For Jen Benyamine, the road to Jersey City Sweets hasn’t been an easy one. After losing her job in 2008, Benyamine went from leading a comfortable life to having to sell her car to make ends meet.
“This was a really hard time,” says Benyamine . “So much so that I started drinking pretty heavily.”
Over time, Benyamine realized alcohol was adding to her problems, so she sobered up, graduated from the International Culinary Center (formerly French Culinary Institute), and in 2015 launched Jersey City Sweets — a custom order bakery that specializes in cakes, decorated cookies, and other treats.
Prior to becoming a pastry chef, you worked at AOL. How did your career change come about?
JB: I was on a different path doing marketing for AOL, but when the economy went down in 2008, I was back to square one. There were no tech jobs or marketing jobs available, and being a freelancer, I went from making a nice wage for my age to having to get government assistance and sell my car.
This was a really hard time — so much so that I started drinking pretty heavily. I knew what time the liquor stores opened and the cashiers knew my face and usual purchase. Now, I realize it was an escape from a pretty deep depression that set in. That led to some terrible times, including an abusive relationship with a fellow drunk.
When did things change for the better?
JB: I don’t know what the exact catalyst was to stop drinking, but it was clear it wasn’t fixing anything. I either had to commit to being a drunk and a loser, or I had to get my shit together. In that, I learned that I have underlying anxiety and depression that I constantly have to work on and accept.
That mental health aspect is also part of the reason I decided to open my own business. I was always a hard worker, and I feel like I’m very loyal to places I work at, but those places aren’t always loyal back when it comes to understanding a worker’s mental health needs. I’d go to work everyday and go through the motions, sometimes with my heart beating, terrified that I’d “mess up.”
I had to commit to being a drunk and a loser, or I had to get my shit together.
I’ve been told I’m too intense and too loud and too everything. It had me feeling like I was walking on eggshells with every interaction I had, because I didn’t want those things to push people away. But inevitably they sometimes do, because having an employee, co-worker, friend, or a loved one with this stuff is hard.
How did Jersey City Sweets come into the picture?
JB: I don’t remember the exact catalyst that took me to the French Culinary Institute, but my family — especially my brother — was a huge cheerleader in me pursing that, and I’ve been very happy working in kitchens since then. I worked in various kitchens in New York, including Nobu, Pies N’ Thighs, and Duane Park Patisserie. I find the work very rewarding, as hard as it can be at times.
Things really changed when I met my now fiancé. We met in 2013 and bonded over Breaking Bad and being flooded out by Sandy. We’ve been together for a bit over four years now and in that time he gave me the confidence and support to open Jersey City Sweets. He’s my partner in the business as well, and I don’t think I would’ve done it without him.
You’ve now been running Jersey City Sweets for over two years. What are some of your favorite designs/cakes from the past?
JB: The first cake I professionally made for Jersey City Sweets was a Krishna butter churn shaped cake (pictured above) for a birthday — a 10″ sphere cake that had to be delivered! I think I almost fainted numerous times while my brother navigated the hills and bumps of New Jersey. I’ve made a lot of fun cakes like a Minecraft cake and snowboarding cake, and also gender reveal cakes where the cake color shows if it’s a boy or a girl. Part of what I love about doing this is being a small part of people’s life events. We’ve done cakes for a baby shower, then 1st birthday, and it’s nice to be a part of that in this small way.
Part of what I love about doing this is being a small part of people’s life events.
What’ve been some of the more challenging custom cakes you’ve been asked to bake?
JB: Last October I made a groom’s cake in the shape of a Pagani Huayra sports car (pictured above). It was my first sculpted cake and I was very happy with how it came out, and very surprised by the work involved. It required two trips to Staples and one to the hardware store!
You’re teaching a cookie decorating class at the Brunswick Center on November 17. What can students expect from the class?
JB: The class is an introduction to cookie decorating with royal icing. All students will receive a cookie kit with pre-baked cookies and bagged icing, and see a demonstration on how to make the icing and different techniques for decorating. Then guests can decorate their own set to take home with them. And, of course, there will be snacks!
Where else can we find your cookies, cupcakes, cakes, and pies?
JB: We mainly specialize in custom orders, but you can find our decorated sugar cookies at Van Hook Cheese, and we’ll also offer Thanksgiving pies through them for the second time this year. Van Hook has been a huge supporter of our very small business and we’re always thankful to them for that.
You’ve been a Jersey City resident since 2011. What are some of your favorite spots when you’re not busy baking?
JB: Cellar 335 has some of the best food in the city and the drinks are always dressed up in such fun ways. Bucket and Bay’s gelato is fantastic and I’m excited about Ample Hills.
Love Locked is my favorite place to get jewelry or gifts, and I love how they focus on having small businesses as their vendors. It’s a great place for unique finds. We Strong Fitness is one of my favorite gyms in the area. Omar is the nicest guy while he is making you hate him. Then you thank him. It’s a roller coaster of emotions!
(Photos: Jersey City Sweets)