Lizzy Evelyn, DC entrepreneur, on seizing niche markets and growing Paisley Fig.
I sat in the Room 11 café, camera in one hand and scone in the other, nibbling and snapping away. The café is headquarters to Elizabeth (Lizzy) Evelyn’s Paisley Fig bakery. I was there, ostensibly, to get photos for the blog. (It’s a rough life.)
Evelyn started Paisley Fig in 2008, following an accomplished career as a pastry chef in three DC restaurants. Her bakery has since grown into a DC breakfast pastry and dessert destination. In addition to being the in-house bakery for Room 11, Paisley Fig also supplies other local restaurants and stores—Whole Foods, Dolcezza, Glen’s Garden Market, and Qualia Coffee to name a few—with her inventive (and delicious) baked goods.
I spoke with Evelyn about building her business. She also shared helpful, honest reflections on the challenge of balancing raising children with growing a company:
I know you were working at the Hyatt Hotel and Saint Ex Café—what made you decide to strike out on your own and start Paisley Fig?
I wanted to have children and I knew that raising a family meant I needed to have more freedom. I think that was a major part of it. The food industry is not very supportive of raising a family—you tend to work hard, long hours—and I needed flexibility and more of a part-time atmosphere.
I saw a need for desserts that could be made and delivered to local area restaurants. It was something that was easy to do. I had a business partner, Nichole, at the time who also had a child so it was an easy way for us to start something and have freedom.
We worked together for several years renting a kitchen space in Virginia. Then Nichole had another child and decided that she wanted more time to focus on her family. I decided to continue Paisley Fig and moved into Room 11 in 2012. And here we are today.
“You have to work hard, but also, my new motto is: it’s okay to take time.”
I wish I had a more interesting story! My ex-brother-in-law, who is a very precise guy, said one day, “When you have your bakery, I have the perfect name.” He told it to me and I actually didn’t like it at first!
When we were starting the bakery, my former business partner and I came up with about 15 names, emailed all of our family and friends, and narrowed it down to a list of four. Paisley Fig was one of them, and the two of us agreed to go with it. It ended up sticking, and I love it now!
I like it too! Shifting gears a bit, what entrepreneurial qualities have you used at Paisley Fig that have contributed to your success?
I had the ability to see a need—a niche market that I could fill. Honestly, I don’t know how much thought I put into it beyond going to work every day and working hard. The work involved a lot of scrambling: finding a client, producing for that client, and then through word of mouth getting another client…seizing the opportunities as they come along and continuing to work hard. And never stopping!
It used to be a lot easier though. Now, I feel DC is a very different place. As business owners, we had this idea to supply local restaurants with desserts. That was the initial idea because a lot of chefs don’t want to produce desserts and a lot of restaurants don’t want to pay for a pastry chef. So we were two pastry chefs who supplied restaurants and over time, it grew into more of a bakery concept. Paisley Fig used to be one of the only bakeries, but suddenly, there are bakeries popping up all the time! So there’s another edge to it now.
“When you grow, you have to take chances and risks…you never really know until you try it. That’s the hardest part!”
I’ve seen Paisley Fig pastries in local stores—was the increased competition part of your shift into retail?
Everything happened out of need. We wanted to maximize production. We supplied restaurants with desserts, and that burst into delivering cookies and granola to places, and that grew into producing pastries every day and delivering them. It’s taken a very natural progression but also you have to be open to it.
When you grow, you have to take chances and risks…you never really know until you try it. That’s the hardest part! But Katy (Evelyn’s assistant and Paisley Fig’s “cakes genius”) is really good at balancing me. We’re polar opposites! I’m very careful and she’s a risk-taker—kind of a yin and yang, which I think has really helped.
Speaking of risk, can you give me an example of a time you experienced a challenge with your business? What did you learn from it?
When you grow, you have to continue quality control. You [can] get consumed with your work and you have to remind yourself to step outside and look back. As you grow a business, you have more people working when you’re not there and it’s harder to watch all ships. It can be hard to let go and it’s also a balance of knowing when you should and shouldn’t let go.
Is there any advice you’d give women entrepreneurs in particular?
For me, the hardest part is juggling motherhood. I have almost quit a million times over the past couple years because it is basically impossible. I have an amazing husband but it is still so, so hard. You want to be a mom and raise your children, but also grow your business. What’s kept me going is that I feel like if I work hard now, I can kind of ease up a little bit later, when my kids are older and may need me more (to help with homework and things like that).
You have to work hard, but also, my new motto is: it’s okay to take time. I recently booked tickets to go see my parents. I remember doing it and I said, “Everything is going to be okay.” So remember that it’s okay to breathe.
A variety of Paisley Fig baked goods are served daily at Room 11: 3232 11th St NW, Washington, DC. More information here!
Portrait courtesy of Lizzy Evelyn. The other photos are by me.
Genna Byrd is the founder of Start DC. Learn more about her here and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Addendum: Update on the Heller’s Space!
As a good Mount Pleasant resident, I asked Evelyn for an update on plans for her upcoming bakery in the neighborhood. She says she’s not able to share all of the details yet, as her husband, Nick Pimentel, just opened Bad Saint and they’ve not had much time to focus on the (other) new endeavor. Evelyn explained it will be similar in concept to what they have at Room 11. Stay tuned!