Speech by Vanille Patisserie’s Sophie Evanoff, of Macedonian Heritage

Based in Chicago, Sophie Evanoff is the president of Vanille Patisserie and is a first generation Macedonian whose family immigrated to the United States in 1955. Vanille is a premier provider of luxury French pastries of exceptional quality and unique product design.

The speech was delivered by Sophie Evanoff at a UMD luncheon at the Troy Marriott in Troy, Michigan on Saturday, April 5, 2014. To learn more about Sophie and Vanille Patisserie, please click here.

Thank you George for your kind introduction and Meto and the Board of UMD for the invitation to address all of you today. It is a great honor to share my story and to share my love of our Macedonian heritage with you all.

Despite my young age of 31, I’ve been through a lot—most of it very good—and a few things that could have gone much better. Part of the nature of Macedonians is to be stubborn, very stubborn and skeptical…but we always believe in ourselves and those we care about.

We are people who believe in value and take much pride in the importance of our heritage, traditions, and family. Being first generation, it is easy to forget just how good we really have it today and how lucky we really are to be part of such a rich culture. Just last weekend I was at a Balkan spring festival in Chicago. One of the Bulgarian dancers had invited her coworker to attend the performance of all the dance groups, including a Macedonian group. He asked me how I got involved in this event and I said I’m Macedonian and grew up around it. He looked at me and said, “You are so lucky to have culture like this. I’m American Irish Catholic, and all I have is green beer.”

I’m proud to say we have much more to offer than just green beer!

Macedonia is vastly different today than it was when our Macedonian forefathers and patriots came to the United States 50, 60, 70 and 80 years ago. No matter how many stories we hear, we will never truly understand what it was like for our forefathers during those times. My generation only knows a Free and Independent Republic of Macedonia.

The Macedonian Church I attended regularly while living in Detroit and one that I still refer to as my church, St. Clement in Dearborn, was founded in 1932.

We, as Macedonians, continue to share many common beliefs and a common history (sometimes). But, today’s First and Second generation Macedonian’s whose life experiences, interests, and worldview and expectations are vastly different than prior generations of Macedonians. It is important to recognize our evolution as Macedonians in the United States and adapt to prior generations of Macedonian-Americans…I believe we have begun that process here in Detroit thanks to UMD, UMAD and many of you here today.

Heritage

I am sure that everyone here today has a unique story to tell of how their parents, and /or baba’s and dedo’s came to this country. I’d like to share my family’s story with you all.

My great-grandfather (Risto) on my dad’s side was born in Prilep in 1882. He was a businessman. In 1904 during the Turkish uprising the Turks imprisoned him. He later escaped prison and went to Buenos Aires, Argentina with my Great-grandmother. My dedo Kiril was born in Buenos Aires in 1910. In 1914, the family went back to Prilep on a visit and before they could return back to Argentina, WWI broke-out and never returned, leaving a ranch and a hotel to the local authorities in Buenos Ares. After the war in 1919, my great grandfather Risto stated a business in Prilep that was maintained with my dedo Kiril until 1944. My Great grandfather was killed by the communist in 1944, while my dedo Kiril escaped to Austria leaving behind my Baba (who was pregnant with my dad) and my Tetka with their families. With the help of our cousins in Pennsylvania, my Dedo came to the United States in 1945. In a few years he moved to Detroit and began working in the auto industry. In the meantime my dad was born in 1945 and for the next 10 years, my Baba and two kids had means to live on. They were supported by my baba’s immediate family. In 1955, my Baba, my dad and Tetka were allowed to finally leave Prilep and join my dedo in Detroit. This was the first time my dad met his father.

I only got to know my baba till the age of 12. I remember her being strong and stoic and the best cook and baker around! Despite not having her around as I grew older, her legacy lives with in me and is carried on every time I make baklava or zelnik, because I only know how to make it the way my baby did.

