On Sunday, April 21, 2019, San José dessert aficionados tuned into Shark Tank, the reality show that offers entrepreneurs opportunities to pitch to five of the biggest investors in the United States, to watch Christine and Gwen Nguyen, ’11 Entrepreneurship, share the story of Maven’s Creamery. The sisters launched a macaron ice cream business out of their parents’ garage in 2014, expanded to a commercial kitchen and manufacturing space in 2017, and have grown 300 percent business annually. Not too shabby for the co-founders, artistic chefs who learned to bake French confections and mix ice cream by searching YouTube and Google.
Given just a few minutes to pitch their product to Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary and Barbara Corcoran, the Nguyens shared how their journey started long before they were born, when their father immigrated to the United States from Vietnam on a boat. He worked two jobs for 20 years and encouraged his daughters’ entrepreneurial spirit.
“Our story resonates with a lot of people,” says Gwen, who worked in cosmetics and retail prior to launching Maven’s. “Anyone who has struggled in their own country and had to find ways to make a new home, make something of themselves for the family, understands where we are coming from.”
Gwen first gravitated toward entrepreneurship at San José State, where she learned how to write business plans. Her sister had studied anthropology at UCLA and worked in software sales before they launched Maven’s, which meant that they had to master a lot of new skills quickly. The sisters would come home from their nine-to-fives and hide out in their garage, staying up to master the science of baking and creating ice cream. For Gwen, macarons and ice cream mean pairing old and new, tradition and innovation—trademark Nguyen originality.
“We strongly believe that when you take one of the oldest desserts (the macaron dates back to the 1700s) and put a spin on it, you can create an innovative product without being Einstein,” they write on their website.
Though the days were long and the learning curve was steep, Gwen was motivated by a desire to fulfill not only her dream, but her father’s goal of owning a business. Fast-forward six years, and the sisters have partnered with franchise owners Tony and Kim Lam to expand their distribution model, and work with a staff of 20 to churn out 7,000 macarons a day. They sell 30 different flavors of macaron ice cream to more than 300 retailers across 22 states, and they’re not done yet.
Moved by their family story, Corcoran offered the Nguyens $400,000 for 25 percent of the company—an impressive gesture for the young entrepreneurs, who had holed up in a hotel room for a few days to practice their pitch. The episode was shot in fall 2018 and while Corcoran later decided to pass on the deal, the Nguyens were energized by the Shark Tank experience.
“Entrepreneurship is a little bit of everything,” says Gwen. “It’s marketing management, it’s leadership, it’s finance. As an entrepreneur, you have to tap into each and every single one of those elements. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and Christine and I really want to carry on our father’s journey.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape for small businesses, Gwen and Christine had to close shop for a few weeks in spring 2020. Once they had acquired the personal protection equipment needed to keep their staff safe, they reopened. They have also taken advantage of this time to introduce an entirely new product line: macaron cheesecake sandwiches. The creamery is focused on introducing innovative and original treats using ingredients like sriracha, champagne and truffles.
“From a production standpoint, it’s been challenging, because we have to keep employees six feet apart as they work, when ordinarily they’d be working elbow-to-elbow,” says Gwen. “But we are a COVID-prepared facility, so visitors and staff members must stand six feet apart and wear gloves and masks. Now that we have more production down time, we are using this time to do more research and development—we want to add a number of new flavors to our portfolio so we’ll be ready by the time the pandemic is over.”
Nothing says the end of a pandemic like velvety snickerdoodle cheesecake sandwiched between macarons.
Staff: Gwen Nguyen, co-founder, CEO; Christine Nguyen, co-founder, COO; Tony Lam, CMO; Kim Lam, CFO. Kitchen staff: 20 professionals.
Mission: To create innovative desserts with fresh ingredients that delight the palate.
Biggest lesson learned: They learned to be resourceful. Ask for help, call local experts, network with community leaders, read industry literature and do your homework.
Revenue stream: Maven’s manufactures ice cream at their plant in San José and sell them to Whole Foods, Safeway, and a number of mom and pop retail stores. They also cater events.
Problem they solve: They discovered a creative way to bring together legendary French confections—macarons—with homemade ice cream, producing an original treat.
Challenges faced: Establishing their commercial kitchen was challenging because neither of them had culinary or confectionary training.
Biggest accomplishments: Barbara Corcoran initially offered them an investment deal after seeing them pitch on Shark Tank. Pitching their product on television helped them hone their skills and share their story with the world.
Vision for the future: Maven’s plans to continue creating new flavors of macaron ice cream while inventing ever-innovative frozen desserts. They also hope to partner with other chef artists to establish products that they can include in their Maven’s dessert line.
Advice for entrepreneurs: “Be resourceful. Learn from people who have been there before. Why not leverage off the lessons learned from experts who have already succeeded?”