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Alabama Small Business Development Center Network

L’Etoile Patisserie

L'Etoile Patisserie HuntsvilleFrom 30-Year Army Career to French Pastry Chef: L’Etoile Patisserie

In a surprising turn of events, Kevin Zurmuehlen bid farewell to his 30-year military career and embraced an unexpected path as a flourishing French pastry chef. Sparked by inspiration from “The Great British Baking Show,” Kevin, driven by a genuine love for acquiring new skills, decided to venture into the world of baking, a realm entirely unfamiliar to him. Undeterred by his lack of prior kitchen experience, he saw baking as a fresh and enjoyable challenge to undertake.

With enthusiasm as his guide, Kevin delved into online recipes, experimenting with various confections and documenting his culinary journey through captivating visuals on social media. Through this newfound passion, he shared the sweetness of his creations with family and friends, turning his retirement into a delectable adventure. He was presented with an opportunity to complete an educational certification as a Pastry Chef through the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. After a 20-year active duty career in the Army and an additional 10 years of service as a Department of the Army Civilian after that, Kevin reinvented himself and the new title of Chef Kevin was born. Kevin and his wife, Kristen started putting together a list of tasks to have a bakery business.

Kevin said, “That daunting list of tasks and requirements led us to seek counsel with our local SBDC, a decision we have not regretted to this day.”

Kevin and Kristen began working with SBDC in early March of 2020 attending the “Starting a Small Business in Alabama” class.

Kevin exclaimed, “My wife and I left that class armed with not only the initial information needed to get us started down the right path to business ownership, but we also gained a level of personal encouragement from the SBDC staff and guest speakers that gave us the necessary confidence to move forward in our efforts with hope and expectation. Knowing that we had a local group of knowledgeable and willing supporters as partners going forward was, and is, an incredible asset that has only enhanced our capabilities to build relationships in support of our community.”

a doughnut on a plateShortly after Kevin graduated from culinary school, the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed nationally in response to the pandemic. Kevin recognized that opening a bakery in the middle of a pandemic and mandatory restaurant closures was a bit crazy. “Our SBDC advisor recommended that we open as a Cottage Food Law business out of our home kitchen while waiting for the pandemic to subside and the brick-and-mortar location of L’Etoile Patisserie be built out and ready for operations.”

Operating out of their home kitchen presented an opportunity to start building relationships and brand recognition in the community, and also allowed for the opportunity to practice and learn how to bake in a grander scope and scale. During their operations as a home bakery, from May 2020 to May 2021, they completed over 6000 orders for over 4200 customers, primarily through social media interactions and through their website, a bunch of food on a table

When they opened their full-service bakery in July 2021, the line was blocks long and they’ve been consistently busy ever since. The bakery is located in a HUBZone and the community response greatly exceeded the owner’s expectations. The time they spent baking at home and growing their brand paid off. After 2 years in operation, the make-up of daily customers averages 30% new customers and 70% returning customers. Word of mouth and social media have been big drivers of their success. The success has had challenges as they initially sold out very quickly almost daily. As a result, they had to learn how to scale and process very quickly, growing from 2 owners and 2 part-time employees working in the shop to 2 owners, 14 part-time and 4 full-time employees in very short order to meet demand from the community. Over time, efficiency in product quality, facility space, and staffing at consistent levels became easier. Kevin said, “Our SBDC continues to maintain supportive communication with us and they will be our primary source of business counsel as we maintain and grow our business efforts in the future.”

The L’Etoile Patisserie bakery is having a big impact on the HUBZone community where they are located. Chef Kevin makes a personal effort to engage with customers as they enjoy their time in the shop. These interactions have taught Kevin the importance of recognizing and valuing customers. The importance of customer service through personal interactions includes listening to customers’ personal stories with their memories of their “time in Paris” or “like my grandma made” nostalgia. They strive to maintain a level of authenticity consistent with the stringent standards of a European pastry chef. It is the entire L’Etoile team’s commitment to quality that makes our bakery a community favorite.

a cake with fruit on top of a tableAs a veteran, Chef Kevin said “I appreciate the support that our community provides to veterans, and in turn, to veteran-owned businesses. While we do not actively promote my veteran status as a part of our daily operations, we certainly recognize that this distinction and status is important to a large majority of our customer base.”

What a wonderful journey from a “warrior” to a French Pastry Chef, Kevin, said he and his wife, “remain eternally thankful for the support from and interaction with our local SBDC advisors. Our SBDC is a repository of local support, encouragement, and knowledge that would be of benefit to any individual seeking to pursue entrepreneurial efforts as a part of their career development.”

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