Julie Hwang of Big City Little Sweets
Julie Hwang always loved baking but like many, she pursued a more “practical” career of law. After moving from California to New York for law school and working for a few years at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan, she found herself jobless after 2008's economic downturn. Unsure of what to do next, she found comfort in her true passion—baking. In 2011, Julie opened Big City Little Sweets, a dessert catering company specializing in one-bite desserts, including cake pops, mini cupcakes, and French macarons. Now her tiny glitter-dusted confections have garnered attention across the country. Even famed shoe designer Christian Louboutin and Bergdorf Goodman's VP Linda Fargo have been spotted indulging in Big City's delicious treats.
Although attorney-turned-confectioner and entrepreneur is anything but a traditional career progression, Julie’s legal education and experiences taught her to think analytically and communicate effectively–two skills necessary when starting a dessert business in a city where bakeries can be seen on every street. Julie knew her desserts needed to stand out so she refined her recipes using quality ingredients, most of which are organic and locally-sourced. She also perfected her decadent treats to please the most sophisticated palate while allowing for guilt-free, portion-controlled indulging.
We’re inspired by the sheer creativity, detail, and hard work Julie puts into every aspect of Big City Little Sweets from the desserts (that are almost too beautiful to eat) to how she's connected with fashion brands and bloggers (both of which helped elevate her in the industry). Today, Julie shares her story on the leap of faith she took to turn her love for baking into a career and the importance of valuing your work.
Full name: Julie Hwang
Location: New York City, NY
Current title/company: Founder and Owner of Big City Little Sweets
Educational background: Bachelor of Arts from UCLA, J.D. from Brooklyn Law School
Previous job: Litigation Associate
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land that position?
I worked as a paralegal at a law firm. In college, I majored in English Literature and considered pursuing a PhD in English. Surprisingly, one of my professors encouraged me not to. I had to figure out what I wanted to do after college, and because I liked to read and write, law seemed like an appropriate choice. I didn't know anything about the profession, so I reached out to a number of law firms in Los Angeles and landed a position at a litigation firm. I worked as a paralegal for a couple years before applying to law school and moving to New York.
A few years ago you underwent a big career change. Tell us a little more about that. How did you transition from being an attorney to now making some of New York's most coveted confections?
My background isn’t one that would immediately lend itself to catering miniature confections. Originally a California girl born and raised in Los Angeles, I moved to Manhattan in 2004 to attend law school and fulfill my goal of working for a top firm in New York. All went according to plan until 2009’s recession when I found myself, like so many others that year, looking for a job. But instead of looking at another law firm, I opted to pursue “a sweeter life” and my entrepreneurial dream of launching a specialized dessert catering company, Big City Little Sweets.
I hired pastry Chef Peter Endriss to help perfect my pastry and baking skills and develop techniques to creatively customize and miniaturize macarons, tartlettes, cupcakes, cookies and cake pops into delicious, artfully presented, bite-size delectables. With the help of Chef Endriss and Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit organization created to help women and minorities launch their own culinary businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen facilities, I launched Big City Little Sweets in 2011.
Are you nostalgic at all about leaving the legal field?
I liked law but I never felt passionate about it. It was terrific while it lasted. I learned how to think analytically and write persuasively, and I made great friends and contacts. But there is nothing greater than pursuing one’s passion, and I’m off doing bigger, better, and sweeter things in life. Never look back!
Where did you acquire your love of baking? Has it always been a passion of yours?
I always always always loved to bake. As a child before I could even read, I remember skimming through baking books. I baked all through high school, college, and law school. I should have gone to pastry school, but it wasn’t a “practical” career choice. In my instance, I definitely should have followed my heart and passion instead of doing what was safe and practical.
At what point did you decide to take baking from a hobby to a business and start Big City Little Sweets?
After my layoff, I knew I didn’t want to go back to a law firm, but I didn’t know what to do next. Needless to say, it was a stressful time and I started baking again to relax and take my mind off of things. I was living with my cousin at the time and I sent tons of desserts with her to work, and everyone loved them! That sparked an interest. But living in NYC, we have some of the best bakeries and patisseries in the country, so I knew if I wanted to start a business, it had to be different and something I could be proud of.
