When Pizzelle’s Confections earned a nomination as Huntsville’s small creative business of the year, nobody at the shop expected to win. They knew their competition.
“We just make chocolates; these people make rockets,” co-owner Michelle Novosel Pennell remembers thinking before the event.
But win they did, taking honors last August at the 33rd Annual Small Business Awards Celebration presented by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.
Pennell and her co-owner sister Caitlyn Lyon had kicked around the idea of a confectionery for years.
“We knew we didn’t want a full-blown restaurant and kind of honed in on the idea of a dessert cafe,” says Pennell. During a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2007, the sisters stumbled upon a tiny chocolate shop and caught a glimpse of their future. “To see a place that small and what they offered, it was, like, ‘Oh! This is an attainable thing.’”
“And that was the first time we’d ever seen artisan chocolate,” Lyon adds. “They were colorful and used interesting ingredients, like curry.” The sisters also were impressed that everything was made on site.
Pennell attended a year of culinary school at the Art Institute of Nashville and later took online classes at Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts, based out of Vancouver. When she began selling her candies through a local art shop, the sisters decided it was time to come up with a name for their business.
In 2012, they formed Pizzelle’s Confections, named for the classic Italian cookie they grew up eating. Once they had a name, “everything just started happening really fast,” Lyon recalls. A friend suggested they apply for space at Lowe Mill, and Pizzelle’s was juried in early that summer.
Converting the 800-square-foot storefront began that fall, allowing time for Lyon and Pennell to reach out to their culinary connections for information and advice. They worked with Rocket Hatch, a non-profit resource agency for startups in northern Alabama that emphasizes collaboration over competition, to form a spin-off, Food Hatch, with other small food-industry businesses.
When they first opened their doors in the early spring of 2013, they thought they had started a hobby business. Their initial vision was that Pennell would make and sell a modest quantity of her truffles during the week and Lyon, who was working full-time as a tech writer, would help out on Saturdays. There were tentative thoughts of making small-scale wholesale arrangements with other businesses in town, but they were conservative in their expectations.
“And it turned out to be the exact opposite,” says Lyon, who took time off from her job to assist during that first week. “There was a line out the door. We hired our first employee the very next week.”
“Who is still here, by the way,” adds Pennell, referring to Marcie Purves, now Pizzelle’s executive confectioner.
Lyon left her job nine months later to work full-time as general manager, and the business continued to grow.
When the manager of Lowe Mill contacted the shop a couple of years later about expanding into the room adjacent to theirs, they accepted. As a result, in 2017 they nearly tripled their space to 2,300 square feet, dramatically increasing their customer seating area and expanding their kitchen to accommodate a full dessert menu. They also hired Emily Hawkins, who completed a pastry certificate program at The Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, as their executive pastry chef.
The new space and menu weren’t without growing pains. “We went through a lot of changes when it came to trying to figure out what people wanted and what we wanted to do,” says Pennell. And it took a while for their clientele, accustomed to ordering their chocolates and leaving, to adjust to being able to sit and enjoy a dessert or get a coffee and just hang out.
The sisters also had to figure out how to incorporate Hawkins’ cakes into their business; selling them by the slice was proving to be wasteful. They focused instead on creating wedding and special occasion cakes for individual clients and selling miniature versions of those in the shop. “Michelle was the one who suggested the switch to mini cakes, and it made so much sense because it’s kind of the same story the truffles are: it’s this one piece of art and you get to eat it,” says Lyon.
“And they’re inspired by the truffles,” Hawkins adds. “The ‘Goodbye Earl’ cake has the same ganache that’s in the ‘Goodbye Earl’ truffle, and the decorations, the colors, are inspired by the blue and yellow of the truffle.”
“We obviously have a company culture and a company presence and a brand,” says Lyon. “But at the same time, there’s not a lot of things that we tell Emily to do creatively. She’s worked in this industry long enough that she knows how to control costs and waste and all that, and the creative part is just…” the icing on the cake.
“We always try to put a little twist on things or something that you wouldn’t think about,” says Hawkins. She points to a lavender and orange curd cake she recently made. “It’s actually a pretty traditional pairing, but it’s not something you see in cakes very often.”
“When we opened, we weren’t sure if people would respond well to what we were offering,” says Pennell, referring to including ingredients like chile pepper or goat cheese, even vinegar, in their truffles. It turns out, they did.
Pizzelle’s celebrated its sixth anniversary on March 16, definitely planning to stay on at Lowe Mill. Customers who visit the shop more than once or twice will likely find that the staff remembers their favorite chocolates. Cultivating that kind of relationship is something they feel their location at Lowe Mill uniquely enables them to do.
“Coming here is not just, ‘Let me grab a bag of M&Ms and be on my way and I’ll just eat it in the car,’” says Lyon. “Although, we have had people get out to their car and turn around and come back in and say, ‘I already ate all my chocolate and I need more.’”
“We want to stay here and be that destination where you can come and really get an experience,” adds Pennell. “Emily was decorating a beautiful cake earlier, and people were just watching her.”
The sisters are pleased with the recognition Pizzelle’s has received and encourage and celebrate the successes of other small businesses in the area. They volunteer for Catalyst Business Center, a non-profit agency that provides free business mentoring and educational resources for small businesses and are involved in outreach programs through local schools.
“I think that outreach to schools is really important,” says Lyon. As Huntsville grows and demand for employees to fill tech jobs increases, she’s concerned that other career paths are undervalued. “The people that work for us are professionals, and to be able to go to middle schools and high schools and show them what we do and say, ‘This is possible for you; you can make a living at this’ matters. Not everybody is going to be an engineer.”
“Someone has to give the engineer their dessert,” says Hawkins.
Katherine MacGilvray and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.