It is the stuff of a modern fairy tale. Business-savvy American girl meets artistic French chef in San Francisco, and after a six-week whirlwind romance, they marry and launch The French Patisserie. Thirty years later, they are living happily ever after in scenic Pacifica, California, while their business and its subsidiary, Looka Patisserie, have emerged as award-winning producers of gourmet food service desserts and a large retail manufacturers of French macarons.
Thirty years ago, Marta Spasic, company president and chief financial officer, had just returned to Los Angeles after studying international relationships and French literature for four years in Paris. Tired of Los Angeles, she moved to San Francisco where she met her husband, Frank Spasic. He’d trained at the Ferrandi in Paris, and before falling in love with Marta, he had fallen in love with San Francisco when he had visited and decided to stay.
When they met, Frank was working out of his apartment, delivering fresh desserts to restaurants and hotels, caterers, and country clubs. “He had trained and was working as a chef,” Marta says, “but when he looked at what was available in wholesale desserts at the time, he thought ‘I could do better,’ even though he’d never studied pastries which is quite different to cooking. Baking is more of a science and cooking is more art, so he started teaching himself how to make gourmet desserts and deliver them fresh in the area,” she explains.
“I came into the business a year later (1989), and basically, it was just the two of us building the company (The French Patisserie) and maybe one or two employees, and we did everything from making high-end, pre-made, pre-decorated desserts for hotels and restaurants to selling, delivering, and bookkeeping.”
By 1995, the company had grown and was ready to transition to a wider market, turning the desserts into something that could be frozen and shipped to food service operations throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico while maintaining the same high-end, quality, all-natural ingredients and beautiful presentations. By then, the couple had relocated from the San Francisco apartment to a modern food production center in Pacifica, just twenty minutes out of San Francisco where the staff increased in number. “We now have seventy-five,” Marta told us, “but we have employed up to 130.
“We had very little competition at the time in our niche market,” she continued, “but in 2008, everything changed when the economic recession hit. Our product was the most expensive item on dessert menus, and so it started coming off the menus, and the orders for corporate parties and banquets stopped because the large corporations really had to tone it down.
“That was when we saw that we needed to refocus, and we started approaching retailers (instead of trying to stay in the wholesale market exclusively). In the beginning, it was manufacturing for private labels, and we instantly hit success making private label desserts for retail freezers. I think we upped the standards of what was available, because there really wasn’t a lot, and our goal was to be the best premium retail dessert provider.”
In 2012, the company came out with its own brand, Looka Patisserie. “That’s what really changed our business, and the French macarons we had been making for food service became a trend so that it’s almost ninety percent of what we do now. We are the largest producer in the industry in the U.S.. There are some European importers, but in the U.S., we are the largest.”
What goes into a French macaron from Looka? “A lot of almonds,” says Marta. “We are large purchasers of almond meal, and we grate our own pistachio paste. There’s butter crème and imported chocolate and all-natural coloring from turmeric, hibiscus, beets, and things like that. A lot of the products you see (from other manufacturers) have vivid colors, but they are not easy to achieve naturally. However, we’ve become pretty good at using natural colors to achieve those vivid colors. And they are the best ones I’ve tasted that are produced in large volume.”
This past year, Looka Patisserie acquired automation machinery that Marta believes is unique. “We still have a lot of assembly by hand, but we feel we are in a position where we have to be serious about producing macarons in large quantity as we continue to grow because we’ve reduced our product line. We’re automating more to improve efficiency, quality, and consistency and have less handling by people, as that is always a food safety factor, so we’ve invested in automation, and we’re putting in a robotic packaging system. We’re keeping the artisanal quality of our product, and by adding automation, we’re not reducing employees, but we’re making their job smoother and easier, so they’re not rushed. We want to make sure we put out a product that is as perfect as possible from a quality and presentation standpoint.”
In addition to macarons, Looka Patisserie produces cheesecakes and other individual desserts including little mousse cups which come in six flavors in packs of twenty-four which Marta says are products “club stores sell at the end of the year for parties, and it’s a really fun idea.”
But while colourful macarons and mousse cups are all about giving diners and party guests enjoyment and fun, making a perfect product is serious business and requires a great deal of attention to detail. There is the careful locating of non-GMO ingredients and upgrading the facility with the latest in technology and food service equipment such as temperature monitoring and metal detector devices to ensure consumer’s health and safety. Once created, the desserts are cradled in custom-made proprietary packaging to maintain, not only the presentation of each dessert but to preserve the moisture, texture, and flavors from outside factors such as freezer burn and odors.
In terms of food safety, Frank and Marta have worked to ensure their products go beyond FDA regulations and meet the higher standards of the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Institute which aims to deliver consistent and globally-recognized food safety and quality certification programs. The bakery can also boast having passed the Military Sanitation Audit and Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) methodologies. As well, full recall and traceability protocols, from raw materials to shipped goods, are in place.
The company’s professionalism has been recognized by the industry as it has picked up numerous Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (SQFI) awards at the Specialty Food Associations’ twice-yearly international trade show. “We’ve been a finalist for our individual desserts a number of times,” Marta says, “and we get emails from consumers who tell us how wonderful they are when they find them at retailers away from the larger centers when they couldn’t find them before. They’re products they’ve read about in magazines but weren’t accessible, so we are making gourmet desserts more accessible.”
We asked Marta why she thinks the business partnership with her husband has been such a success. “When I moved to San Francisco years ago, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says, “but I met Frank within a couple of months, and everything just fell into place. I began working with him, and here we are thirty years later, living in this beautiful place, Pacifica on the coast, just twenty minutes out of San Francisco, and we’ve been very fortunate,” she shares.
“We complement each other, and that’s our strong point. Frank’s the visionary. He’s more of the artist, and I am more of the administration – the finance and putting the things into place that he’s visualizing. I’m the one who keeps track of the money and writes the checks, and he’s the one in product development. He sees the direction we want to go in, and I am instrumental in making it happen.”