Chloe Vichot digs being different from the crowd. She’s a Frenchwoman who feels most at home in New York City. She’s a professional chef with a background in finance. And she’s the brains behind Ancolie, an adorable eatery that’s revolutionizing takeout by using no disposable packaging. We talked to her about how to succeed by swimming upstream.
What brought you to New York?
I always knew that I would live in New York at some point. I had come here a few times to visit with some friends when I was growing up, and then I also spent a month here after high school working as a waitress. New York was always something in the future for me. When I graduated with my masters degree in finance, I started looking for a job here.
Moving here was actually a lot easier than I thought. I had experience working overseas, and had spent a year in Hong Kong while I was studying. I was only supposed to stay in New York for a year and a half — but it’s been 13 years!
It’s hard to leave! So you grew up in France?
I did. Funnily enough, I always dreamed of having a restaurant when I was in high school. But my dad, who was an entrepreneur, was quite adamant that I work for a big corporation, because it would be steadier.
I was good at math, so I went to university to study finance. Looking back, I would still choose to do that, because finance allowed me to move to New York and that was the perfect place for me to open Ancolie.
When you moved to new York did you know it was the right choice?
Honestly, I loved it from the first day. My school in France was bilingual, so the language was never a barrier for me. I was 23 when I moved, and I had so much fun. The sky was the limit. My first job was as an intern at a large French bank in New York, and I arrived with a bunch of other interns. Nobody knew anyone, so we all kind of stuck together and discovered the city together.
After my internship completed, I was offered a position. I stayed with that company for two years, and worked in a couple more large banks after that. Overall, I worked in finance for 10 years.
What was it like working in finance in New York?
I know it’s a male-dominated industry, especially more so 10 years ago. But I always felt very lucky to be a woman on the trading floor. I think that was a big advantage for me because I stood out. Clients and brokers loved talking to me because I was different from all the regular guys on the floor, who just talked about sports as a way to bond with people. Being “different” helped me break through barriers with people; they would take the time to talk to me.
When it was time to open Ancolie, I knew a lot of people in finance. People with disposable income who were happy to help to fund a project with someone they knew and trusted. Overall, it was a really positive experience for me.
How did you transition your career? Most people don’t talk about how hard that is financially.
Absolutely. One of the most important things when you're changing careers is to have enough money set aside. That being said, you’ll almost never have enough because it costs way more than you think. I was also in a position where my husband was able to support us both during that time. The year I turned 30 I got my green card, and it was very much a moment of: “Now I can really do whatever I want and love.”
You weren’t tied to a job to be able to live here.
Yes, exactly. I also knew that I wanted kids someday and I wanted to make sure that they would grow up seeing me doing something that I really love. The idea of opening a restaurant came to me again around that time. While I was still working in finance, I started to take some cooking classes on the weekends.
It was a very intense time, but it was also amazing. Every Saturday night, I would come home so excited for the things that I had made and learned. The following year I did another program in French cooking techniques, and another in Italian cooking. After that, I knew it was something I really loved. I started thinking about how I could take this to the next level.
The next step was taking a culinary management degree, and that’s when things got very busy. It was a nine-month program, three nights a week while I was still working.
How did you balance that with your full-time job?
Luckily, my company was very accommodating. Three days a week I had to leave at 5:30 to get to class, but I would come in earlier. It’s funny, the more you know you have to do, the more you manage to get done.
Four years after I started the first cooking class, I quit my job. I was still doing the management program, and I started working for a few days a week in a restaurant. The good part about working finance is that you can afford to go to some amazing restaurants, so I was lucky enough to get a job at Eleven Madison Park. It allowed me to learn more about the service side of the business, and how the best places in the world treat their customers, and how far you could go to make your customers happy.
In my management program, we had to present an entrepreneurial project. For me, that turned out to be Ancolie. A cozy coffee shop with a mission to eliminate plastic and offer to go food in reusable packaging. It allowed me to really hash out the concept, the logo, the name. I always knew I wanted to create a place that was environmentally sustainable, which led to my idea to sell food in glass jars instead of plastic. Of course, just designing the glass jars turned out to be a crazy challenge! i couldn’t find any that had an opening big enough for people to easily eat out of, so I had to find a place to manufacture them myself. At that point I did a Kickstarter [fundraising campaign], and that’s where my contacts in finance came into play.
