The Confectional: Batter Up

Co-owners Destiny Sund and Paul Verano
Seattle is loaded with sweet treat shops and stops, but only one allows you to actually confess your love for cheesecake: The Confectional. "We hear, 'The Confectional: Confess Your Love for Cheesecake,' all day long," laughs owner Paul Verano, referring to his shop's catchy tag-line.

It all started with a tiny store front in Pike Place Market discernible only by the wafting smells of chocolate and a little hanging sign with the punny name. "Everybody has to read it and then they laugh, and then they take a picture, and then they take a picture of the cheesecakes."

By no means a trained pastry chef, Verano says it was his friends who got him passionate about opening a store for his famous treats that have been the star of just about every party since he started baking. Around the same time Verano pulled his first cheesecake out of the oven in college, he met his best friend Destiny who, ironically, would become the co-owner of a successful confectionery which he would open years later in a bustling city apparently in need of bite-sized sugar hits.

In this week's Grillaxin, Verano talks about the most challenging holiday to bake for, the two questions he's asked most, and why he wouldn't have been able to survive without his new second location.

SW: December 6th marks your five-year anniversary. What has surprised you most since you opened in 2006?

Verano: What we didn't expect from the get-go was getting on television and how that would affect business. We've been featured on a couple of different shows including Unique Sweets. What we didn't expect was the amount of people that came to Pike Place Market to get our cheesecakes from that show. I didn't know it worked quite like that! We had a crazy busy summer because Unique Sweets kept re-airing our show, so things like that were a bit of a surprise.

Sund: Paul came up with the name The Confectional and when I was designing the logo I decided it needed a tag line so I came up with, "Confess Your Love For Cheesecake." And when I was working in Pike Place Market everyday, which I did for about three years, I didn't expect to hear [that phrase] so often! Every other person: "Confess your love for cheesecake?" I didn't expect for people to get so involved and fall so in love with what we do and just people walking past the display case, they're like, "I have a cheesecake confession!" And I was like, "Alright. I'll listen."

Verano: I think the name and the tag line and all the little things that create our brand, the surprise was really how enamored people are with it. I mean, we hear laughter all day long. I suspect that when you walk by olive oil you probably think, "Ooh, olive oil, that sounds good," but people don't go, "Olive oil!"

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The counter and kitchen of the new Capitol Hill space.
When did the new place on Capitol Hill open?

June 4th was our grand opening.

Why did you open it?

Verano: Because we were completely busting at the seams at Pike Place Market. We were at the point where we were about to not be able to physically handle it. We were packed to the gills just with our own product to support ourselves in The Market. On top of that we get catering orders, and on top of that we get corporate orders, and then, of course, the weddings--they doubled from last year. So, we actually opened this space just in time to handle all of that because literally this summer, like mid-July, we could not have fit another tray of cheesecakes in our refrigerators at Pike Place.

Sund: Pike Place Market is so seasonal and during the summer months we have to get very creative space-wise and that's just to serve the throngs of people out front. And like Paul said, we've gotten so popular with weddings there would have been no way we could have pulled off the amount of weddings and catering business we received.

Verano: This really happened at the right time and we wanted to get a large enough space that we could grow into it even more. We have three giant refrigerators in the back and we actually have room for more if we need them. It's all in the planning!

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Photo by Julien Perry
Do you find it weird that nobody in Seattle has copied you...yet?

Verano: Our [cheesecakes] are unique in that they're an all-natural product. They're artisan and handmade. I know there are other mini-cheesecakes out there, but I've tried some and they really aren't the same caliber because if you read the ingredients list, they're kind of up there whereas ours starts with three ingredients. That's it. I know people who have tried to make these at home and it's just arms in the air because it's not an easy product to make.

Is it still the same ingredients as when you opened? Still no hydrogenated-oils (he uses Maria biscuits from Spain for his crust)?

Verano: Yep! Our product is cumbersome to make. It's expensive to make. It's far more expensive than a cupcake, for example. I don't know exact numbers, but I think to produce a standard cupcake is about 20-cents. That's what I think the ingredients probably cost. It's not even close for us. I think to make the kind of money that a cupcake place might make we would have to charge $8 for an individual-sized cheesecake. And that's not going to sell.

So, are you making good money?

Verano: I think our cost of goods are higher than others, but we're doing fine. We just know that we're giving people a quality product versus making a mint off of them. We're not going to sacrifice quality ingredients to make more of a profit.

Do your friends know you as the guy who can create amazing desserts?

Verano: Yeah. Before I actually ever made a cheesecake, I used to make a lot of cakes and tortes for friends and for parties. In college, people would come over to my place knowing that they were probably going to be eating some giant, decadent chocolate cake. It wasn't until I was about 19-years old that I tried making cheesecake for the first time, which was cookies and mint chocolate, and that was kind of the beginning of that love affair.

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Photo by Destiny Sund
Pumpkin cheesecake.
What are your most popular flavors?

Verano: Pumpkin. When we have the pumpkin it outsells everything else by far. Our normal number-one seller is raspberry white chocolate followed by New York style. There are a couple of holidays that are hard to bake for, like Halloween. What does Halloween taste like? I can't stand candy corn. I thought about caramel apple which we've tried a couple of different times, but I can't get the apple the way I want it. We've tried it with apple sauce, apple flavoring, dried apples, fresh apples--and I just can't get what I want out of it.

Any strange recipe requests?

Verano: Not really. The thing we're asked the most is, "Do you give out your recipes?" and "Will you franchise?" We have some people who email us a couple times a year to check in to see if we're franchising yet. Ultimately, our goal is to grow, but we don't know what our growth will necessarily look like. It could be a few more stores, it could be getting into grocery stores, like in the frozen food section which I would love because the mini-cheesecakes freeze really well!

When do you start developing your holiday flavors?

Verano: The pumpkin is three months out of the year. We originally wanted pumpkin from November to December but people start asking for it in August, so we decided October first is the start of pumpkin cheesecake season. Traditionally [for the holidays], we've done a cranberry white chocolate with cardamom cheesecake and an eggnog cheesecake, which is tricky because you're reproducing a drink. Other flavors that have been requested that I do want to try are red velvet, gingerbread, tiramisu. There's a wedding coming up that wants us to do baklava. We did peanut butter and jelly for back-to-school.

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Photo by Julien Perry
What advice do you have for someone who wants to open their own specialty sweet shop?

Verano: Everyone should definitely pursue what they want to do. On a side note, Destiny and I regularly receive emails and calls from people who basically want to replicate what we're doing in other cities and other countries. We get a lot of requests for franchising around the world. The Unique Sweets show has been translated into several languages and has been airing internationally, and we get people telling us they saw us and asking us if we share our recipes. We don't. But I want to encourage everyone to, of course, pursue their dreams, but people are starting to ask us not only for the recipes, but where we get our packaging, where we source our ingredients.

Sund: We gotta have some secrets! I think Paul's right, you have to follow your dreams and be passionate about it. I think one of the more important things to take a look at is whether or not what you're doing is faddish or has some longevity to it. The dessert industry especially is a bit on the fickle side and we do have people who say, "Individual desserts are a fad" and our response to that is, "Cheesecake is classic."

Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin as Paul Verano shares his recipe for No-Bake Cookies.

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