As the CEO and chief innovator of gourmet treat company Sweet Street Desserts, Sandy Solmon knows a thing or two about getting creative with food. She travels all over the world sourcing ingredients and gathering inspiration. Solmon incorporates high-end ingredients (such as Meyer lemon in the delicious lemonade cake), so you know that you’re getting the best with every bite. To recognize her accomplishments in the food industry and business world, Solmon will be honored at the Cornell Hospitality Icon & Innovator Awards on June 3 with the 2014 Cornell Hospitality Innovator distinction. We chatted with the creative journalist-turned-dessert-maven about what the award means to her, how she got started and which treat she thinks will finally eclipse the cupcake.
Congratulations on receiving the Cornell Hospitality Innovator Award. What does this mean to you?
Frankly, I was blown away. I am, of course, humbled and touched. Cornell is such a nurturing and inspiring environment — not only on campus, but at any gathering of Cornellians, particularly hotelies [the nickname given to Cornell’s hospitality graduates].
My daughter Zoe is a junior in [Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration], now studying in New Zealand on a semester abroad. Identifying that willingness to take leaps, to incorporate travel and cultural exploration into one’s education speaks to Cornell’s environment and the way they choose their students. I see it as a parent as well as in my work with [The Leland C. and Mary M.] Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship. To me, Cornell bespeaks innovation, alternative thinking, invention and excellence. I am a Berkeley grad, but I am so touched to have been “adopted” by Cornell.
How did you get into the dessert world?
What’s a photojournalist from Berkeley, California, to do in Reading, Pennsylvania? Why, bake cookies, of course. It actually did all start with a cookie. I was ready to leave journalism and I wanted to start a business based in creativity and innovation — one that could bring people together. For me, food has always been about community, conversation and creativity. I always felt that magic happened in the kitchen and around the table, so why not share that fairy dust, that elixir, with the world?
Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Observe — the world is your laboratory.
Listen — everyone and anyone has something insightful or wise to offer when your mind is open and formulating.
Ruminate — allow this information to bubble and brew.
Trust in your intuition — by doing so, it will never feel that you are taking a risk.
Move — sitting still is actually the greatest risk.
The most rewarding aspect of being an entrepreneur for me is when I feel a creative idea latching onto a need — the sirens calling from the market, from myself, my employees or my family; a sense of societal shift; or a cultural inflection. And then boom — when market forces and opportunity, even chance occurrences, coalesce around that kernel of an idea and push it into something bigger, then comes the aha!, that moment of realization. It’s that moment of gestalt, when the different pieces come together, that is my high.
You were just in Italy on business. What are some of the coolest places that your job has taken you?
Three snapshots that come to mind: The food markets in Vietnam and Cambodia overflowing with exotic tropical fruit and limes so flowery and fragrant they redefine “lime.” My first perfect giant almond-strewn meringue in the farmers market of Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the Dordogne in [France]. In Napa, after a rigorous and exhausting day of cooking at the Culinary Institute [of America], in a little local bakery, a gluten-free brownie so close to being a real brownie it inspired me. I knew with study I would one day make gluten-free at Sweet Street, and today, certified gluten-free is an integral part of our product array.
What do you love most about your job?
The sense that anything is possible. My favorite role is being chief innovator. Not only do I devote a great deal of time traveling the world to inform myself, I spend hours in our R&D kitchen with our chefs and food scientists. Today, there is such a heightened sensibility to health and wellness, to how we nourish ourselves. This has made our R&D that much more challenging and interesting. And as we work to grow in markets overseas, we find that, though they have a love and excitement of our interpretation of classic American desserts, from cheesecake to brownies, we face the immense hurdle of answering their regulatory concerns — 65 countries, each with their own sense of what is good for you.
I love pushing boundaries. We’re now expanding significantly into savory offerings, plus growing out of the back kitchen and adding a focus on our own Sweet Street cafés.
We are expanding in Asia. After four years of testing and vetting ingredients, we’ve got a strong toehold in China, plus we’re selling in Myanmar.
We’ve launched a food truck — the first Sweet Street Mobile Art Kitchen, or MAK. It’s a collaboration with artists, videographers, our chefs and bakers, bringing American food to the streets of Paris, like kale salad, MAK’n cheese and Maine lobster popovers, blueberry scones and cheesecake, and meltingly warm chocolate chunk cookie sandwiches.
Soon, we will fire up the pizza oven deck off Sweet Street Café on our new deck designed in the style of the High Line of Manhattan, mating our creativity with its industrial roots.
What are some of your favorite Sweet Street desserts?
I’m fascinated by the science of taste, the way sensations hopscotch across your tongue. I love the savory in salty and sweet, like our chocolate peanut stack, [a brownie-like cake that] has been around for years, now gaining popularity globally, in Europe, the Middle East and explosively in Asia. It’s the textures, too: rice crispy crunch, chewy caramel and milk chocolaty lushness. I can’t resist leaving it in the freezer and cutting little slivers off. Or our salted caramel cream puffs — an explosion of creamy custard in your mouth with crisp, sweet, salty almonds. I love our goat cheesecake with Greek thyme honey and toasty walnuts.
What is the next dessert trend? Will something finally eclipse the cupcake?
On our 35th anniversary, it’s ironic that it has come full circle to our first product. The now much-maligned and mediocritized cookie will return in a new form only imagined in childhood memory, with edgy sustainable chocolate, lots of butter and sea salt, served with organic milk. It’s retro, future, scrumptious.
Photo Courtesy of World Red Eye