Meet Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, a political consultant-turned-chocolatier and baker based in Mercer Island, Washington. Out of a desire to do creative work while supporting her family, Holly launched Marcenet Mercantile, a home-based food business selling sweet treats like quarter-pound cookies, Belgian chocolate bonbons, craft marshmallows, and more. Get to know Holly and Marcenet Mercantile below.
What did you do before starting your business?
“I was a political consultant for a couple of years before this and I got really tired of it. It’s a terrible time to be a political consultant — it's interesting and you meet lots of people, but it’s tiring. Before that, I was a musician for ten years, and I toured internationally for years. Then I got sick and lost my singing voice and wasn’t able to perform any more,” Holly said.
“I was looking for a creative outlet and tried a lot of things — I still make jewelry, I crochet, I make scarves,” Holly said. “I’ve always loved baking, and I’ve been pretty good at it. My family, for four years, told me that I should start a bakery.”
“It wasn’t until my husband got sick with leukemia about a year ago, and had a lot of treatments that didn’t work, that I started to consider it. He ended up getting a stem cell transplant last summer, which seems to have done the trick, thankfully. He’s been home encouraging me while I bake all day. My son helps me too — he doesn’t like anything ever, but I made croissants for the first time a few weeks ago and he’s begging me to make again ever since. I’ve got the stamp of approval.”
What is the Marcenet Mercantile origin story?
“I knew I wasn’t going to go back to work in politics full-time, and I knew that I needed to do something creative and with my time that was helpful to the family,” Holly said.
“The last few years have given us a reason to evaluate our lives and the way we were spending our time. My husband said that he wanted to be able to travel and see family, and this is a way that allows us to do that. We didn’t want to be stuck on someone else’s timeline. Starting my own business gave me the flexibility we craved.”
How would you describe your products in one sentence?
Holly’s confections are “handcrafted goodies made with the best possible ingredients.” She knows that when customers take their first bite of a dark Belgian couverture-enrobed chocolate or a cookie with the best ingredients, they’ll taste the difference.
“I don’t skimp on anything, and I think that really comes through. Baking is one of those rare things where using the best ingredients actually does make a huge difference,” Holly said.
“It’s chocolate all the time — I’m a chocolatier first and a baker second. Everything that I make has chocolate,” Holly said.
It’s not just about the end product, though. Holly loves introducing her customers to the highest quality ingredients.
“People tell me ‘I’ve never tasted this kind of chocolate in my life,’ and it’s because my chocolates are only made up of cocoa, sugar, and an emulsifier — no preservatives.”
“I’m passionate about everything chocolate, from bean to bar — I’m not making my own chocolate yet, but I make chocolates with the best couverture dark chocolate that’s available for semi-professionals. In addition to the chocolate, I’m making my own caramels, I'm making my own marshmallows, I’m making my own sea foam candy and enrobing it in chocolate.”
What's your favorite way to enjoy your products?
“Out of all of the treats I sell, my favorite is probably the quarter-pound chocolate chip cookie,” Holly said.
“Yes, it’s literally a quarter pound. I encourage people to weigh them when they get them because they don’t believe it. When I mailed them to my mom to see how they would travel via mail, she took one of my cookies out and put it next to a normal size cookie, and the difference was so stark. These are big!”
Holly makes the cookies she wants to eat, which means that hers have a crispy bite, and they use the same top-quality chocolate that she uses in her bonbons.
“They’re the best selling thing we have. I’ve seen people re-order them multiple times, which I feel like is the ultimate review.”
Who is another food entrepreneur that you support, and why?
“There are some incredible bakers that I follow on Instagram that really inspire me,” Holly said.
“Like Cake by Courtney — Courtney Rich is amazing. I'm making my daughter's wedding cake in September. I've never made a wedding cake, and I am scared to death! But watching videos of people like Courtney make incredible cakes inspires me.”
“As a budding chocolatier, chef Amaury Guichon has been so influential in how I think about flavor combinations and colors. Pure artistry. And Luna's cookies are next-level. I'm more of a chocolatier than a cookie decorator, but I do enjoy making relatively simple iced cookies. These are not simple! But they are amazing to look at,” Holly said.
What's the best thing about this job?
“It’s a cliche, but it’s true — if you love something, it’s not work. I appreciate the flexibility and, for the most part, working on my own timetable. Being able to take pre-orders and working from there.”
“I love the creativity that comes with this gig,” Holly said. “Believe it or not, I get really excited when the orders slow down to a slow trickle, because it gives me a chance to go and experiment and be a scientist in my kitchen to figure out what to make next — what chocolates go together, what filling will I put in the next one, et cetera.”
What's your best piece of advice to share with food entrepreneurs who are getting started?
When it comes to starting a food business, Holly’s advice is simple.
“Drawing from my own experience, don’t wait. I could have done this a long time ago and been happier, I think,” Holly said. “Don’t think ‘I can’t do that’ — if I can, anybody can, really. It seems scary, the whole process can be overwhelming.”
“And remember, there is so much support out there, from your friends and family to even the tools you use. Finding tools like Castiron has been amazing, because it’s so clean, so easy to use, and it takes a lot of the burden off for people like me who are doing this for the first time.”
Have there been any “aha” moments while running this business so far?
“Under-selling and over-performing are always the best ways to succeed initially. If you can over-deliver and delight your customers, you’re golden.”
“I always provide a little sample of whatever I’m working on next in my packages. I use a coupon code to get people to place another order. Those kinds of things drive word of mouth and make people want to share — they want to share the extra ‘gift’ that I included.”