My dedo later opened a wholesale distribution business for household items, similar to what he did in Prilep. My dedo spoke 8 languages and had a fourth grade education. He lived to 92. The last week of his life he was in the hospital and when I went to visit him for the last time, all he cared about was making sure I had enough money and wanted to give me $20. Classic Macedonian behavior to put your family before yourself and to keep giving even when you physically can’t give any more. He was the only grandparent I got to know as a young adult and I wish he were here today to visit my shop every Saturday like I used to visit his shop every Saturday. I am certain some you may have met him and if you did you definitely remembered him.

In my office, next to my icons of course, hangs a picture of my great grandfather and dedo taken in 1928 in front of their storefront. When I start to have my silent moments of self-doubt, because after all I’m only human, I look up at that photo and remember that the true entrepreneurial spirit does lie within me and I go right back to work.

Now, let’s move onto my dad. He was 10 years old when he came to the US, he graduated from University of Detroit and Wayne State University, and he served in the US Army for three years during the Vietnam War. After his discharge from the Army, he joined Ford Motor Company and worked for 20 years at the World Headquarters in Dearborn. In 1992, he left Ford and became president of a Business Consulting Company in Troy. He is nationally recognized as an expert in core business process redesign and business strategy.

Within the Macedonian community, my dad was also president of his church for 10 years and President of the Macedonian Patriotic Organization from 1996-2006. I grew up where it was normal to spend my Saturday nights with my dad and the Macedonian consul, not because I had to but because I wanted to. I loved everything Macedonian and it was bond that I had with my dad and still do. As you can all see I had some remarkable Macedonian role models to follow. I find this entire tale amazing and I tell anyone who wants to listen. These are the stories that we need to keep alive in each generation. These are the stories that bring each of us closer together and sustain our Macedonian heritage.

Growing Up in The Macedonian Community

Every Sunday as a child, my dad would take me to church. I might have been conditioned to have fond memories based on the fact that I knew I would get money from my baba and dedo and then we would stop at the Toys-R-Us on the way home, but needless to say, it worked! Up until I moved to Chicago, I attended church every week and looked forward to it every week.

Growing up in the church and the Macedonian community was where I felt the most at home. I was never judged, and everyone always had a smile on his or her face when they greeted me. We all have an unspoken bond, a bond that I felt as a child and still feel today. Macedonians are people who without question will help each other and are people we can rely on. And most importantly they will always be honest with you. And the beauty of it all is that they don’t even have to speak they just give you that look that all of us Macedonians understand! My cousins are more like siblings and my Macedonian friends are more like cousins. Still today, I will call on my Macedonian community for guidance and help before I would ever reach out to my non-Macedonian friends. Just a few months ago, I bid on a lot of French children’s books on eBay for Vanille. The seller was in New York and was pick up only. Instead of bothering one of my New York friends, since I knew it would be a hassle for them, we reached out to a Macedonian couple in New Jersey. Of course without hesitation or question they drove to New York to pick up the books and send to me in Chicago.

I do not speak Macedonian and my Macedonian can pretty much be summed up in about 4 phrases.

“Kako si” of course, and I only know one response: “Dobro,” so for all of my 31 years I’ve always and only been good if you ever asked!

“Hristos Voskrese,” I have Easter and the weeks after covered!

Of course “Lele” for the moments where OMG and LOL just don’t quite cut it.

And I can finally say I am not known as Chris’s “Kerka” anymore but rather he is now Sophie’s “Tato.”

Despite not knowing the language, it did not hinder my love of Macedonian dance, music, and food. With dancing and cooking there was no need to communicate with words, because all of the communicating was done by actions. As a child I would look forward to the bake sales at church and especially when the baba’s would get together to make the bread. My mom would let me skip school to help and I would watch in amazement as they didn’t measure a thing and knew when it was ready only by touch. As a child it was magic to me! After being in the baking industry for so long, I still don’t know how they did it so perfect every time.

I cannot remember when I learned to Macedonian dance, just that I have always loved to do it and have always known how to do it. The dances and conventions are still events that I look forward too today. Food and music will always bring people together. I’ve been known to throw together a dance or too for St. Clement, but honestly it’s mainly because I just wanted to dance!

Without supporting each other and Macedonia the love of our culture cannot be handed down from generation to generation.

