France-Amérique: So let me get this straight: You went from playing high-level basketball to being the head of a chain of cafés. And all because of love?
Benjamin Sormonte: After graduating from high school in France, I received a scholarship to play basketball at the University of South Alabama. I then went to Concordia University in Montreal, where I continued playing before starting a master’s in finance at HEC Montreal, followed by a law degree at McGill. Montreal was where I met my wife, Elisa Marshall. She worked in the events industry, and agreed to come with me to Toronto and London, where I became a corporate lawyer. I liked what I was doing, but I didn’t see myself staying in that sector for ten years. I wanted to be more creative. An opportunity came up and we decided to take the plunge. Along with some friends, we opened a restaurant in Ibiza, then a wine bar in New York City. Meanwhile, Elisa had always dreamed of opening a café. At the time, there were a lot of coffee shops in New York, but they didn’t embrace the bakery side of things. There were also some good bakeries, but they didn’t serve coffee. I said to her, “We’re in the industry now, let’s give it a try.” We opened the first Maman in SoHo in 2014. We got lucky: People liked the concept and it took off really quickly.
Where does the name Maman come from?
It’s a tribute to our mothers! One day, I asked Elisa who her favorite chef was. She replied: “My mother.” When she returned the question, I said, “Maman” too! The original menu featured a lot of family recipes, including a lemon shortbread cookie we called “Gracie,” after Elisa’s grandmother. The offering has since changed but we still serve quiche Lorraine, and we’ve chosen an interior that resonates with us. I was born in Puyricard, near Aix-en-Provence, and grew up in my mother’s rather rustic kitchen in Montpellier. Elisa’s father was an antiques dealer, and most of the furniture in our cafés is thrifted in France. The nicest compliment is when people visiting Maman say it feels like stepping into a house in southern France.
Your chocolate chip cookies shot to fame thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who put them on her “Favorite Things” list in 2017. Can you tell us more?
We thought it was important to have a cookie on the menu. We developed a recipe combining elements from French and American cookies, with butter. No one expected it, but it has become one of our signature products!
Is everything homemade?
Yes, except the bread. We used to make it ourselves, but our rapid expansion has meant that we’re running out of space, so now we buy it. We have a commissary kitchen for each regional market, and everything is fresh and produced on site. Our butter and chocolate come from France, but we also use excellent American products. The offering is more or less the same from one city to the next, with a few exceptions. In Washington D.C., by popular demand, we created a club sandwich. It’s been such a success that we’ll probably put it on the menu at our other branches!
How were you affected by Covid-19?
It was a difficult period for us, just like for everyone else. But it also gave us time to breathe, to discover other markets like Washington D.C., and to improve on our concept. For example, we realized that selling boxes of twelve cookies online was too much, especially during a time when people were socializing less. So we came up with the idea of selling the dough and letting customers bake cookies as and when they wanted them. We also delivered between 2,000 and 3,000 breakfasts a week for hospital nurses and doctors, and we are still sending them between 500 and 600. We don’t make any money from this, but it has enabled us to employ staff, meet new people, and thank these essential workers.
You seem to have been putting twice as much effort in since the pandemic!
In late 2020, we raised funds from HPC Capital and TriSpan, a French and an American investment firm respectively. Today, we have 30 locations in New York, Toronto, Montreal, the Philadelphia area, and Washington D.C. Miami is the next market. Opening cafés is very addictive; after doing it once, you want to do it again!
There are more and more bakery-cafés with French names in the United States. Are you worried?
Competition is a positive thing; it proves that this sort of product appeals to a lot of people! The potential market is vast, and these cafés all offer a very different experience from ours. The menu at Paris Baguette, a Korean chain, includes a cellophane-wrapped takeout pastry, while Le Pain Quotidien, an American chain founded in Belgium, isn’t big on coffee. The closest thing to Maman is Tatte, which does coffee and baked goods in Massachusetts and the Washington area, and focuses more on lunch.
How are you diversifying your offering?
We published a cookbook in 2021 and will soon be selling granola and home-made jams. We also offer a catering service and plan events – a booming sector at the moment. These developments all happened by chance. One day, we hosted a fondue party at one of our cafés and the tickets sold out within an hour. We started creating events on site, but also at customers’ homes, for baby showers, for example. We even took part in New York Fashion Week.
Do you have any new projects lined up?
No, things are busy enough right now! We’re going to focus on opening cafés in Miami and Washington D.C., and we’re thinking of opening between ten and twelve locations a year in North America. There are so many opportunities, it’s really exciting!