Free Enterprise Staff  | May 5, 2016

Chef Fany Gerson Builds Culinary Empire inspired by her native Mexico

To make it in New York City’s cutthroat food and beverage industry, you really need to love what you do, because there’s a lot of competition. There are, after all, thousands of restaurants, bars, and bakeries scattered across the five boroughs that are competing for the collective attention of some 8.5 million residents and the more than 56.4 million people who visit the city every year. Luckily for Fany Gerson, having a passion for food has never been an issue.

“Growing up in Mexico you just grow up with delicious food everywhere so I just always loved food,” Gerson says. “And that was my favorite part of my childhood, just being in the kitchen while my family was preparing food.”

It is Gerson’s love of food that has taken her around the world, from her native Mexico—she grew up in Mexico City—to Upstate New York, where she studied at the Culinary Institute of America. After completing an externship in Spain, Gerson worked as a pastry chef in New York until a career-altering opportunity presented itself.

“I worked in different places and one of the jobs that I had after many years as a pastry chef was at a place called Choice Market, which is a specialty food shop in Brooklyn,” Gerson says. “Then I went to Mexico because I got the opportunity to write my first cookbook, “My Sweet Mexico.” I spent a year traveling, documenting, and doing as much as research as possible.”

That summer when she returned to New York City, Gerson laid the groundwork for her budding food empire, founding La Newyorkina. The company, which she started in 2010, sells Mexican-style artisan ice popsicles from carts around the city, earned her a devoted following. It wasn’t long thereafter, she says, that opportunity came knocking yet again.

“My former boss from Choice Market called me up and said, “How would you like me to open up a donut shop?” We got together and that’s how it all started,” she says.

Born of that phone call was Dough, the wildly popular Brooklyn donut shop Gerson co-owns. Though she now simultaneously runs two thriving businesses, Gerson never sought out—at least explicitly—to be an entrepreneur or even a chef, for that matter. “Growing up it’s not like it is now where there’s a lot of female chefs,” she says. “I didn’t really know that was an actual possibility. When I started in Mexico there were about five culinary schools.”

“You work very hard working for other people, which is just the nature of the industry. I figured that if I were going to work that hard then I should work for myself so I could be creative and make whatever I want. I never had a plan; it was more like a thought. But after I finished my research, I had this desire to continue sharing the sweetness of Mexico. It was something that changed my life. That was a big mission of what I wanted to focus on: sharing a part of my culture.”

Overseeing two companies does not come without challenges, Gerson concedes. Because La Newyorkina operates out of carts, it has faced regulatory obstacles in New York, whose notoriously onerous food cart rules have come up against mounting criticism over the past few years.  Effectively managing her schedule, Gerson stresses, can also prove difficult.

“Personally, the biggest struggle for me is how to juggle my time and how do I focus on one without not taking care of the other one, because they’re both my babies,” she says. “From one I learn about the other and it’s great, but at times it’s overwhelming. I feel like being a business owner is kind of like being a fireman. You’re always putting fires out!”

Yet for all of the trials she faces as both an entrepreneur and a chef, Gerson is emphatic about her love for what she does. Her passion obviously translates to her food, as her sweet treats empire continues to expand. “There are a lot of things I love about running my own businesses,” Gerson says.

“At the end of the day I get to do something creative that I’m passionate about and that I help make people happy. You definitely have 14-hour days and stretches where you haven’t slept or haven’t had a day off in a very long time. But then a customer comments, or takes the time to write an e-mail, or—if you’re lucky enough—you’re there while they’re experiencing the joy of what you’ve created.”

When those creations are Mexican sweets and salted caramel and Dulche de leche donuts, there’s a lot of joy to go around, indeed.