Professional Career

I could talk for hours about my Macedonian heritage and growing up in the community But let me share with you how all of this has influenced my career. The opportunities in America are endless; they are limited to your own imaginations and dreams. As we look back to what our ancestors have achieved with limited education and resources, we are a very fortunate and blessed generation of Macedonian-Americans. You only succeed by taking risks and tying something that you are not comfortable in doing. But Success is defined by you and is different for each of us. Do not compare yourself to anyone but rather to how you feel inside. If you have more inside, go for it. If you are completely satisfied with where you are in life then you have succeeded and should be proud!

When I was in high school, my dream was to own a cookie company. Baba’s Cookies to be exact. But graduating high school at 17, I was too scared to go after my dreams, and too stubborn to listen to my parents and pursue a degree in business, because after all, if I wanted a cookie business, it only made sense that I learn how to run a business. Instead, I went to college, received a degree in psychology. With every class that I took, I had a new profession in mind. I wanted to be a Pediatrician, a marriage counselor, a lawyer, a child psychologist, and even an aerobics instruction. I was doing everything I could to prevent myself from doing what I knew I was destined to do. After graduating from college I researched pastry schools and found the French Pastry School of Chicago. I applied, was admitted, and also received a partial scholarship. My first job out of pastry school was at a small candy manufacturing plant in the suburbs of Chicago. There were no hands made chocolate bon bons, or whisking ganaches by hand. There were machines. Giant Machines! Machines that I thought a girl like myself should not be dealing with. Chocolate tempering tanks that two people could fit inside. And every day I would leave there and complain to whoever would listen as I sat on the Metro covered in chocolate, and in the summer months, the chocolate was melted and sticky on my clothes. If you saw me from a distance you would probably not identify that brown stuff on my clothes as chocolate. This was definitely not my idea of pastry. Instead of focusing on what I could learn and what I could take away from this experience, I just complained. I was 26, finally living my dream and was too good for this job, or so I thought. Those basic manufacturing principles would have come in handy today.

With every person you meet, with every experience, and with every job, there is always something to learn. Find the value in everything, because it is there. You may not need that information now, but you will never know when you will need it. It is up to you to see things how they relate to your goal. There are two very important key phrases I’ve picked up along the way in the pastry industry that may apply to any industry. As you begin any new job, always smile and nod to your supervisor, replying only with a positive response. In the pastry industry, this is “Yes, Chef.” My first manager told me, “you can never get in trouble for what you think, only what you say.”

This is something that most of our baba’s and dedo’s did not practice! At that same spring festival last weekend, I saw a Macedonian family friend. He was sharing stories of his 90-year-old mother with me and shared a story about her while they were in line at Panara and she noticed that they had a Greek Salad on the menu. She asked him if he knew what the difference between a Greek salad and a Macedonia salad was. He didn’t, and she informed him, rather loudly he said, that Macedonians wash their hands before we make it! Luckily there weren’t any Greeks near by!

Once you have moved up the ranks, and gained skill and knowledge in your field, it’s important to get comfortable with “No”, but…no one likes to hear no. Including your team members, your customers, and especially the boss. But we all know that certain requests are just impossible. Never end the conversation with no. However, if you do, always provide another option.

As I have grown as a person and in my career I have learned to pay great importance on four disciplines that were instilled by my family.

Do things that make you proud. When you do work that you are proud of, you will always find reward in what you do. When you do work for other motives than to fulfill your passion, you risk being left with nothing. But when you do work that you are proud of, you will always have work that you are proud of.

Patience. Learn and practice patience for your coworkers, your boss, your future employees, your customers, your family and friends, and most importantly for yourself. We are human, and all make mistakes. If it takes you or your co-workers much longer to complete a project, don’t get frustrated, have patience with yourself and do better next time. Challenge yourself but do it with patience. We cannot control how many times. We can only control how we handle the situation. Handle it with grace and handle it with patience.

Listen to your intuition. You will know when the right opportunity presents itself. And if it is meant to be it will be. When I first learned Vanille was on the market, and was pursuing the purchase for a few months, I was informed that they had another buyer who made an offer and they accepted. There was nothing I could do. About a month later I received a phone call that the deal feel thought and it was available. It felt right then, and still feels right now.

