Two years ago, Erica Leahy left her job as a pastry chef and started baking for friends and family.  After getting her company going in a shared commercial kitchen, or kitchen “incubator,” today she owns Three Daughters Baking Company, and will soon run a café inside an innovative new store in Maplewood.

As one of the entrepreneurs at General Store Cooperative Marketplace and Café, a recently opened shared retail space, Leahy splits rent and operating costs with the other businesses there. By design, each entrepreneur displays merchandise in their own section of the store. All are local and independent businesses and, at least for now, most are women.

Leahy is in charge of the food, along with half of the cost to build the new commercial kitchen that will support Three Daughters Baking Company. She said she’s had doubts about this new, bigger version of her company after getting started at Garden State Kitchen.

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“On September first, we signed a lease and I’ve kind of been freaking out ever since then,” she said. To push through her fears, she said she listens to podcasts by other entrepreneurs and tries to remember that she’s been doing this for 18 years.

“Even after all this time of being in the industry, I still get really nervous,” Leahy said. “This is really a big step but this opportunity to collaborate with these other women and share this very unique retail space is a really good next step for us.”

At the café, which she hopes will be open in early December, there will be locally made kombucha on tap and an espresso bar with reusable to-go cups. Leahy’s sophisticated treats are already for sale. In the new year, she plans to add soups, salads and lunch items, working with her husband who is also a chef on the savory side of the kitchen. Together they bring 38 years of solid experience.

A Passion for Pastry

Leahy’s interest in pastry started when she was a kid.

“I’ve always had a sweet tooth,” she said. “I’d be in a bakery and I’d think ‘how did they do that?’”

In her 20s, that curiosity combined with a dull office job to pull her toward her true calling.

“No matter what it was, I was bored,” she said. “I remember practically falling asleep at my desk.”

For fun, she signed up for a class at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education), which led her to the professional program.

To finish culinary school, Leahy had to complete an unpaid externship in a professional kitchen. It was a commitment that required her to move back in with her parents because she couldn’t afford rent. It was also her entry into the world of fine dining.

From there, she landed jobs with star chefs Daniel Boulud, Karen DeMasco and Tom Colicchio, pulling long hours to gain experience.

“It was intense,” Leahy said. She bookended demanding shifts with long commutes into the city that often had her on the train at 3:30 a.m. “I was just of that mindset of ‘OK, whatever it takes.’”

Her perseverance led to promotions and seniority. Tapped as the pastry chef at Craft, she created menus and trained a team of sous chefs and line cooks to prepare her signature not-too-sweet desserts. Later, she ran a high-volume commissary kitchen that supplied baked goods to ’Witchcraft stores as they opened across the city. She catered special events like New York Fashion Week.

At her most recent position, the last time she worked for someone else, Leahy supervised the pastry kitchen at Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen — a huge operation with four different menus.

While she liked working on this side of the river, she wanted to spend more time with her family. She and her husband, who also worked crazy restaurant hours, agreed to make it happen.

“I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but we talked about it and decided it was time for me to put in my notice,” she said.

Leahy left the restaurant and kept baking. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, she emailed everyone she knew offering her elevated sweets for sale. Over the next year, she gained customers through word of mouth, social media and pop-ups, so she enrolled in a class at the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship. The result was a written business plan for Three Daughters Baking Company and a name that reflected the three girls she wanted to see more of and her own experience growing up with two sisters. 

With more customers, Leahy needed to scale up. That’s when she joined the commercial kitchen incubator Garden State Kitchen in Orange, which helped her get licensed in time to sell at this year’s West Orange Farmers Market.

“Going to Garden State Kitchen was a great next step,” Leahy said, adding that she couldn’t have taken on large orders without access to professional baking space. “I got everything together all in one swoop — and then it was game on.”

If you go:

Leahy is building still building the café, but a selection of treats from Three Daughters Baking Company can be found at the General Store Cooperative Marketplace and Café, 1875 Springfield Avenue in Maplewood, or online at ThreeDaughtersBakingco.com.

Read more on NJ Flavor:

The New Jersey Origins of Green Bean Casserole

Recipe from the Farm: Erin Headley’s Cranberry Pumpkin Bread

New Jersey Date Night: Get Lost in the Game at These Sports Bars

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Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at jlieberman@tapinto.net.