Renee Faris, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, always planned on becoming a food writer. But when she took a restaurant job to understand the industry better, she realized she would rather be making food than writing about it. After getting her college and culinary school degrees and honing her baking skills at Carlo’s Bakery, Gramercy Tavern, and Fig & Olive, Renee knew it was time to strike out on her own. Seeing a need for a European-style coffee shop in Northern NJ, she opened Erie Coffeeshop & Bakery in Rutherford, where she serves up delicious pies, cakes, and unique baked treats like blood orange brioche and coconut raspberry scones, along with locally roasted coffees. And after seven years, Renee still makes everything in-house in small batches, choosing quality over quantity and creative freedom. We caught up with this Bloomfield mama of one (and another on the way) to talk about her stint on the TV, which one of her cakes received national recognition, and why Montclair is her go-to town for eating out and shopping,
Tell us a little about your family. My husband, Joseph Sciacca, and I have been married since October 2017 and have a 3-year-old daughter, Loretta, and another baby on the way. I grew up in Wayne, but we live in Bloomfield, a town we chose for multiple reasons. We get to live close to my brother, who’s in Bloomfield, too, plus we get to enjoy Essex County’s beautiful parks. Another thing we love about it is the proximity to Montclair while still being affordable. I’d previously lived in New York and Los Angeles for work, but it was important to me to eventually find my way back to New Jersey, where I grew up. As a Palestinian-American, I have a lot of visiting family, and we enjoy spending time together—I didn’t want to be too far for that.
Tell us a little bit about your career background. Did you always want to be a pastry chef? I originally wanted to be a food writer. I went to William Patterson University, got a degree in literature, and minored in Creative Writing. Around the time I was graduating, blogging was popular, but I noticed a lot of the food writers didn’t know what they were talking about, and I wanted to be able to learn firsthand what I was writing about. I got a job at a new restaurant that had opened up in The Plaza Hotel in the city, and it felt so right that I decided to go to culinary school after graduation. While I was attending the Institute of Culinary Education and interning at Carlo’s Bakery, the shop got picked up for Cake Boss, so their already busy bakery just exploded. I did two seasons of Cake Boss, which was great, not only for the experience but also because it opened my eyes to other parts of the food industry, and after leaving, it was a wild ride for a while. I held many different positions in New York and Los Angeles –I got to cook for Obama and the Emmys and worked at some of NYC’s best restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, which was the first place I worked with a female head pastry chef. I loved that experience—it’s where I perfected my pie skills and fully embraced the importance of attention to detail in every aspect of the business.
What made you decide to go into business for yourself? It was a few different things. For starters, spending so many hours working in fine restaurants made me realize how difficult the hours can be if you have a family and spend quality time with them. I needed to figure out how I could still be in the kitchen and have an acceptable work/life balance. I came up with a small-batch bakery with excellent coffee because there weren’t many European-style coffee shops in New Jersey at the time. I had a friend open up a restaurant in Manhattan, and I started to think that if they could do it, I could too. And I also thought back to my grandparents, who had moved to the US from the Middle East and owned a Carvel ice cream shop in Jersey City–they were one of the first to franchise with Tom Carvel. That’s the kind of inspiration that sticks with you.
Please share a story about how your business has impacted the community. We’ve had two proposals at the bakery! They both said it was their special go-to-place, and other people have shared how much our business means to them. I love that I was able to build something that is just as meaningful to other people as it is to my family and me.
What do you love most about baking? I gravitated to pastry because there’s a lot of math and science involved in baking, and I wanted to know why things wouldn’t work when they didn’t. If something goes wrong in cooking, the chef can usually fix it, but the pastry is different—it is a science. I can be like a mad scientist when I’m working on a recipe, and it can be a lot of trial and error, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge.
Is there a particular dessert that you’re known for? Our most popular is the Olive Oil Citrus Cake—it was chosen as one of the 50 best cakes in America by The Food Network. Also, we have been named the best donuts in New Jersey by NJ.com and have been on that list a few times. Everything we do is fresh, in small batches, and by hand, makes a big difference in flavor and quality and elevates us—you’d be surprised how many bakeries use frozen dough and canned ingredients for fillings. My personal favorites are Strawberry Rhubarb and Salted Caramel Pies, two of our seasonal items.
Bakers are known for starting their day extremely early. What’s a typical day like for you? Being able to make my schedule is the best. Having a family was always very important to me, so I needed to figure out how I could have a family and still do what I love. The solution was to run my own business, but it took a long time to get to a place where I could balance my family and business. I have a great team at the shop, so I don’t have to be there 24/7 anymore. It also works because my mom helps me with the business and my daughter. When I first opened, I woke up at the crack of dawn, but now I have a team of people that start baking at 5:00 AM so we can be open for customers at 8:00 AM. I can now get to work a bit later than that to oversee everything.
What are your favorite things to do or places to visit in NJ with your family? I love all the changes I’ve been seeing in Rutherford–there are so many wonderful restaurants opening up, and the town is growing in such a great way. I love pizza–some Jersey favorites are Porta, Razza, and Talulas. Also, I’m in Montclair as often as possible, and we walk around Church Street, and Bloomfield Avenue, where there are great shops, and everything is curated so nicely. A lot of the business owners come from NYC, and they have a wealth of experience and interesting backgrounds working for the best of the best.
What are some of your favorite local shops in NJ? Hello Monty in Montclair is an exceptional clothing, small gifts, and accessories shop worth checking out. I also love Vesta Chocolate, a chocolate factory owned by two former co-workers from Gramercy Tavern. They sell the most delicious and beautiful chocolates. And Virile Barber Shop is my husband’s go-to. It’s small and intimate with an old-school vintage vibe–they even do hot shaves.
What is your best piece of advice for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? Know that having your own business isn’t going to be easy, but it is worth it. Figure out what you want from it, and if you’re willing to work hard, you can manifest that and make it happen.