Food and Drink

Sweet Caribou macaron bakers move from the market to their own storefront

Cupcakes, not macarons, were meant to be the centerpiece of a new business venture for James Strong when he first opened Sweet Caribou in 2014.

Burned out from his fisheries doctorate studies, he wanted to do something that didn't involve staring at computer spreadsheets for hours on end. So he decided to collaborate with his younger sister, Barbara Strong, to start selling cupcakes at the downtown Saturday Market.

Barbara, an avid home baker, had been experimenting with macarons, a French-inspired cookie that was starting to have a moment among dessert enthusiasts around the country.

So, on a whim, the siblings decided to sell a few of the French-inspired treats along with cupcakes. Even though James has a background in food service — with more than a decade spent working at Anchorage institutions like Southside Bistro, Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria and Bear Tooth Theatrepub — and Barbara was an avid home baker, neither knew what the reception would be.

It turns out the macarons — pillowy, meringue sandwich cookies with a texture that's a cross between spongy cake and crunchy cookie — were an instant attraction.

"We accidentally caught the trend right on," James Strong, 37, said in an interview Wednesday.

The Strongs went from selling 100 of the cookies a week at local farmers markets to thousands. Cupcakes are still part of the operation but not the business driver, instead replaced by an assortment of brightly colored macarons. Business has grown so much that on Thursday, Sweet Caribou opened a brick-and-mortar bakery.

Barbara Strong, the self-described "flavorologist," has developed most of the flavors, which include everything from chocolate cherry and birthday cake to "Firework Fruit Punch" — a fruit punch-flavored macaron with Pop Rocks sprinkled into the filling — since she started baking the cookies in late 2013.

"I just made the ones I wanted and I made them taste the way I wanted them to taste," she said. "I hadn't even had (a professionally baked one) until I'd made a few batches."

The Strongs, including James' wife, Miranda, have traveled to Paris several times to taste and learn about macarons. James Strong said French macarons are more subtle, favoring simple shells made of only egg whites, sugar and almond flour. They are usually filled with simple jams, chocolate ganache or lightly flavored buttercreams.

Not so with Sweet Caribou. James Strong calls their macarons "Alaska-sized" in flavor. They often play to nostalgia, with macaron flavors like Fruity Pebbles and Nerds candy. Some shells are even infused with flavors — a faux pas in the French macaron style.

But perhaps that's part of the success.

"They do something a little different," said customer Christina Platt, a big fan of the blood orange macaron, who stood in line during the shop's opening Thursday. "I really like flavor-forward thinking."

Still, learning to perfect the cookies took some trial and error — macarons are notoriously difficult to master. While the shells consist of only three ingredients — egg whites, sugar and almond flour — getting them just right requires patience and skill. Temperature and humidity can alter the final results. Even moving from small batches in a home kitchen to large ones on a commercial scale meant a lot of hollow shells.

Even today, Sam Thomas, Sweet Caribou's executive pastry chef and kitchen manager, said they still occasionally have days with bad batches.

"They are pretty finicky," Thomas said.

For now, the shop is focused on the same desserts they sold at the market — macarons, cupcakes and dessert bars — but they're working to branch out. They serve a rotating menu of salads, all inspired by their relationships with vendors at the market. They hope to one day include a broader line of drinks, including cold-brew coffees and teas. And one day, James Strong said, he'd like to expand into a possible macaron and champagne bar. Beyond that, James Strong said he would like to move toward global distribution, capitalizing on their Alaska brand.

And for Barbara Strong and her flavors? Now that there's a store with a rotating array of flavors, she said to get ready for a lot of new macaron ideas.

"I still have plenty of flavors floating around in my head," she said. "The options are limitless."