Finally Be Adaptive. You will be faced with situations you do not like and do not want to do. But will not have a choice. Just find a way to make it work for you. At one of my pastry jobs, all the cooks were required to clean the grease trap. In case you do not know what this is, it is a container to collect all the grease, fat and food particles form commercial sinks. Most commercial kitchens do not have a garbage disposal. Of course I was mortified. And was so worried about the smell and how I was going to get through it. So I went to google to see how other people handled it. Nose plug and Vicks Vapor rub! Nurses would put Vicks under their nose when they’re dealing with smelly situations. So when it was my turn to clean the trap I had my nose plug and Vicks ready to go. But the first time I used so much Vicks that my nose was on fire for the entire day! Be adaptive but learn from your mistakes as well!

That cookie company that I always dreamed about having made its way into the essay I wrote 6 years ago when I was applying for the For love of chocolate scholarship. I wrote: “Today, I still have the entrepreneurial spirit, but I am not certain in which direction it will take me. After completing the program and after working several years in the industry, I feel that the direction will become very clear to me. I have the drive and motivation to be a leader in this field by starting my own company someday.”

Be clear of your goals, but not set on the journey. Enjoy the peaks and embrace the valleys and most of all believe in yourself and your dreams.

In 2011, with the help of my dad I acquired Vanille Patisserie, a premier provider of luxury French pastries. It is recognized by many as having the No. 1 Macaroons and Croissants in Chicago. We also produce custom wedding and special occasion cake for exclusive clients. When I acquired Vanille we had 10 employees. Today we have 25 employee serving three retail locations in the heart of Chicago. We have expansion plans for two-four more locations in Chicago and our first location out of state set for the Detroit Market.

I get asked quite frequently what I am doing differently than the previous owners of Vanille and I always smile and say I’m giving it some love. And simply put that is exactly what I’m doing. I have a passion for quality, passion for pastry, and passion for service. When you love what you do, it comes through naturally in everything you touch.

Finally, I would like to leave you with a simple message on what have I learned the last 2 ½ years regarding running a small business. Although customers are the only reason why any business exists, I believe there are four major drivers that ensure a successful business and contribute to complete customer satisfaction.

1. First is people/employees, hire the best people, train them and develop them. Spend time necessary to recruit and interview. My biggest challenge and time consumer in the last two years is dealing with employee issues. Not to mention, that 22 out of the 25 employees are women!

2. Second is process. Make sure every activity that is performed by employees is clearly defined and documented. This eliminates inefficiencies, provides consistency, and accountability. Establish measurements for every process and ensure that every employee is well trained. This is still something we are working on and it is difficult to see the value in this when there is tactical “work” that needs to be done like making 1000 fruit tarts! But you can only put this off so long before the pieces start to fall apart because there is no process in place. Something I have learned the hard way.

3. Product. Be very clear about defining what you products are and focus on quality and consistency. Be the best at those products and don’t try and do everything and be everything to everyone.

4. Lastly, is to have fun. If you cannot have fun at work as an employee, or cannot have fun at a place of business when you walk in as a customer. Why go back? In the pastry industry we do a lot of monotonous tasks, like filling 5000 macaroons in one day. It not unusual for us to have our dance music playing with the disco ball on. Because we would much rather attend a macaroon party than just filling macaroons all day. And as my team has informed me I always have an invitation to the party!

My dream for Macedonians, hopefully, that many of you share, is for our people in the United States to be united in harmony regardless of their beliefs, the church they attend or from what region of Macedonia they are from. Let us ensure that our legacy to future generations is a message of unity of purpose, commitment, optimism and sacrifice. The future of Macedonians in the United States, although faced with challenges and potential obstacles, is bright and promising.

I would like to acknowledge my family who are here today especially my Mom and Dad and Tetka/Tetinche for all their wisdom, guidance and support. My life is certainly fuller and more complete with the rich friendships that I have acquired in the Macedonian community. These will be life lasting.

May God Bless all of you and may God Bless all Macedonians. Thank You.