We’re proud to collaborate with some of the best food people in our cities. We produce our own line of dips + spreads in small batches each day and distribute them across our regions, so it’s only natural for us to support others who are creating some of the best stuff out there. One of those makers: Morgan Botwinick of Whisk in Richmond, VA. We partnered with Morgan to bring our Richmond customers a classic Chocolate Chip Cookie that’s the perfect exclamation point at the end of your vibrant CAVA meal.
We visited Morgan’s charming Shockoe Bottom café before we debuted our bustling Fan District location. We listened to her story — from determined rejection of the corporate world to farmers’ market entrepreneurship to eventual small-business ownership — and knew she was the perfect pastry pro to join the ranks of talented small-batch makers bring a little something sweet to CAVA menus across both coasts. Hear her story:
How did Whisk get started?
I graduated from college in 2009 — and there weren’t a whole lot of jobs out there. I got an office job for a little while and was kind of just coasting. I felt like I had this set corporate-world track and hadn’t ever seriously considered an alternative.
But the more I thought about it, I decided that I really just wanted to go to pastry school. I’d always loved to bake and cook and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was right. So I went to culinary school in New York. I did a few different pastry programs and then I started working, first in New York, and then eventually at the Jefferson Hotel here in Richmond.
I worked at the Jefferson for a year, and every Saturday when I would go to work, I would pass a farmers’ market. I just kept thinking how much I wanted to be there instead of in a structured kitchen run by someone else. So I quit and went back to working full time in an office — something that would leave my nights and weekends free. I was starting to have ideas of creating something that was my own. Putting my pastry experience to work for me.
So I started selling my baked goods at farmers’ markets. I did that for about three years while I was working full time. And over those three years, I felt more and more like I wanted to open my own bakery.
It took about a year between the time I started looking for a café space and when I was able to open. I used to say it was like having a baby, because it took about 10 months. I wasn’t getting very much sleep, so it was like having a baby in that way, too.
Walk us through those 10 months.
The hardest thing was finding the right location. We weren’t even really looking in Shockoe Bottom, but we stumbled across this location when it had just come on the market. We submitted an offer and I was really sure we were going to get it. But then I met the landlord and he told us that he was going to go with someone else. But I kept hounding him and walked him through my business plan and told him how well I knew the neighborhood. I talked him into giving me the lease instead.
Once we secured the space, we basically gutted it and started fresh. Then it was a matter of hiring and finalizing our menu, and trying not to crumble from the stress. I was still working farmers’ markets to support the business — which was also a great opportunity to preview what we were thinking about for the bakery before we opened our doors.
Then we finally opened — and we were woefully understaffed. I worked about a hundred hours a week until we finally got fully staffed.
We’re in our second year open now and every day we learn something new.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Until very recently, I was working around 40 hours a week in the kitchen in addition to everything that went into running the business.I would come in, depending on the shift, either at 4:30am, or 9am, or noon. I would work eight hours in the kitchen, and try to answer email in free seconds. Then I would go home and continue to work on the business. This fall, I finally hired another person, because I couldn’t do it all by myself.
Now that we have a full kitchen staff, it’s a little different. I get here in in the morning and set up at a table or at the counter and work on sales stuff, set up meetings, organize the minutiae of the business — which I actually really enjoy. And I’m constantly checking in with the kitchen and talking about new ideas.
It’s interesting to be on this side of the kitchen because I can really hear what’s going on and identify where we could improve and what we’re doing well. And I still work in the kitchen a couple days a week, too. It’s like working out my pastry muscles — it comes right back.What got you excited about working with CAVA?
I love the concept personally because I love grain bowls — that’s my go-to thing to eat. I liked that CAVA was a small brand but still had a large footprint. And any time we can reach customers that we might not have reached otherwise, it’s great.
What makes the Chocolate Chip Cookie so special? Tell us about it.
The Chocolate Chip Cookie is one of my personal favorites. It’s something that I brought to the farmers’ market every single week, and I’ve continued tweaking it over the years. We used two different flours and two types of sugar, and it has a great kick of salt in it. It’s very high-quality chocolate, too.
My philosophy is that whatever you’re buying at Whisk, I want it to be the best thing you’ve ever had. I really feel like this Chocolate Chip Cookie is that. I’m proud of it.
How did you come up with such a wide array of baked treats for your café?
My culinary school training is in French technique — so that’s what I’m most comfortable with. That helped inform some of our more technical pastries like croissants, eclairs, and macarons. But I always like to see the blend of French technique and new flavors.