I’m health conscious and I take care of the way I look, but I also like sweets and I selectively enjoy them. I’m a big believer in the French sensibility that you can have your cake and eat it too, as long as there is quality and quantity control. So I liked the idea of creating beautifully presented bite-sized desserts, and I knew there were enough women who had the same sensibilities as me to have a viable business.
Have you experienced any challenges as a small business owner that you didn't expect? If so, how have you dealt with those challenges?
A few months back, I received a 15,000 cake pop order for a fashion designer’s one-year anniversary party. As a small business owner, I lacked the capacity to fulfill such a huge order and had to regretfully turn it down. I’m still trying to figure out how I can ramp up production for orders like that while balancing quality and growth.
Jimmy Choo, Milly, Alice + Olivia, Rebecca Minkoff, Christian Louboutin, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Michael Kors, and Marc Jacobs are just a few of the fashionable names that are fans of your sweet treats. How did you begin to market Big City Little Sweets towards these customers?
It all started from an order at Bergdorf Goodman. I saw all these fashionistas loving my desserts and it dawned on me that creativity and quality in a micro-mini size made Big City Little Sweets and the fashion industry a perfect fit. So, I made a list of designers and fashion companies and sent them dessert packages. I started receiving custom orders for press previews, designer presentations, private events, and gift packages. I made some friends in the fashion world who connected me to people and things started to come together.
You've received multiple accolades for making some of the industry's most beautiful and delicious desserts. What would you say sets you apart that has made your business so successful?
Our customized desserts artfully play with branding, color and design so that’s naturally part of the draw. For Bergdorf Goodman’s party for Christian Louboutin, my custom cake pops were a big success because they creatively mirrored Louboutin’s design aesthetic. But what also appeals to people is the fact that my desserts are served in guilt-free sizes with all-natural and mostly organic ingredients.
Your menu is extensive, containing mini versions of everything from lemon meringue pies to red velvet cupcakes. Do you have a growing staff or do you continue to do most of the baking and decorating yourself?
It’s my passion for baking that started Big City Little Sweets, so I hope to always be involved in the baking aspects of the business. However, because I run a catering business, I can project ahead and I hire pastry cooks and interns from the French Culinary Institute to help me when things get busy.
You've designed desserts for events inspired by shoes, denim, and brands themselves. Walk us through the process of turning a customer's idea into a dessert that is so unique and personalized.
I’ll receive several designs to draw inspiration from, and depending on the client and the size of the order, we’ll go though a couple rounds of samples before finalizing the order. I’ll either messenger the dessert samples if the client is in NYC, or take an image of the desserts and email it over for approval. It’s a pretty fast process.
What is a typical day like for you?
It really depends on the day. Starting a business is challenging, but maintaining and growing the business is even more challenging. As a small business owner, I’m responsible for most, if not all of the operations of my business. This can include continuing to build my brand through social media and connecting with bloggers; money management through understanding cash flows and reconciling book keeping; managing existing client relationships and looking for growth opportunities; to ultimately baking in the kitchen!
Big City Little Sweets is currently solely a catering service. Do you plan on opening up a shop available to the public in the future?
Expanding Big City Little Sweets into the retail space is definitely a possibility. I just want to make sure it is the right timing and opportunity because I never want to compromise the creativity and attention to detail found in my desserts.
Actually, I’m in the early stages of exploring a partnership with a prominent retail establishment in New York City. I promise to keep The Everygirl posted on this!
What advice would you give an aspiring baker who wants to start their own business?
Figure out your numbers. I struggled with this for a long time because I didn’t want to deal with it, but it’s very important. You need to know how much it costs to make your desserts in order to price them correctly. Often times, people price their products too low, and you end up undervaluing yourself and your creations.
Best moment of your career thus far?
It’s a toss-up between Christian Louboutin and Bergdorf’ Goodman's Creative Director, Linda Fargo, feeding each other my cake pops, and watching models eating my desserts and reaching for seconds!
What advice would you give your 23 year-old-self?
I'd tell my 23 year-old-self the same thing I tell myself today—enjoy your life and be in the moment. There's no need to constantly look ahead because everything comes together as it should.