f there was a list of the most daunting obstacles to making it big in Orange County, these items would likely appear near the top: selling things made almost entirely of sugar; slaving over a hot stove day and night; being a solo female entrepreneur going head to head with big business; and, leaving a perfectly good job to pursue all of the above.

So, Elyssa, Betsy and Amy Jo: What on earth were you thinking?

Three women with three dreams have thrown caution to the wind and appear to be beating the odds by seducing locals, corporations and online customers with desserts that take us back to a time when homemade was par for the course.

Passion for Pleasure

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to turn the tide. For Amy Jo (Valenza) Pedone, that moment came in 2008, when her 36-year-old cousin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “She was like a sister to me,” said Pedone, “so when I got the news I dropped everything and headed to Wisconsin to be there for her.”

Dropping everything included leaving a successful career in commercial real estate lending. “She gave me a gift,” said Pedone. “It became clear that I needed to ask myself those big questions. I started paying attention to Oprah. I did a vision board.” The process revealed a passion for her Sicilian roots and for the satisfaction of seeing others enjoy good food. In 2011, Pedone enrolled in Ecole Chocolat, a professional chocolate art school in Vancouver, British Columbia, became a certified, Italian-inspired master chocolatier and, in 2013, launched Valenza Chocolatier. “Most chocolatiers were focusing on trends,” said Pedone. “I wanted my own identity and I wanted it to be lasting, so everything I make has an Italian element to it. For Christmas I make a clove bonbon from a 100-year-old family recipe. My cucidate truffle is infused with orange peel, raisins, honey, cinnamon, olive spice and chocolate; that recipe has been in the family for 150 years. There’s a reason and a story behind every product.”

In the beginning there were eight: bonbons, bars and confections that rotated through each holiday season. Using a by-the-hour commercial kitchen (at 4 a.m. to control for room temperature,) a food photographer, a launch party and an aggressive Yelp campaign, Pedone cultivated an “underground” fan base and gained credibility in the specialty food space. “I just needed to get it in their mouth,” she said, “and I knew they’d be hooked.”

Pedone moves into her own commercial kitchen in 2018 and, in addition to growing direct sales and businessto- business collaborations, will continue to conduct workshops in chocolate tasting, pairing and making. Whether she is teaching or doing, she knows that this time, thanks to her cousin, she made the right choice. “It’s brought me the joy that I was longing for at the darkest time,” she said. “I get peace when I hear someone explain what my passion has done for them.”

Valenza Chocolatier | 949.891.1206 | valenzachocolatier.com

Photography by Anne Watson, annewatsonphoto.com

Hot Toffee

Betsy Thagard is a businesswoman by nature and a chef by happenstance. With a background in corporate fashion, design and sales, she knew that once her kids flew the coop she’d need a project. And, she had this recipe.

“I always loved to entertain and cook and, over the years, I’d make toffee for family and friends,” said Thagard. “I wanted something beautiful to gift in a special bowl or tray. I started noticing that people would return the bowl or the tray, but they’d ask for it to be refilled.”

Thus began the journey called B. Toffee. Armed with one recipe, Thagard harnessed her passions for culinary art, packaging and logo design and sales, and laid the foundation for a luscious, chewy confectionary empire. B. Toffee’s sleek canisters have won design awards and now grace the shelves of Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca and Rogers Gardens. Charles Schwab, Goldman Sachs and Cadillac distribute customized B. Toffee gift boxes at special events and annual meetings. Thagard is in talks with Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and Amazon has begun including the delectable bites in its Prime Surprise Sweets boxes.

The proverbial joint is jumping. In anticipation of the holiday rush, Thagard ordered 2,400 pounds of Guittard and Callebaut chocolate and is hoping that it will get her through the first part of December. While she expresses surprise at the volume, one gets the feeling that this was always part of a grand plan.

“I never imagined that I’d be upsizing for the fourth time,” she said, surveying her 5,000-square-foot facility as her team of “worker bees” slathered golden toffee across work surfaces and prepared to top it with chocolate and roasted pecans. “People ask me whether I still eat it, and yes I do,” she said. “I love to have something sweet every day.”

When women ask about her road to success, she doesn’t soft-pedal. “I tell them it’s a lot of hard work and it’s not going to happen overnight. You have to put passion, drive and hours of manpower into it. I tell them to share their ideas with family and friends, because they’re your true critics. But the bottom line is that it’s never too late to go after something you’re passionate about.”

B.Toffee | 844.Eat.Btoffee(328.2863) | btoffee.com

Retail Therapy

It was 1994 and Elyssa Robbins Fournier had quit her SoCal teaching job and moved to New York. To make ends meet she found herself catering to the well-heeled customers browsing the aisles of Saks Fifth Avenue. “I was miserable,” she said, “so I started baking to relax.” When a friend suggested cooking school, the idea took hold and Fournier, needing a recommendation, naïvely called the “fancy” restaurant down the street. Before she knew it, she was speaking with Le Cirque’s Master Pastry Chef, Jacques Torres, a James Beard Award recipient and chocolatier who has since risen to superstar status. “He said that before I committed, I should work in a restaurant, so I asked if I could come work in his. Had I known who he was I would never have had the nerve to ask. As it turned out, I had my apron on before the afternoon was over.”

An important discovery was learning that she didn’t work well in a restaurant kitchen where everything is prepared “à la minute.” Preferring to take her time, Fournier eventually licensed her kitchen in Corona del Mar for commercial use, founded Mixed Bakery and hung out a virtual shingle. Word-of-mouth advertising, savvy social media marketing and Fournier’s hearty, earth mother vibe have won her a loyal and enthusiastic clientele. In September, she accepted the statuette for Pastry Chef of the Year at Orange County’s 2017 Golden Foodie Awards.

“I don’t want to do anything else,” she said. “In New York I’d work a 10-hour day and go home and bake. My husband jokes that he goes to sleep to the sound of the mixer and wakes up to the sound of the mixer.” For Fournier, that whir is, plain and simple, music to her ears.

Mixed Bakery | Corona del Mar | 949.903.BAKE(2253) | mixed-bakery.com

Photography by Rish Photo Studio, rishphoto.com

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