It all comes back to the farmers’ markets and what I was able to determine worked there and what didn’t. That was the first place I ever made cheddar and bacon croissants.
We also work seasonally. It’s something we do for our customers and for ourselves, too. As a baker, it can get really monotonous making the same thing, so it’s important for me to keep our employees interested and make sure they don’t get burned out.
We think to ourselves, “What sounds delicious?” We fold all of those things together — personal preference, seasonality, what works. And if it doesn’t work, we change it.
Have you had any total fails?
The very first morning we opened, we didn’t really put the word out. We opened at 7 am, and that morning, at 6:50am, there was someone at the door waiting. I was very nervous, and she came in and ordered a bunch of things — like a dozen croissants — and I was, thinking, “I hope everyone doesn’t do that. I’m going to run out of food!”
We were basing our numbers on the farmers’ market experience, which was very different from a café open for a whole day. I definitely thought we were going to run out of everything.
So I went into the back to pull myself together and tell myself it was going to be okay. And it was. We didn’t run out of food. We lasted the whole day.
What’s your proudest moment?
Each day that we beat our previous sales goal is definitely a wow moment. For the Women’s March in January, we decided to donate all of our sales to the ACLU. We surpassed our sales goals by like twenty percent, so it was huge. It was really special to see people coming in just because of that.
People in Richmond are very invested in small businesses. I’m from Virginia Beach, and we have restaurants there, but it’s not the same. It’s not even close to the food scene here in Richmond. People are more invested in supporting — and opening — local businesses.Who taught you how to bake? Where did your interest in pastries come from?
My mother was the one that really taught me how to bake. She was a big proponent of us being in the kitchen from a young age.
There’s a photo of me, I must be like 3 years old, and I’m standing on a chair in the kitchen helping her make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Although when I was growing up, I actually liked cooking a lot more than baking. I love to cook, but from a professional standpoint, I didn’t want to be working on a line. I started to focus on pastry because I was more interested in it from a business perspective.
Have you had any mentors or sources of inspiration?
I definitely draw inspiration from Thomas Keller. I did an apprenticeship at Bouchon Bakery in New York before I moved back to Richmond, and I appreciated his approach — kind of nostalgic American flavors, but done in a new modern way. I also appreciated the way he built his business slowly and very thoughtfully.Do you cook or bake when you’re not at Whisk?
I make dinner pretty much every night. I love grains, so I’m constantly making farro salads and barley, which my husband kind of puts up with.
I hadn’t been baking at home really at all over the past year, but just recently I’ve started doing it for fun, because I got a bunch of new cookbooks over the holidays. It feels really good to get back into it.
My husband’s family has a lot of dietary restrictions, so whenever I bring something to his family, I get creative with it. I like to come up with recipes that naturally fit — like for gluten-free recipes, I look for a flourless chocolate cake.
I make this really rich flourless chocolate cake and then top it with blackberry jam. The pairing of blackberry with dark, dark chocolate — it’s just so good.
Tell us about your favorite food memory?
One year for my birthday, we went to this bakery where we had gotten cakes before. Rather than just picking a simple yellow cake with chocolate frosting or something, I picked out this cake I’ve never had before, a Boston Cream Pie Cake. It sounded really good. But when we went home and I tried it, I hated it.
I remember being really upset. My mom and my sister were trying to make it better, so they baked me a cake from scratch. The whole time I was pouting, but their cake turned out delicious. It’s funny, I remember I was in such a sour mood, and they were really trying to make the best of it. The two of them were having a little fun at my expense, because I was being ridiculous, but it turned out really well.
Although now I actually like Boston Cream Pie. I think I finally figured out what pastry cream was…
What’s been the biggest surprise with owning your own business?
How challenging it was to start without having a partner. From the start, through construction and beyond, you have to be answering every single question. Even now, I have a staff and a lot of support, but it ultimately comes down to me. It was a bit surprising, because I didn’t go into this business wishing that I had a partner. I was perfectly happy with doing it on my own. But that’s why people do it with a partner — because it’s exhausting.
What’s next for the business?
Opening a second business is something that I’ve thought about in a mostly theoretical way. But I do think that I would like to.
I don’t know if I would want to open a second location of this specific model, but I really love making ice cream, so I could see opening an ice cream shop. That would be a nice pairing of something that would complement us and it would be more of a sister brand. We’ll see!