Was fundraising challenging? People say it’s almost like a full-time job!
It's funny, because everybody said that. But I was already working on my restaurant full time at that point, so it was all working towards the same goal.
At the same time we started our Kickstarter, I also found the space we are in now. I never thought it would happen so fast. I was just trying to get a feel for the rental market! I called my husband and it was like, “Okay, so we have to pay six-month’s deposit for a space.” The Kickstarter went well, so we moved in and renovated.
Two weeks before we opened, I started testing my fall recipes on people. Nobody liked it! [Laughs] I was back in France visiting my family at the time. My sister loves to cook, so we worked really hard together and worked out a new menu that worked!
Doesn’t sustainability make it harder to open a business?
Absolutely! Even today, I would be making much more money if I was not making sustainable decisions. In the beginning, I was thinking about glass jars, which were different and beautiful. I always loved eating out of glass jars! Also, I saw all the waste created in New York by eating food to go. It was shocking, especially coming from France. When I worked in finance, I would go out to pick up lunch, and it would be in a plastic container, with plastic knives and forks, napkins and a plastic bag, which would all be thrown away within five minutes.
It started to come together in my mind that I could make a small difference with something as simple as a glass jar. I could counteract some of the damage that was being done.
One of the other reasons I really went all the way with sustainability was because I needed a way to make myself stand out. What was my restaurant about? I wanted to make healthy food that was portable, but what made me different from a place like Sweetgreen? I was a small player. I needed to have some strong values, I needed a story.
I reached out to the Green Restaurant Association to make sure that all the materials we used were sustainable. All the tables, chairs, and stools were secondhand, all food scraps are composted. We went all the way! We became a four star-rated restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association. That’s the highest rating; there are only three places in New York that have it. Working with them made me so aware of all the small things we do that are wasteful. For example, when you buy a coffee, you grab a sugar packet that gets thrown away. You use a wooden stirrer that gets thrown away. At Ancolie, we use communal dispensers, and wash the spoons and reuse them. It’s so simple when you think about it, but it’s one step more work in the beginning.
What does your life look like now running a restaurant full time?
It’s been 18 months since Ancolie opened, and we’re at a very interesting point. We now have some regular customers that come back daily or weekly. It took a while, but it’s happening! We have a program where you take the glass jars to go, and you get a dollar off your next meal when you bring it back with you next time. It’s great motivation to come back. Despite that, New York is so expensive we need to do more than just that to survive. So we also do corporate catering, which is working out really well because a lot of big companies are trying in small ways to be more sustainable. We also offer our food in some coffee shops around New York, and we have a super exciting project that is a vending machine that’s going to sell our salads!
That’s a great idea! What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Go for it! If you have an idea, the first thing to do is start telling your friends. Tell everybody. You need to start making yourself accountable, and so you need to make sure that people know your plan. It’s also helpful advice if you are changing careers, because if you’re lucky you can communicate openly with who you work with. People can understand what you are going through and support you. It's not an easy path, and the faster you’re making yourself accountable, the faster you are actually making it happen.
The second piece of advice is to get your product up and running as soon as possible. We all want our product to be perfect, so we often wait for too many things to happen before actually doing anything. Even if it’s not perfect, get it out there. That way, you can also get feedback early in the process. For me, I should have taken that advice with my recipes straight away! [Laughs]
I have one more piece of advice! Don’t quit your day job until you’ve either saved enough money or you’re making enough money from your entrepreneurial idea to support yourself. The more you can put yourself in a safe financial position, the less stress you’ll have. You’ll need to be resourceful. Financially educate yourself. Be aware of your finances, know how much money you need to live on if it doesn’t work out.
What does New York mean to you?
It’s the place I was able to start my own business, to create a restaurant. This would have been much harder to do in France. People in New York support each other and support change. I feel that in the next few years, plastic utensils and straws are going to be obsolete in this city. We can make that happen!
Learn more about Ancolie here.