Photos by Alyvia Covert. Interview by Laura Gallup.
Welcome back to our series, “In my Element” where we visit and interview vendors at their farms, studios and kitchens to see what happens behind the scenes. This week we caught up with Leslie Muhlhahn of Just Desserts during a baking day at her kitchen in Ithaca. Leslie makes bread, pastries, English muffins and macaroons — but you may know her best for her famous, wood-fired pizza.
After graduating from culinary school with a passion for food, Leslie ended up by chance in the pastry department of her first job. At her next job – she again ended up making pastries, this time because she could do it well. After moving around from New Jersey to Vermont and then Arizona, she settled into Ithaca to run her own bakeshop on Fulton Street. Leslie joined the market in 1999, but her mom was actually a farm vendor at market in the early years, before the pavilion even existed. On any given Saturday, Sunday or Thursday during market season you will find her rolling dough and pulling pizzas out of the oven at booth #82.
Business owner: Leslie Muhlhahn
Business name: Just Desserts
Business address: 821 Danby Road, Ithaca NY
Vendor category: Food
How long at market: 1999
Reserved booth: #82
1. How did you end up at the market?
When I got to Ithaca I worked for a bakery in Collegetown. I had started taking a class offered by the city of Ithaca for entrepreneurship, and I didn’t even finish before I had started my business…without a plan. I kinda winged it. I wound up with the place behind Maxie’s Supper Club. It was empty and it felt like the right place. I asked if they would cut the rent in half and they did. I came to market because I was looking for more ways to sell stuff.
2. How has the market changed since 1999?
When I first got to the market, you had to sell on Sunday to be able to get a Saturday booth if you were an “associate” vendor. Back then Sundays were pretty slender. (Edit: not a rule anymore.) The pavilion was the same size but it was not full.
3. What makes you passionate about food?
I think it was the way I grew up. I’ve bought 210 lbs of peaches in the past 5 or 6 weeks from Jackman Vineyards and it’s because we used to put up peaches all the time when we were kids. My mother would get a bushel of peaches for $5 a bushel and we’d sit around the kitchen table, there was 5 kids. She’d blanch them and we’d take the skin off, cut them up, put them in ascorbic acid and freeze them in ziploc bags. My mother and father were both excellent cooks and passionate about food.
4. Advice for other small business owners starting out?
Be thrifty! Don’t borrow $100,000 to start your business. Do what you love, for sure. And your customers will always tell you what they will buy and what they won’t buy. Over the years my booth has changed quite a bit, because we keep evolving. I have to tell ya – if you had told me that I would go to culinary school to make pizza, I’d have laughed at you! But that’s what everybody wants, and we have fun doing it.
5. What’s something we might not know about you?
That I love my dogs! I have beautiful, well-bred, show dogs; three Akitas and a Rottweiler. I bred the #3 Shetland sheep dog in the US three years in a row in 2012, 2013 and 2014 in the American Kennel Club. I’ve been showing dogs since the 80’s.