Iveta Gourmet is the latest chapter in the lives of John and Yvette Bilanko. Born and raised in Chicago, John and Yvette met as teenagers while living in the city’s old Pilsen area and married several years later, in 1971.
After a hitch in the Marines, John followed the academic path---college, graduate school and law school, finally settling in as a corporate and international attorney. Yvette tested the entrepreneurial waters early, spending a summer in Italy when she was 11, making espresso in her aunt’s hotel and building the foundation for becoming a gourmet cook. In the 60s she used her creativity to design and sew costumes for rock bands (remember those days?) and to start her own successful business designing, manufacturing and selling men’s ties. She later polished those creative skills by designing retail store displays and silk floral arrangements.
During the 70s, when Chicago was starting to gentrify, they purchased and remodeled two Victorian apartment buildings in the now trendy DePaul area. While tuck pointing walls, refinishing floors and painting apartments Yvette found time to give birth to four wonderful daughters, Lauren, Lisa, Kristen and Danielle. A few years later it was off to Barrington in the Northwest suburbs where they spent the next 18 years.
After 10 years in the suburbs, however, they realized that they missed the city life and the fun of revitalizing old buildings with character. Like most older suburbs, Barrington was ravaged by the growth of suburban malls and was trying to revive its village center. At the edge of the business district they found their opportunity. An abandoned frame house where the first meeting of the village trustees was held in 1863. Next to it was a big empty lot. Bordering the empty lot were two more empty buildings dating from the 1860s. They couldn’t resist. Cashing in their savings and taking on a million dollar mortgage, they bought the entire corner and set out to remodel the existing structures and add a new fourth building with the same historic feel.
Three years later Woodbridge Square emerged from the rubble. Named after Woodbridge Hawley, one of the town’s founding fathers who built one of the original houses, the project was a mix of new stores, offices, a restaurant and a large European-style courtyard with outside seating that successfully preserved the historic character of the property. The only thing missing was an Italian espresso bar. With a little coaxing (well, actually a lot of coaxing) Yvette practiced her espresso making skills, taught John how to do it and together, in 1991, they quit their day jobs and opened Yvette’s Espresso Bar. Fortunately, the espresso craze was just starting and Starbuck’s had not yet staked out every available corner location. So what started as a 600 square foot espresso bar run by John and Yvette, with a lot of after school help from their daughter Lauren, quickly evolved into a 2,600 square foot coffeehouse/café with 18 employees, 70 seats (and another 30 outside during the Summer) that became the home away from home for every age group in the community. Even Starbucks, which later opened a block away, couldn’t slow things down.
But what’s a coffee house without scones? Yvette knew biscotti and croissants, but scones? She never even tasted one! So at the urging of some of her Anglophile customers she drove to Chicago during a snow storm to attend a gourmet food show. Although the snow scared off most of the attendees and quite a few exhibitors, she happened upon three graduate students in food science from the University of Illinois who formed a company called "Creative American Mixes" to produce a line of high quality scone and muffin mixes. They were tired of supermarket muffins loaded with preservatives and chemical additives and scones that were typically rock-hard and dry. Their goal was to create a line of mixes that would appeal to contemporary consumers who wanted nutritious, quick and easy to prepare products without the bland "health food" taste.
To reach their goal they started with the finest available ingredients -- like Australian crystallized ginger, Belgian chocolate, the best dried fruits, Dutch cocoa and pure Tahitian vanilla powder. Next, they eliminated all preservatives, food coloring, artificial ingredients and hydrogenated vegetable oil. To complete the mix they substituted heavy whipping cream for the butter and eggs (typically used in scones and muffins) to create a light, moist and incredibly delicious taste.
The mixes were perfect for Yvette’s. They had a great taste and offered a wide variety of flavors. Better yet, they were shelf-stable and required no expensive freezer space. But best of all, they were easy to prepare and could be baked in a tiny convection oven; just add the cream, mix and bake -- anyone could do it. At Yvette's the scones and muffins were literally an instant success. The aroma of fresh baked pastries and their unusually good taste caused sales to take off, increasing coffee and tea sales along the way. Word of the products spread and before long packaged scone and muffin mixes were being shipped around the country.
