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Ampersand Women: Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin of Ovenly

August 13, 2014 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

Agatha and Erin at Ovenly. All photos by Lindsay Brown

If you haven’t tasted Ovenly’s salted chocolate chip cookie, you haven’t lived. Named one of New York’s 10 Best Baked Treats by Eater, it helped put the Greenpoint-based bakery on the culinary map. Helmed by Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin—today’s Ampersand Women—Ovenly is now inarguably one of Brooklyn’s most beloved purveyors of all things sweet (and salty).

In less than four years, Agatha and Erin turned their idea (hatched after they met in a food-themed book club) into a 29-person baking company that delivers treats to over 90 cafes, restaurants, and companies on a daily basis, ships nationwide, and is launching its very own cookbook in October 2014.

The M Dash recently caught up with them in their light-filled Greenpoint storefront to talk business and baking—and to inhale a few cookies, of course.

Tell us about Ovenly! How did you get started?
At Ovenly, our philosophy is to explore culinary traditions with an unexpected twist, while thoughtfully melding salty and sweet with a touch of spice. We met at a food-focused book club in 2009, and we instantly started talking entrepreneurship (while eating cupcakes, obviously).

Even before meeting, we had each cooked up thousands of business ideas and tested the culinary waters while working away at our desk jobs. However, none of those ventures worked because they were missing one crucial ingredient: partnership. Only a week after we met, we decided to go into business together. Since then, we’ve never looked back. It wasn’t just flavor combinations and our love of salty-sweet that inspired Ovenly; it was finding one another.

Where did the name come from?

It came from a brainstorm session we had years ago. In fact, we decided on the name before we decided on the company’s direction. The name Ovenly clearly stood out from our other ideas—Fleur de Sel (too boring), Ladyfinger (too weird), and Small Fry (too cutesy).

Did you always know you wanted to run a bakery?

We both knew we wanted to own a food company, but never in a million years did we imagine we would end up owning a bakery. We were thinking something packaged and simple—not the 24-hour, buzzing kitchen and bakeshop that we own today. We also did not foresee our growth. When we started, we were too busy frosting cakes and shaping scone dough to think ahead. It’s only been in the past year or so that we’ve started to comprehend what we’ve created. Now, every day we look at what we’ve done and thank the stars for our luck.

What are a few of the lessons you’ve learned since starting your own business?

1. Be flexible. Owning a business means having a lot of curveballs thrown at you, and you have to be mentally prepared for them.

2. Trust your team. We are constantly meeting with our team to evaluate how we work today, where we hope to grow, and what we need to change to accomplish our business goals.

3. As a business owner, you have to delegate, delegate, delegate. Let go of the small everyday details, trust your team, and focus on growth.

What’s your personality at work in three words?

EP: Funny, stubborn, visionary.

AK: Energetic, goal-driven, snacky.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

EP: An actress. I used to do my house chores while practicing my speech for the Oscars.

AK: It was a toss-up between a professional tap dancer and a psychiatrist. I loved wearing leotards.

When you “grow up,” what do you want to be?

EP: A serial investor. If Ovenly ever goes big, I would love to support other entrepreneurs.

AK: A mentor to other female entrepreneurs—and the owner of a small farm (preferably one that grows avocados).

What’s the best advice you ever got?

EP: One of our business partners, Chuck Westphal, told me, “You’re a $1000-per-hour employee, so only do the $1000-per-hour work.” As a business owner, I should be focusing on growth, rather than taking hours out of my day to drive to the Bronx for wholesale ingredients (I have done this too many times). It’s very easy for me to get caught up in daily details, but I am learning to let go and to delegate the smaller work to my talented staff in order to do the bigger work.

AK: “Don’t look back; look forward.” These are words of wisdom from one of our business partners that I apply to everything I do. As a business owner, I’ve learned not to dwell on mistakes (there have been many!) and instead use those mistakes as learning tools for how to improve going forward.

What do you wish you’d known when you started working?

EP: I wish I had been less risk-averse. When we started, it often took me a long time to make decisions (even some easy ones). Risk-taking is an everyday part of owning a business, and integral to growth. Four years later, I’m much more apt to take a chance and much less afraid to fail than I was when we were starting out.

AK: I wish I had been schooled on the most effective ways to motivate, inspire, and lead a team of people. Owning a bakery involves much more than just baking cookies! Keeping our staff engaged, positive, and productive is an essential component to the growth of our business.

If you could have a power lunch with anyone, who would it be?

EP: Warren Buffett. For every reason.

AK: M.F.K. Fisher. But it would probably end up being more of a really long (and gluttonous) lunch.

If you could have happy hour with anyone, who would it be?

EP: Georges Auguste Escoffier. I could use some pointers on kitchen organization. Plus, he’d probably suggest some good vintages to imbibe.

AK: The first person that ever made butter. That would be fun.

Success is…

EP: …taking a risk to pursue a dream.

AK: …finding balance in work and life, and feeling equally fulfilled in both.

Happiness is…

EP: …my first coffee in the morning.

AK: …finishing our cookbook. It was a joyous moment when it finally went to the printer.

What’s overrated?

EP: Kale salad.

AK: Text messaging and high heels.

What’s underrated?

EP: Humility.

AK: Punctuality.

You say you don’t have mottos. But if you did, what would they be?
EP: “Be the first one to laugh at yourself when you fuck up.”
AK: “Take vacations.”

– Interview by Tory Hoen

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