Thursday, February 28, 2019
Q&A: How Cheska Mauban came to open her namesake pizzeria in The Bowery Market
All photos by Stacie Joy
On Jan. 16, Cheska Mauban, a Queens native and recent Babson College graduate, opened her namesake pizzeria in The Bowery Market.
Cheska's pizza has a gluten-free and vegan crust — one made from cauliflower and the other sweet potato. (Find her menu here.)
Several EVG readers had heard about how Mauban launched her small business, and shared the news of her entrepreneurial skills. I reached out to ask a few questions about starting the business, which involved spending months testing her recipes on friends and family.
How did Cheska's pizza come about? What were you doing as a career at the time?
I think it was a Saturday in March last year that I was sipping on an afternoon latte at my local coffee shop while reading Ina Yalof's "Food and the City," which is a compilation of short stories from anyone to everyone working in the New York City food scene, from The Halal Guys to James Beard chefs.
Growing up in NYC, I've always been fascinated with the dynamic food scene and like any New Yorker, I took full advantage of it and now I wanted to take a deeper behind-the-scenes look. Fortunately, for lunch that day, I bought a frozen cauliflower crust pizza from my local grocery store and threw it in the oven after dousing it with sauce and cheese.
So, while going from short story to the next, I kept thinking about my lunch and where I could get this healthier option without having to put it in the oven myself. I did some light research and couldn't find any options.
From here, my entrepreneurial juices started flowing, because I remembered that for the past two weeks I spoke with associates at the grocery store about re-stocking the cauliflower crust shelves because they were empty! Not only did I graduate from Babson College, the nation's top school for entrepreneurship, but I also currently worked at a financial technology startup that constantly challenged me to think creatively.
Piecing the puzzle together, I came to the conclusion that NYC needs a place to serve cauliflower crust pizzas for takeout. For the next couple of months, I spent my evenings and weekends running through 100 different recipes to nail down the perfect combination to maintain 1.5 servings of cauliflower, but to also make sure it can hold like a pizza.
For anyone who has ventured through this rabbit hole of making cauliflower crust at home... you know the struggle of admitting defeat to a mushy pizza. Along the way, I decided that there needed to be some variety, so after another 100 iterations, the sweet potato crust was created.
What kind of culinary background did you have?
Full disclosure — I had zero culinary training. But what made up for it were my countless meals across diverse cuisines throughout the five boroughs: my palette was at least well-trained.
However, I looked to a close college friend, Chris Quach, who's an aspiring chef with the Altamarea Group for some free advice on flavor profile and devising my menu.
For a few months, I held private tastings with family and friends and gathered feedback. From there, the crusts changed a bit more and so did the sauce. I also decided to offer a fully gluten-free menu, because I learned that no other pizzerias were strictly gluten-free. That decision was another avenue to show our community of health forward eaters that delicious food is possible for any person, no matter the dietary restriction.
Why did you decide on The Bowery Market to open your business?
We specifically chose The Bowery Market for two reasons. One, it's a charming open-air market with blossoming roses and it sits on the corner of an iconic street.
And two, the "cozy" — euphemism for "small" — kiosk allowed for a relatively easy build-out, which subsequently led to the quickest launch possible. This way, we can dive into proving the food concept even more and also ironing out all the business kinks. Because of my Babson education, I learned to adopt the mantra "fail fast."
There are [also] so many great family-run restaurant supply stores on the Bowery. Whenever we need anything it's a hop and skip away to some friendly faces who have it.
To date, what has been the most challenging part of launching your business? The most rewarding part?
This is the first time I'm ever starting my own restaurant and it's from a very clean slate. Even though I have tons of mentors, consultants, supporters and an awesome crew managing daily operations, I have no co-founders to divide the burden of responsibilities.
All the pressure sits on my shoulders, which is both the biggest challenge AND also the most rewarding part. On lonely days, it seems like no one else can possibly understand the struggle and anxiety I face with even the smallest decision of which plastic take-out bags to order. And on great days, the tiniest win of a customer explaining how our pizzas are perfect for his keto lifestyle and grabbing a menu for later, gives me a massive boost of energy and motivation.
What are your long-term plans for Cheska's?
The Bowery Market location is certainly just the beginning. Every day of operation is laying down one more brick in the foundation for a bigger vision of inspiring healthier habits through nutritious food all across New York and beyond. We're learning everything there is to learn about running a restaurant at a fast pace and when the weather turns, we'll assess where Cheska's second location will be.
In this business, we're also learning that nothing is set in stone and that we need to be nimble, so we have a repository of ideas that we keep from customer and mentor feedback. For example, customers have asked us if we sell my pizzas frozen and ready to pop in the oven themselves. It's a far ways out to think about doing that, but hey, you never know.