Over the past 18 years, Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections has baked countless desserts, obsessed over chocolate-dipped toffees, crafted jams from local produce, written a baking book and perfected the art of petit fours. Gordon makes beautifully designed sweet treats that look like art, smell intoxicating and taste delicious. In addition to her hours spent in the kitchen, Gordon collaborates with Commune Design, grilling desserts at Alisal’s BBQ Bootcamp in the Santa Ynez Valley and meticulously researching details in order to resurrect historic cakes. (If someone mentions that they miss the Brown Derby grapefruit cake or Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake, Gordon gets to work researching the recipe, interviewing people who remember eating it and working diligently to replicate the taste and experience as closely as possible.) With her partner Stan Weightman, Gordon has also run a lunch counter at Grand Central Market and opened a cozy café in Echo Park where locals can pop in for all kinds of dishes including smoked salmon tartines and handpies. All of Gordon’s work exemplifies her quest for perfection, tradition and innovation.
As the pandemic has affected so many culinary businesses, the challenges Gordon and Weightman faced shifted them into overdrive to commit to thinking about the future. They searched for a building and are now busily transforming their new Glendale headquarters so that it serves all of their needs. Now the office, shop, bakery, chocolate manufacturer and new event space are all under two adjoining roofs—complete with a secluded patio in the middle that will soon be shaded by passionfruit vines.
We toured the headquarters to reminisce about the past and learn about the future of Valerie Confections—and some of the unexpected influences on how the company is run.
Tell us about deciding to move into a larger new HQ in Glendale?
After getting through the pandemic and after getting COVID ourselves in early 2022, we decided that we really wanted to make large changes to our company. That we were no longer satisfied with how we were running it, what our space was like, what the experience was like for us, for our staff or for our customers. We wanted to make very bold changes.
What’s really interesting is for me, I always say if I can see it, it can happen. When I’m working on a recipe, if I’m visualizing a cake and I want it to look a certain way. If I can really see it then I know I can actualize it. The same thing with packaging and with the space. The first time I saw this space, I thought we can absolutely make this work. It felt right. A lot of things were extremely antiquated, but we were very lucky in that it was a permitted facility. It already had all of the infrastructure we wanted. So we didn’t need to do any huge construction. It was about upgrades and renovation.
What was your main aim when designing the shop?
The public-facing shop space speaks so much to how Stan and I have grown to work as business partners: we both have a very clear idea on the aesthetic that we want, then we generally collaborate on the overall look and experience. I really wanted people to be able to see chocolate production and I wanted a full hug of products when you walk in that door. There’s something so intimate when you go into a Parisian chocolate shop—you feel hugged. You’re just completely seduced by the different products, smells and looks that you see.
In the design we wanted to reuse as much wood as we could from previous locations because waste in build-outs is a real problem. Stan laid out the design for the entire retail space.
There’s also the production facility, and office and more here—how do all the spaces work in concert?
This space is an experiment to see what a different kind of workspace looks like. We did sort of a deep excavation of how we felt in our workspace and what would make us feel more comfortable, more satisfied and more stimulated on a daily basis. We talked to employees, current and some who worked for us before. We talked to friends in the food industry about aspects of the industry that are inherently stressful, and what as business-owners we might be able to buffer.
We reprioritized the way the space was laid out so we could have areas for just comfort. There is a room designated to the staff for beverages and food, snacks and meals. I think we’re so accustomed to this mindset within the food industry of suffering and deprivation. We looked at other industries and what the employee areas look like in a design firm, where the staff area is really nice. It’s like, why in the food industry do we all sit on crates and drink out of deli cups? We deserve something nice. We deserve comfort too.
What are your plans for the center patio space between the buildings? And the Big Green Egg grills you have set up there?
We are 18 years into running this company, I have found that my interests and things that keep me motivated have shifted. One of the things that I really love about the food industry and also the way I like to participate within the food industry is creating community. Hosting gatherings is something that I found I enjoyed more and more over the last few years and we haven’t had a space to do that. That was really integral in finding the right space where we could host tastings, guest chefs, gatherings where we can collaborate or have fundraising events. Drawing people together from different walks of life and creating new relationships is something that I find a lot of stimulation from. And I also love barbecue.
You are known for meticulously resurrecting historic cakes like the Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake and the Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake. What’s the next one you want to tackle?
There was a place called Grace’s Pastries and it was owned by a gentleman named George Izumi, who had been in a Japanese American internment camp. He had eight locations of this bakery. I was working on resurrecting one of his desserts: a Dobash torte. He had a version of it that had sort of been shifted for the Japanese American palate. It was very different than a traditional one, more aerated. I would go and have meetings with George and he was never satisfied with it, although all of his kids said it was perfect. When George passed away a couple years ago they gave me his recipe box.
Does your background in performing arts impact your culinary career?
Oh my god, hugely. Stan and I both got drama degrees. We met in a theater company and soon after we started dating I came to this huge realization that I am in fact a horrible actress. What an epiphany. I also realized that I didn’t like it. What I do like is being in front of people, and I like being on camera, but I don’t want to be a character. What it did do is it trained me to be comfortable speaking in front of people and when we launched the company, I went around and personally brought a box of chocolate to people, gave them my spiel, did tastings and gave demos everywhere. Having that ability to stand in front of 100 people and talk about chocolate and explain what you do and be training sessions for different companies, that comes from my acting background.
And how does your experience with yoga inform what you do?
There are two major precepts of yoga. There’s something called Sthira and Sukha, which is strength and flexibility. The idea of constantly maintaining strength and flexibility—there is no better business lesson. It’s this idea that got us through the recession, that got us through the pandemic. Also this idea of not looking at what you don’t have, but looking at what you do have. When the pandemic first started, right when lockdown happened and all of these limitations came out, instead of looking at that, I looked at… but what can we do? That was the thing that kept us in business. When the pandemic struck, I immediately began planning what products we were going to sell and what they were going to look like. And without discussion, Stan starts setting up the back end, so immediately we flipped it. This is where Stan and I have just gotten better and better at being business partners over the years.
Hero image courtesy of Valerie Confections