Grocery branches, Bryan’s Grocery in Laurel Heights, and through Farm Fresh to You at the Ferry Building. She’s even painted the Chunky Pig logo onto the side of her MINI Cooper, which gets her a lot of questions at stoplights, she said. She’s also outgrown the space at her first commercial kitchen (Clarine’s Florentines in Albany). Currently working out of the Kitchener Oakland space, Gina launched a Kickstarter campaign last May to try to build her own kitchen, and was able to surpass her goal by $1000, raising a total of $13K for her own kitchen. Between consulting gigs and running Chunky Pig, she’s now researching spaces where she can build her own kitchen.
Gina says the synergy that seems to flow between Pavé Consulting and Chunky Pig provides not only balance for her, but extra business. Often a connection for one leads to a connection for the other.
“Lots of things that have happened have been accidental,” she said. “But it’s gone pretty well—it’s gone really well!”
What drew you to food?
I did my first year of college at UNLV, and I hated it. I moved back in with my parents, and I was just depressed. I took a semester off and started baking from morning until night. I wanted to try all these recipes, and our food bill was like $300 a week, but it helped me get out of my funk. When we were growing up, I had to cook three nights a week—I was in third grade and cooking three nights a week—it was my chore. At first I had do to it, then it saved me—from there I decided to go to culinary school. I was good at it and that always helps you want to pursue something.
Why bacon candies?
Everybody thinks you just jumped on the bacon bandwagon, but I’ve always been the kind of pastry chef who walks the line of sweet and salty.
My husband and I got a bacon chocolate bar—I won’t say what kind—and it was just horrible, and I thought ‘I could do better than this!’” I started messing around with a cookie, and then I started messing with other recipes. Then the party came up, and I tried it and it worked!
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Honestly it really comes from my colleagues, especially at a place like Kitchener. A lot of people there didn’t go to culinary school, but to watch what they do and their techniques, it makes me think, ‘Oh, I wonder what I can do with this.’ Watching people work, going out to dinner, I really try to pay attention to what other people are doing and use that—just taking bits and pieces.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Advice I would give—that one’s easy. Ask as many questions as you can. It feels weird to send email to people you haven’t met and ask for their advice, but I’d just say get over yourself and ask as many questions as you can.
My husband gives me advice on the daily. He’s telling me, ‘oh you should do this,’ and we’ll argue about it, but then when I sit with it, it often makes sense. He’s given me a lot of business advice. He’s opened my mind to doing things a different way than sometimes I initially feel.
I’ve gotten a lot of great advice—sometimes you don’t know what’s good until later.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
My god, just one? I think the biggest challenge is me—sometimes I get in my own way. I get hung up on where I should be in the business, and I don’t cut myself a break or celebrate the successes I have had. I’m always looking at what’s the next thing, and I don’t necessarily think about really trying to enjoy the process and not get bogged down by all the things I don’t know and what I haven’t achieved yet.
The other one is getting consistent information about what is required, like for the FDA. Going through all these huge documents and figuring out what you should be doing, how do things apply on a small level for a cottage business.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
That it’s mine. It’s both the best part and the biggest challenge that every decision is mine. I love that, but there are some days where I just want someone to tell me what to do. But I marvel at the fact that this is something I did and people go into a store and there’s something I made on the shelf and people are liking it. That’s pretty cool. And my car…
What’s your favorite treat on your menu?
I like ‘em all ‘cause otherwise I wouldn’t be selling them! Candied bacon caramel corn with peanuts and then for the holidays the bark. Now, I’m going to make a bar with the logo. During the holidays—chocolate with the caramel corn and broken into pieces.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Clarine of Clarine’s Florentines. She looked at my first package, and she was so nice about it. She said ‘You’re missing some things on here—the weight, ingredients, etc.’ She was so nice and gracious and willing to help, and she forwarded all these links to things to help me figure things out. I owe a lot to her. She has a great product. She does one thing, and she does it really well and [her commercial kitchen business] has come out of that. She needs to write a book about starting your own business!
Savor Oakland Food Tours. They have my product on their tour. They find local artisans, and they make us part of the route. It’s all about Oakland and local food artisans. They buy the product and don’t ask for it for free, and he gives the product to hotels and markets the product for me. Carlo Medina—he’s just a very proud Oaklander. He and his wife run it, and he’s give me a lot of info about Twitter and Facebook. He’s doing the best he can to promote us.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would probably be the meatballs at Boot and Shoe Service. Unfortunately—or fortunately—they are a block from my house and whenever we go out to eat, we never get past them! They do meatballs with country bread stuck in the side, and they are the best! And banana cream pie—my own!
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Sunday morning, a cup of coffee and doughnuts from Doughnut Dolly—the naughty cream—that’s it. Just with my husband, drinking coffee, eating those—that sets a really good tone. The days off are rare, so that’s how I like to start them.
Chunky Pig treats are available either wholesale via the Chunky Pig website or via retail outlets such as Bi-Rite, Bryan’s Grocery, Grand Lake Kitchen, Oaklandish, Piedmont Grocery, Oakville Grocery in the Bay Area, as well as locations throughout Portland. For a full list of wholesalers, see the locations section of the website.
All recipes and photos copyright of Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes unless otherwise noted.