We had the good fortune of connecting with Christen Kugener and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christen, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I consider risk to be an integral part of being an entrepreneur. I began a career in finance, which was stable, but not very exciting. I always figured that I could fall back on my first career choice if the adventure of owing Le Caramel, the business I co-own with my husband Vincent, never experienced success. I felt I may lose a few years in the process, but I was young and knew I could recover from the small loss of income and time. In fact, I imagined the worst possible scenario as losing a couple of years working for somebody else. And I can’t honestly say that I think of that as a loss. However, as I grow older, I find myself becoming more “reasonable.” I am always open to new ventures—in fact we bought a second small local business, The Basket Corner, two years ago—but I proceed with a bit more caution. I have kids and employees, and they all come into consideration when making the next move. Change is good for me. Looking back, the risk was well worth it. I really enjoy my business, our fabulous customers, my dedicated employees and my incredibly fun career.
What should our readers know about your business?
Owning and operating a small, local community business has come with some challenging moments, but it has always been incredibly rewarding. We began with nothing—no family, no friends and no business partners—and to experience the growth and success for the past decade (due in large part to the support of our local community) is humbling and remarkable. When we mentored with M. Palix in France, he informed us that caramel had a season. For the French, that season was summer. This is not the case in America. Here, the majority of people enjoy caramel in the wintertime, around the holidays. While this may seem like a minor challenge, it really forced Vincent and I to brand, market and sell our products differently than how we were initially taught. Plus, most of M. Palix’s business was from print marketing materials and word-of-mouth. E-commerce and selling directly to the consumer (not just wholesale) has come with its unique challenges and a necessity for new employees. Two years ago, we decided to purchase The Basket Corner (a local gift basket business). We sold to the company for several years before the investment as they had often utilized Le Caramel products to fill their baskets. The business model is direct-to-consumer, which is one of the main reasons we moved to our current factory-boutique location (1181 Pioneer Way, El Cajon, CA 92020). This endeavor brought on another set of challenges—new employees, processes, space, creating efficiencies and inventory. (Vincent tallied the amount of ribbon we inherited with the business at its onset: 30 miles worth!) While this company is also very seasonal, we are looking at ways to expand the business throughout the year. For example, we have been joining convention, hospitality, commercial real estate, local business and wedding markets. We contract with the San Diego airport, work locally and statewide with some military facilities and can be found on the San Diego Tourism Authority website. This last year during the pandemic has been challenging. It had us rethink our entire business model. We temporarily closed our boutique to the public and adapted the workspace to keep everyone safe. We also pivoted to a stronger online presence. While we know we are not out of the woods yet, we hope that the resilience California has shown will bring us all back together again soon.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We do have a lot of friends and family from France and when they come over, Vincent, the kids and I enjoy being tourists in our own city. Of course, a trip to San Diego should always include a visit to our infamous Zoo and all of the wonderful museums, beautiful gardens and koi ponds in Balboa Park. A day or two spent at the ocean and Coronado Beach is a must, along with a stop for ice-cream and watching the sun go down on the Sun Deck at the Hotel Del Coronado. Home to many military service men and women, the USS Midway is a really fascinating floating museum and is docked along our infamous Waterfront Park and boardwalk. It is also located within walking distance of Little Italy which is the perfect location to enjoy a delicious dinner. Speaking of food, Old Town is one of our favorite places to eat. The Mexican food in San Diego is amazing. There is really so much to do here! When friends come, it almost feels like we are on vacation ourselves! We are looking forward to future visits again soon!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have so many shoutouts. I would not be here today without the support of my husband and business partner, Vincent. We have been through everything together and continue to come out stronger. My staff has been loyal and dedicated to us since the beginning. They care about our customers, our products and growing with us. We would not be where we are today without their dedication, help and support. Our customers are fantastic. We have developed a wonderful community of friends through both companies, and we appreciate all that they have contributed to our business and our lives. One final shoutout goes to my score mentor Bill Minteer. Bill is just amazing! He is so knowledgeable, has great business strategies and is always there to listen.