ENTREPRENEUR: Confectioner Karen Schneid raises the bar
What started as a hobby has become a successful business inspired by delectable French confections
What started as an "indulgent hobby" has taken Karen Schneid from an 18-year career as an advocate at the Johannesburg bar to creating classy, delectable confectionery for her brand, Ooh La La.
It offers more than 50 products, from subtle marshmallows to crunchy nut pebbles, enticingly packaged with characters that tell the "stories" behind the products.
We meet in what was once the law library in her home, a few steps from her manufacturing base. Authentic French furniture sets the scene. Exquisite attention to detail shines though in her home as in her confectionery.
Schneid looks more like someone ready to trawl fashion houses than study the chemistry of sugar, but that’s part of the charm of her story.
"I never meant to make this into a business; it was really an indulgent hobby, but having been at the bar helped.
"Growing up I had an uncle who was a judge, which initially attracted me to the world of law. I knew I wanted to travel and I had expensive tastes, so I thought I’d best support myself," she says.
Schneid was always drawn to the creative possibilities in baking, cooking and entertaining. Birthday parties for her two girls became her artistic outlet. The parties were legendarily lavish affairs, with intricately crafted cakes and sweets. "It was never even about who came to the party; it was more about the production."
The parties took on the theme of a different country each year. When it was Russia, the confectionery was in the shape of matryoshka dolls and Fabergé eggs. For Venice, she created St Mark’s Square. Everything involved travel, research and learning.
Her journey as confectioner started in a village near Aix-en-Provence in France, where she fell in love with calissons, traditional French confections made of candied fruit and ground almonds topped with a thin layer of royal icing. She started creating these in her big farm-style kitchen at home.
Schneid enjoyed work as an advocate. "It’s an eccentric world. Everybody works for themselves, yet you have great intellectual stimulation, camaraderie and a support system."
But cookie creations beckoned. "Sitting in court one day in the appellate division in front of five judges, I was dreaming about my next-flavour marshmallow. It was consuming."
She "came out of the confectionery closet" in 2009, after her husband suggested selling at a local market. She was too embarrassed, so he manned the stall.
"I didn’t really do it as a business but because I was obsessed with it. In the beginning I would be in court in my robes and in the afternoon I’d be delivering to the back of retail outlets behind the bread trucks, so proud."
Schneid developed everything from scratch and studied the chemistry of sugar, sourcing the best ingredients and learning the authentic way from particular regions of France. She’d learn to make candied fruit in one French village one year and head to another to master something else the next year. She travels to food fairs around the world and goes to France religiously. Not long ago she searched Japan and found a tiny region with "the best matcha I’ve ever had".
Today she has 23 people working in the business and not a batch leaves the bakery without a taste and sign-off from her. "I used to come back from my travels with cases of clothing, now it’s equipment and ingredients."
Each product has a character with a charming story. She sourced the illustrator, who lives in the US, from a picture she once saw. "The little characters are important, they’re like my children. I’ve written stories about them."
The business has been profitable since 2016. "I put back in as much as I can. I don’t want a partner; I don’t want to be funded. The products have won 54 Great Taste Awards in the UK, the Oscars of the food industry.
"At the bar you can be financially charitable but I am now proud that I create so many jobs. I upskill my employees, and as a result everyone is passionate about our products."
The factory is part of her family’s farm-style property, as if in a French village — all part of the whimsical world of Ooh La La.
"The science of confectionery is precise, there is a lot that can go wrong," she says.
That might be, but when you taste it, there’s so much that can go so right.