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East West Lifestyle

Hang & Eat: Mr. and Mrs. Creamery’s Unexpected Business Pivot

August 20, 2020
What started as the bake sale to keep business afloat turned into a successful business venture

How a blockbuster Chinese tofu pudding recipe dug out of the archives put a dessert business back on track

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic started, James Lee and his wife, Jean, were happily running their successful dessert catering company, Mr. and Mrs. Creamery. They were well-known in the events and wedding space and were regularly featured in wedding blogs for their multi-tier cakes, ice cream spreads, push pops, macarons, and generally highly Instagrammable dessert creations. The Lees started Mr. and Mrs. Creamery in 2012 after the duo tied the knot. Their respective culinary training made them a force to be reckoned with. Both attended Le Cordon Bleu, but James specialized in savory, and Jean in sweets. He worked under Chef Michael Cimarusti at Providence and she under David LeFevre of Water Grill fame. The two took their impressive culinary resumes and transferred it to their own business.

All was well until March, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that all bars and restaurants needed to shut down due to the pandemic, and everyone was ordered to shelter in place. All of a sudden, Mr. and Mrs. Creamery’s calendar was completely wiped out. From March to June, the Lees had 65 pre-booked weddings that were forced to cancel. Luckily, all 65 clients ultimately decided to postpone their weddings to later dates. But the pandemic left their formerly busy business high and dry right at the height of the wedding season.

James Lee

“At first, we thought this shelter in place would only last a few weeks. We didn’t know the situation, so I just told my guys that I would try my best to keep them busy,” James said.

His goal at that time was to keep his team of 10 employed and working so that they could stay on track to service their customers when events started again. It would make it much easier if James could keep his original team to avoid having to retrain new people.

And that was how the “Be Safe Bake Sale” was born.

“At that time, I thought of the bake sale concept as a way to do marketing for Mr. and Mrs. Creamery, a glass-half-full situation. It’d be a wash. We didn’t know this would go on for three-plus months or that it would blow up,” he said.

Vietnamese coffee cheesecake

James told his team that they would use this bake sale as marketing exposure for the company and not to expect much revenue from it. Even the name “Be Safe Bake Sale” was just thrown together haphazardly.

Since everyone was at home at the time, the Lees wanted to do something homey. They wracked their heads thinking of a menu that could adapt to the times. To avoid having to spend extra time or money on research and development, Jean suggested that James use an old dessert that he had created and entered into a competition years ago as the star of their bake sale menu. James went digging through an old cabinet where he threw old recipes and found his tofu flower cheesecake recipe on a 3-by-5-inch notecard.

Inspired by his late father’s favorite dessert (douhua, a.k.a. Chinese tofu pudding), James entered a Cathay Pacific Airways competition in 2007, in which the winning dessert would be offered on the airline’s in-flight menu. James’ modern take on the traditional Chinese dessert ended up coming in second in the competition and did not make the airline’s menu. The winner at the time won with a molecular gastronomy dish. Reflecting back, James believes that his dish was ahead of its time.

Tofu flower cheesecake

“Having tofu and cream cheese was too farfetched for people to accept at the time. There really wasn’t an awareness of vegans and vegetarians and gluten-free, like the way we have now, back in 2007. People weren’t nearly as health-conscious as they are now,” James said.

And it seems as though he was right. Indeed, James appears to have gotten the last laugh. The tofu flower cheesecake and his various permutations of it have been a hit. Most recently, fan-favorite chef Melissa King won “Top Chef” with her Hong Kong milk tea tiramisu, a flavor that James also has on rotation at Mr. and Mrs. Creamery as part of the “Be Safe Bake Sale.”

James didn’t expect it to sell as well as it did. In fact, for the first two weeks, James was taking orders on Post-Its by hand—he didn’t think he would get that many orders. All he wanted to do was cover basic utilities. It wasn’t even officially posted online.

But then it blew up. Thousands of orders came in.

The Lees had to quickly switch to a new platform to handle the orders. Picking up an order of tofu cheesecake became like a speakeasy experience. Ordering from Mr. and Mrs. Creamery feels like you’re in on a little secret. Since the business was never set up to be a storefront, even the pickup process is almost like going to a speakeasy. It’s exciting and brings great joy for customers in the midst of a pandemic.

The pickup location is a warehouse in Arcadia. There’s a small sign that is easy to miss. Blink, and you’d drive right past it. But that’s the way the Lees wanted it.

“We don’t want people ringing the doorbell. If we were in normal times, we’d be working on wedding cakes Monday to Friday. On weekends, we’re out in the field at events. We’re doing our thing. The only time we have customers normally drop in is by appointment for cake tastings,” James said.

Tofu cheesecakes

James wanted to go back to his fine-dining roots, where the menu would rotate and change every week. The tofu flower cheesecake is the only item that never changes. All other flavors and desserts are rotated in and out, and each tofu cheesecake takes about two to three hours to make. James does a weekly Instagram Live to update his followers on the upcoming week’s offerings. Every Sunday night, the menu goes live on the Tock website, where it quickly sells out.

So far, James has put some very unique tofu cheesecake flavors on the menu, like hojicha, pandan coconut sago, black sesame coconut, matcha, Vietnamese coffee, taro and ube, black tea boba and mango sago. For the upcoming fall season and autumn festival, they have added lotus seed tofu cheese cake into the menu mix, inspired by the traditional mooncake, and made with lotus seed and topped with grated salty egg yolk and a white chocolate moon. Besides the silky texture of the tofu cheesecake, the thick, graham cracker-like crust is what many customers are raving about. James boasts that the thickness lets people know that they are making these by hand, not by machine or store bought.

In addition to the cakes, other must-orders include their artisan pies, sorbet push pops and ice cream. One of the very popular ice cream flavors has been the White Rabbit condensed milk ice cream, which is sold by the pint. James was inspired to make ice cream a part of the Mr. and Mrs. Creamery menu when he spent two months eating ice cream up and down the East Coast, from Toronto all the way down to Georgia, for inspiration. His ice creams never use any preservatives or stabilizers because he believes in using good ingredients and keeping everything simple.

White Rabbit condensed milk ice cream with cookies

With the success of the bake sale, the biggest question has been if they intend to keep it running.

“I realize that if not for COVID, most people might not know about us. When we do eventually go back to normal, hopefully people may need our services for future events,” James said.

Ultimately, James said that he will have to gauge what the demand is when that day comes. He knows that if weddings return full swing, they certainly could not continue this newfound venture. If enough people want his tofu cheesecakes, he may entertain the idea of making a monthly or bi-monthly pop-up.

To take advantage of the bake sale while it’s still in progress, make sure to place an order on the Tock website, and check out James’s weekly Sunday IG announcements on what the special tofu cheesecake flavor of the week will be!

Hang & Eat with our food blogger Kristie Hang as she explores the latest East West food trends

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