THRIVING SMALL BUSINESSES IN WYOMING: Jackson Couple Bakes Up Culinary Success at the Base of the Tetons
Trio of restaurants employs European techniques in world-class breads and pastries
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Dec 12, 2023
Pictured above is the Interior of Persephone Café in Jackson, which is owned by Ali and Kevin Cohane. (Courtesy photo from Ali Cohane)
By Bob Wooley
Special to the Wyoming Truth
A dash of adventurous spirit and a pinch of Midwest grit. Those are two of the ingredients Ali and Kevin Cohane mixed up to create a successful chain of bakery/cafés: Persephone Boulangerie and Café in Jackson and nearby Wilson, and Picnic in West Jackson.
Each arrived in Jackson nearly 20 years ago, intending to live the life of a ski bum; they met in 2004 while working in a restaurant.
Over the next two decades, the Cohanes’ journey has seen them marry, start a family and nurture a fledgling baking operation into a portfolio of thriving businesses that generate a combined $10 million in annual sales. National accolades have followed, too: in 2020, Persephone was named as a James Beard Award semi-finalist.
Once upon a time in the West
It took the Cohanes nine years to launch their flagship café after they first met. In 2006, Kevin, now 42, enrolled in the famed baking program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and after returning to the U.S., he studied under renowned Jackson Chocolatier Oscar Ortega. Next, the couple lived in Chicago while Ali, now 40, completed a graphic design program.
But the pull of mountain life was strong. By 2011, the couple were back in Jackson and newly married. With a personal loan and free physical labor from Kevin’s parents, plus their own elbow grease, the Cohanes opened a wholesale bakery in a warehouse south of town. Kevin focused on the baking; Ali became a jill of all trades, taking on deliveries, sales and web design, among other tasks.
“I bake using traditional methods to make simple rustic French pastry and bread,” Kevin said. “It’s about quality ingredients, long process times and hand craftsmanship.”
The bread was an instant hit with local restaurants. The Cohanes also sold Kevin’s breads, pastries and other specialty items at farmers markets, and within several years, Ali set her sights on opening a café.
“There were already a lot of coffee shops here, and everybody told us not to do it,” Ali recalled. “At the time, the aesthetics of the town — everything was kind of a cowboy feel. And it’s not that I wanted to change that, but I’m an aesthetically driven person, and I knew I could create a unique space that had incredible products and that people would want to come.”
In 2013, the couple found a space in downtown Jackson, and with a $200,000 budget — an amount Ali said wouldn’t be enough today — they opened the first Persephone café. Picnic, the second bakery/café, opened in 2015, and they added a Persephone location in Wilson in 2019.
It was a busy time. Kevin baked seven days per week, while Ali ran the café. They fulfilled wholesale orders — something they’ve scaled back as their own businesses flourished.
You can’t take it (home) with you
As life and business partners, the Cohanes had to find a work-home balance. According to Ali, it took establishing rules about keeping business talk to a minimum at home. She also credits their strong marriage, which, at times, involved therapy sessions.
Kevin agrees that finding balance can be difficult, but he focuses on the upside of running a family business: “It is very challenging to leave work at work, but [owning businesses]is fulfilling, because everything we create is for ourselves and our family.”
The Cohanes look at business from different perspectives. Ali’s views are informed by customer feedback and hospitality concerns; Kevin’s are often related to finances and production. For instance, as the businesses have grown, Kevin has reduced the number of bread varieties to meet customer demand for the bestselling items. Ali takes pride in personally responding to customer comments whether online or in person.
“Finding a compromise between those things, which don’t often lead to a clear path, is the key,” she said.
Through it all, the Cohanes, now parents to a 6-year-old daughter, remain hands-on in daily business operations. Ali still runs the cafés, including human resources, design and online presence. Kevin oversees the bakery and maintenance, but no longer does all of the baking himself. The businesses now employ up to 125 people at any given time.
All three locations serve breakfast and lunch items, including egg dishes, salads, sandwiches and more. Each location also offers freshly baked traditional breads, pastries and cookies made using the French baking techniques Kevin has perfected.
Each café’s menu offers a slightly different selection, but bakery items are universal. Ali said cinnamon brioche, chocolate chip cookies and croissants are three of the biggest customer favorites. Their bread offerings include a multigrain, pain au levain, German Rye, baguette, herb sea salt focaccia and brioche.
The Cohanes also are proprietors of Coelette, an upscale, mountain-themed Jackson restaurant which opened in 2020.
Big-picture business challenges like the overall economy can give them both pause. What keeps the Cohanes up at night are issues such as housing and wages in the increasingly unaffordable mountain paradise.
“At this point, we’ve had to sub-lease around 10 apartments to about 25 employees,” Ali said. “We’re scrambling to do anything we can [to help staff]. . . . we can’t keep employees because they can’t find housing.”
For Ali, support from customers in the community has been the biggest surprise and main source of joy in building the business. But she’s also gained something completely unexpected: the chance to mentor and lead employees.
“When you’re starting a business, you don’t always think about the employee aspect,” Ali said.
She said staff-related issues — hiring, training and retention — can be the most difficult part about running a business.
“But being able to mentor and lead and train and grow with people [employees] is really special,” she said.