Yet, dark clouds were looming on the horizon. Their popularity caught the attention of an attorney (it figures) who represented the owner of a Chicago restaurant called “Yvette” (a chic piano bar/cocktail place) who had ambitious plans to expand to the suburbs and thought the coffeehouse infringed his trademark rights. Worse yet, the owners of Creative American Mixes were embarking on different careers and the company was floundering, on the verge of closing. While John fought off the trademark claims, to the rescue came Mike McMillan, a highly regarded graphic designer and loyal customer of the coffeehouse. When Mike heard that Yvette’s late father, who spoke with a heavy Italian accent, called Yvette “e-vay-ta”, he created a beautiful new name and logo that not only had meaning, but honored the memory of Yvette’s babo. And, as things sometimes happen, the trendy new suburban “Yvette” flopped and closed within a year while Iveta continued to prosper.
In a short time, Iveta became Creative American Mixes' largest customer and in 1996, when the founders' career paths took different directions, John and Yvette jumped at the chance to buy the company. By 1998, however, they were getting restless again. Lauren was completing her senior year at the University of Illinois and was planning to move to New York. Lisa and Kristen were attending the University of California at Santa Cruz and Danielle was finishing high school and planning to leave the nest. Besides, 50 years in Chicago was enough. And since retirement was a long way off, they thought they might as well be someplace where it felt like they were on vacation every day. So, to the surprise of their friends and the astonishment of their families, they sold everything except the scone recipes, packed their bags and moved to California.
Santa Cruz seemed like the logical choice. The girls were nearby, there were plenty of students and tourists to support a bigger and better café and the geography and weather were just spectacular. While they were planning the new business they took some funds from the sale of the café and rented a warehouse, redesigned the scone and muffin packaging, added a few new flavors and explored the area to find ingredients fresh from the local orchards. Meantime, some of their old customers from the Midwest needed scones and didn’t mind paying a little more to get them from California; the new packaging was well received and generated some favorable press; and customers from around the country were expressing interest.
Deciding the new café could wait, John and Yvette hit the trade show circuit like a couple of old circus performers. But the real surprise was yet to come. In April 2000, Oprah launched her new magazine and in the very first issue, on the “O List”, those products that “Oprah thinks are just great”, were Iveta Gourmet scones. In July the scone mix earned a spot as a finalist in the Outstanding Baked Goods category in the prestigious Product Awards Competition held by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) the industry's leading trade organization. And by the following January the Chicago Tribune declared that Iveta Gourmet mixes produced a "proper" scone that could be served with pride to company.
Over the years the business has continued to grow. In 2004 we were recognized, for a second time, as a finalist in the NASFT product awards competition, something no other baking mix has achieved. And in 2006 we were awarded the $10,000 grand prize in the food competition held at "America's" Best Food Show in Anaheim, CA.
By 2009 we introduced cupcake mixes, received favorable press from Food Network celebrity Paula Deen and Better Homes & Garden magazine and were packaging private label products for some major national retailers. Outgrowing our production space, we found a great location on the West side of Santa Cruz, near the beach, that even had room for another café. We jumped at the space, but before the ink was dry on the lease the economy crashed, sales plummeted and the City started making it difficult and expensive to open our café.
To make matters worse, speculators caused the price of flour and sugar to skyrocket, our largest customer demanded price reductions, many of our long-time customers fell victim to the recession and a handful of large national chains used their economic muscle to gain market share and promote their own private label products at the expense of independent retailers.
Like other small businesses, we’re adapting to the changing economic conditions, continuing to build our own brand, moving forward with our café and embracing the internet to level the playing field with our larger competitors.
Who knows where this will lead, but after haggling with the City for over a year our café is finally open and we’ve been recognized as a Favorite Place on Google, a distinction received by less than 1% of all businesses in the US. So maybe our strategy is working.
More importantly, the idea of a family business is still holding together. Lisa and Danielle are working full-time and doing too many jobs to mention; Lauren helps out from Brooklyn as our photographer and web site advisor; and Kristen, after a tour of duty in the Peace Corps, is finishing nursing school and trying to keep us all healthy.
We’ll keep you posted.
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