After the COVID-19 lockdowns began, trained pastry chef Monica Kibler was waiting for the restaurant she worked in to reopen when she decided to combine her love for cooking and her PLNU business degree to build her own company. Now, the business is going strong and might be what God had for her all along.
Monica Kibler (18) can’t just sit idle and wait for things to happen — even during a pandemic. “I’m never just not doing anything,” she said, “which to some people might sound really exhausting or like I’m overworking, but that’s what I find that drives me — trying to find a different way to do it or something new to learn.”
Call it a strong work ethic or being an overachiever, but either way, Kibler is on a mission to keep her career moving forward. When the Michelin-star restaurant she worked for was forced to lay off employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she thought it was only temporary. “Their thought was obviously, ‘Oh this will last like a month or two,’ just like everyone else thought, ‘and then we’ll hire everyone back,’” Kibler recalled. “But that didn’t happen.”
As she waited to be hired back, Kibler started baking regularly, then selling what she baked. The regular sale of treats quickly developed into a full sweets business, The Kibler Elf Pastry Workshop. Kibler launched the business in her hometown of Palo Alto, California, on Mother’s Day weekend 2020, less than two months into the initial shutdown, and she now sees that this business was perhaps more providential than she realized.
After graduating high school in the Bay Area, Kibler attended Johnson & Wales University’s Baking and Pastry Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina. She finished the two-year associate degree program in just one year, graduating in 2015, then moved to San Diego to attend PLNU. Kibler had been connected to Point Loma her whole life — she had grown up in the Nazarene church, and her grandmother, brother, and other family members had all attended PLNU.
Kibler chose to pursue her bachelor’s degree in business management and entrepreneurship. Perhaps a far cry from pastry arts, business was something Kibler had always been drawn to. “I’ve always been a numbers person,” she said. “Numbers and trying to figure out business plans and the best way to optimize things has always been something I’ve done, whether I’ve known I’m doing it or not.”
Kibler graduated in May 2018, and that fall she started working as a pastry cook for Norwegian Cruise Line in Hawaii, where her assigned ship docked at a different island every day of the week. “I didn’t really get to get off the ship a whole lot because we work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for five or six months at a time,” she said. Working on a ship is a “different experience,” she said, but she found the relationship-building with coworkers to be the most rewarding part of the experience. Kibler spent a full year working on the cruise ship, then returned in fall 2019 to Northern California. Soon after returning, she was hired by the Michelin-star establishment, Protégé, in Palo Alto.
“One of the things that I noticed once I came back from Hawaii and I started working at Protégé is that I have issues working in the kitchen,” Kibler said. She was diagnosed with contact dermatitis, which is essentially an allergy, but only through contact with her skin. “I can eat it; I just can’t touch it,” she says. On the list of items that trigger her flare-ups are chocolate, pizza, lettuce, and several chemicals that are commonly found in commercial kitchens, even in food safety gloves.
She learned about her allergies in January 2020, and was already at a crossroads, wondering, “How do I work in a kitchen with these allergies?” Leaving traditional restaurant kitchens was something “I was already toying with in my head,” she said. Being unable to dictate to a restaurant which chemicals to use or not use in their kitchens, “unfortunately, I don’t think going back to an establishment is really in the books for me.”
Then COVID-19 happened, and the lockdowns began, prompting Kibler’s entrepreneurial spirit to start putting the pieces in place for her pastry business. She was able to decide the menu, and she could control the gloves and chemicals she used in her home kitchen to keep her dermatitis in check.
Looking back, and considering how her health closed the door to working in traditional kitchens, Kibler realizes starting her own business may have been right where God was leading her. “You never know what’s going to happen from day to day, so you just have to trust God that it’s going to work out, that there’s always a plan B if plan A doesn’t work,” she said. “And sometimes plan B was what He wanted you to do the whole time, but He just needed you to understand it or realize it.”
Kibler’s business is operated out of her parents’ home kitchen in Palo Alto, and it’s seen steady growth since it started in May 2020. The first weekend, she figured there would be few enough orders that she could just hand-deliver them. “I think I drove to 60 houses,” she said. Now it’s a pick-up twice a week. “People come to me!”
The menu is always changing (a strategy to get customers to continue to order week after week, Kibler said), but she has a few top-selling items, including coffee cake, quiche, and brown butter chocolate chip cookie dough logs that stay week to week. She adds in different breads and pastries, and even some fun seasonal items such as a gingerbread house kit at Christmastime and holiday-themed cookie decorating kits, complete with a cookie dough log, royal icing, cookie cutter, and sprinkles. She sells about 100 treats per week, plus she usually has one special order per week, so something like a birthday cake, anniversary cake, or custom sugar cookies.
From top to bottom, Kibler runs the business herself — answering emails, maintaining the website, managing orders, and, of course, baking all the treats. She credits her PLNU education with helping her become a successful entrepreneur, and she’s hopeful the business will continue to grow.
“I would hope that I would be kind of a larger production, whether it’s a commercial kitchen and I’m supplying to restaurants or other bakeries, or even having a storefront,” she said. “Something of that nature I think will definitely play out; it’s kind of kind of what direction it goes into.”
Above all, though, Kibler knows the future — and her business — is in God’s hands. “I’m trusting — even with all this craziness, with COVID, with job loss, my allergies — that it’s always going to work out, and you just have to kind of let it play out.”