That dream will be fulfilled in the coming weeks when Lillipies Bakery & Cafe debuts in the Princeton Shopping Center, in the space that had last been a children’s clothing store. “It’s every single thing we’ve wanted to do all along,” says Carson, as she walks through the 2,000-square-foot space that in the coming weeks will contain, among other things: a proofing room, bread oven, walk-in refrigerator and freezer, and grill station, as well as seating for 28 (plus more in the courtyard) and a small raised stage for live bands.
“Our business plan for this was written nine years ago!” Carson exclaims. She says she had always dreamed of having not only a bakery, but a cafe as well. “But,” she continues, “I didn’t think I could find a space. This one is perfect. I’m glad it took this long. Before this, I just might have chickened out.”
Jen Carson turned to baking professionally upon becoming a mother. She and husband, Ken, have three children, the oldest a junior at Princeton High and the youngest, 11. Before that, she had taught kindergarten and first grade in Massachusetts, having earned a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master’s in creative arts in education from Lesley University. “I really loved teaching, but when Ken and I decided to have children we thought it doesn’t make sense to hand my kids over and then go watch over other people’s kids all day. So I stayed home, which I loved and am glad about, but I missed working!
“Since I always loved to bake and cook — my mother is a really good cook and my grandfather had a butcher shop in Newark — I thought I’d give it a try. At the time, a friend of mine worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses on Bunn Drive and she told me that they have a budget for tea and special pastries. She encouraged me to give them a sampling and they loved it! They became my first client. At that time I had no idea what I was doing. For one thing, I was baking out of my house, which I discovered wasn’t legal!”
Another fortunate coincidence was that she was neighbors with Nicole Bergman, who had recently founded what eventually became Simply Nic’s Artisanal Shortbread. Bergman and other local food entrepreneurs were jointly renting cooking space from Christine Crawford’s Wooden Spoon Catering headquarters in the Montgomery North Shopping Center and were looking for another tenant. “I got to know Chris Crawford, who became a wonderful mentor, and I am still baking there all these years later,” she says.
As a self-taught baker, Carson confesses that she had secretly envied culinary school graduates. “But the schools were so expensive! So I had to choose. I could either go for pastry or I could go for business. I determined that I could probably stay in business longer if I went for business,” she says.
In 2010 she earned a degree in restaurant management from the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York (since renamed the International Culinary Center). “It was a fantastic program,” she says. “We had a lot of Cornell Business School graduates coming in; we had people from Union Square Hospitality. Then we each had to write our own business plan and present it to a group of investors, which was terrifying. But it was great to have to prove that what you wanted to do made sense to experts.”
Carson also got expert advice from one of her local customers: Jessica Durrie of Small World Coffee, who reviewed the business plan. Because of yet another fortunate coincidence, Carson also received advice from Carlo Momo of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group. At the same time that Carson was attending the FCI, Leslie Dowling, Momo’s wife, was a student in the pastry program. “We connected and the Momos have been a wonderful source of help and advice ever since.”
Late in 2011 Jen Carson was tapped by Robin and Jon McConaughy of Brick Farm Market and the future Brick Farm Tavern to be their bakeshop manager. “But then there were delays, so I was getting paid to pick blueberries and milk goats, which was an experience I could never have planned for,” she says. She proposed to the McConaughys that, while they were waiting, she would go back to culinary school, this time specializing in international breads. “I had studied sourdough from books, but I really wanted to nail sourdough.”
The McConaughys agreed to let her go. “They were great and were trying to do something extremely special with their projects and I admire them for that. But I missed baking and I felt guilty because they were paying me to pick blueberries and milk goats! I said, ‘It’s not fair to any of us’ and we parted on very friendly terms.”
These days, Jen Carson makes and sells a variety of sourdough products, including English muffins. All are made from high-hydration dough that is fermented from between 12 to 16 hours at a low temperature, which she says yields a complex and satisfying flavor.
When she took the job at Brick Farm, Carson had closed down her Jen’s Cakes & Pastries LLC, looking for a fresh start. After finishing school, Carson approached her longtime customer, Small World Coffee. “I told Jessica I wanted to work at a place that really focuses on hospitality,” she recalls. “I had learned where my food comes from; I’d learned how to make good bread. But, I said to her, ‘you guys have hospitality down and I would love to learn that!’”
Durrie suggested a consulting arrangement. “After six months I was ready to go out on my own again,” Carson says. “I returned to my old rented kitchen space and started wholesaling again, to Small World and then to one of Jessica’s former employees, who had started the Blawenburg Cafe.”
Carson chose to name her new venture Lillipies, after the signature two-inch tartlets that are her original and still signature product. Her elder son was in kindergarten when he asked his mom to make apple pies instead of, but the same size as, cupcakes for his school birthday celebration. When she produced the little pies, he pronounced them lillipies. “All my customers called me Lillipies anyway — me, my product, my daughter, everything was Lillipies. Why fight it?” she asks.
The cafe will be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and will offer more than just the sweet treats Lillipies has become renowned for. (In 2015 Lillipies was named one of the “Great Pies from Coast to Coast” on foodnetwork.com.) “We’ve been making sweets for years and will keep them, obviously,” Carson confirms. “But I’m very excited to make lots of sourdough breads and use them to make sandwiches! We’ll be getting cheeses from local farms and some eggs for our egg sandwiches from John Lima [of Lima Family Farms] in Hillsborough. We’re an American bakery so what we want to do is simple, like ham and cheese or turkey, but really delicious. We intend to make some of our pickles and mustards and things like that. Some days maybe a muffaletta sandwich special. And we’ll have soups and salads, all made from scratch here.”
The cafe will serve Small World Coffee and ice cream for its ala mode desserts will come from the Bent Spoon. As for New Jersey farm produce, Carson relies in part on Zone 7, the local farm distribution service based in Ringoes. “And we’ve been using Terhune Orchard from the beginning, for apples certainly,” Carson says. “Since we also work alongside farmers at the farmers markets, we we’re right there with vendors such as Fruitwood Orchards. And there’s Jess [Niederer] from Chickadee Creek. We’re planning on candying much of her ginger this year.”
Carson tagged architect Catherine Knight of Knight Architects for the bakery-cafe’s overall design and Ken Iversen of ICG Food Service Design for the kitchen. Both firms also worked on the design of Jammin’ Crepes, the Nassau Street eatery. Construction is under the direction of Paul Elrath of Yardley, PA, who has worked on several of the new tenants at the Princeton Shopping Center, including Nomad Pizza.
All three Carson children will be working behind the counter at the bakery — and they’ll also participate in its open mic nights. In fact, the entire Carson clan is musical. “My second son is a freshman in high school and an amazing musician. He’s a drummer, a trumpet player, and a singer. My daughter is a guitarist and singer and has already begun to practice songs for open mic night.”
Jen herself is a drummer and husband, Ken, a bass player. After working for years with Lexicon Pharmaceuticals of Basking Ridge, he recently founded his own biotech company, Macroceutics Inc. on Route 1 in Monmouth Junction.
But open mic night won’t happen right away. “When we’re up and running and secure that we have it down pat, we’ll start,” Carson says.
When it opens for business, Lillipies Bakery & Cafe will have five head chef-managers and 18 part-time staff. The latter are mostly high school kids; four are in college.
“Most of our staff has been through or are going through the Mercer County Community College Hospitality Program,” says Carson, who until April had taught a “Fundamentals of Baking” course there. “They are my dream team!” says Carson, who is about to fulfill her nine-year-old dream.
Lillipies Bakery & Cafe, 301 North Harrison Street (Princeton Shopping Center). 609-240-7738. www.lillipies.com