Writing by Emma Richman

Photography by Oona Owen & Justin Negard

When Katonah resident Agathe Assouline-Lichten was approached by an anonymous company looking for baking kits, she wasn’t sure what to think. Who were they, what did they want and why now, during the pandemic? 

Eventually, the answers became clear: Netflix, alien cupcakes, a rocket ship cake and a cookbook. Netflix wanted to commission Assouline-Lichten’s company, Red Velvet NYC, for their new show “Nailed It!”

“We partnered with Netflix for over a year,” Assouline-Lichten says. “We made over 100,000 baking kits for them, and we made five recipes for their cookbook.”

The opportunity was unlike anything Assouline-Lichten had done before. It was unusual, silly even. But the pandemic venture turned out to be a resounding success. Embracing change has become a running theme at Red Velvet NYC.

Made in your kitchen

Not everyone has the time to rummage through the recesses of the grocery store shelves, only to discover that they don’t sell the key ingredient needed for a recipe. Red Velvet NYC makes baking easier, and even, they hope, fun.

Their website offers a variety of kits, including cookies, cupcakes, brownies and even French macarons. Each baking kit is labeled with a level of difficulty (easy, moderate, advanced). After placing an order, kits are shipped directly to your doorstep, packed with a step-by-step recipe and all the necessary pre-measured ingredients – with the exception of eggs (yes, they even include milk).

Assouline-Lichten started the company in 2015, just as the first iterations of meal kits were hitting the market.

“I was an early subscriber to Blue Apron,” she says. “But then I kept thinking to myself, why can’t we do this for dessert?”

A marketing executive for luxury companies like Sotheby’s and Harry Winston with an MBA from Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Assouline-Lichten dreamed of starting her own company, pondering ideas ranging from a dog clothing line to diet soda cupcakes.

“But the cupcakes were horrible,” she recalls. “The tasted really, really bad. So that idea didn’t go anywhere.” 

Ultimately, it was Assouline-Lichten’s lifelong passion for baking that inspired her to launch Red Velvet NYC.

Assouline-Lichten grew up in the food industry. Her father, a French immigrant, imported high-end food products – caviar, foie gras, smoked salmon – and owned a restaurant in Philadelphia.

“From a young age, I was packing ingredients with my sister,” she says. “When I had my driver’s license at sixteen, I was making deliveries for him.”

Baking soon became an outlet for Assouline-Lichten as she spent summers in France with her grandmother, an avid baker.

“I realized it’s super therapeutic,” she says. “Now, when I have a bad day, I come home and I just want to be in the kitchen, cooking or baking.”

Assouline-Lichten says she knows the joy and fulfillment that comes from baking. But she also knows that baking doesn’t come easy for everyone. That’s where Red Velvet NYC comes in. Her goal for the company is simple: to make baking accessible and fun for everyone.

“Our tagline says, ‘Made in Your Kitchen,’ because we want it to be made in your kitchen,” she says. “We don’t want to make it for you.”

Starting from scratch

While still working full time, Assouline-Lichten spent her nights developing recipe cards and a prototype of the baking kits, beginning with a flourless chocolate cake and the company’s namesake, red velvet cupcakes. She found 50 friends and family members willing to try her products and sent a baking kit to each of them.

“I got a lot of feedback from people about what worked, what didn’t work, what people liked,” she says. “It was overwhelmingly positive feedback.”

It was Assouline-Lichten’s sister who initially suggested the name Red Velvet. And when Assouline-Lichten learned that red velvet cake was invented at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, she figured it was the perfect homage to New York.

After a year and a half of careful planning, Assouline-Lichten left her job to work on Red Velvet NYC full time.

“We started in a 150-square-foot space – basically a small bathroom,” she says. “I packed everything myself for the first year.”

Red Velvet NYC has been self-funded since day one.

“At the time when I started, everyone was raising money,” she remembers. “People thought I was nuts.”

From there, Assouline-Lichten built up a substantial email list and began partnering with brands to promote one another and expand visibility. Additionally, publicity about the company helped her grow in the early years, and it still drives traffic to this day.

The customer is always right

One of the benefits of being a small business is that Assouline-Lichten is able to maintain a strong connection to her customer base.

“Our really good customers can come to us and ask for an ingredient that you can’t find in grocery stores,” she says. “They might ask for five pounds of our white chocolate, for example, and we’ll package that for them.”

These close customer relationships have been crucial to Red Velvet NYC’s growth over the past eight years. And listening to the demands of the market and then adjusting accordingly is the company’s philosophy.

One of the biggest changes for Assouline-Lichten was transitioning her business model to a wholesale-dominant one. The company was solely e-commerce when it launched, but now they drop ship for companies like Williams-Sonoma and Anthropologie – their products were even in some of their retail stores this past holiday season. They also partner with other food delivery and meal kit companies like FreshDirect and Home Chef.

“I thought we would just be an e-commerce company,” Assouline-Lichten says. “But e-commerce is slowly shrinking as wholesale grows. That’s just the reality of the world that we’re doing business in.”

The market also influenced their newest product: cookie dough. They now sell multiple flavors of ready-to-bake cookie dough, including chocolate chip and red velvet, that can be ordered, along with other Red Velvet NYC products, through companies like Goldbelly and SnackMagic.

“If you are dead set on only one thing and you say ‘no’ to all the opportunities, you’re never going to go anywhere.”

It’s not all sweet

Red Velvet NYC has certainly faced its fair share of challenges, both internally and externally. Since Assouline-Lichten doesn’t come from a manufacturing background, she first had to learn all the ins and outs of running a manufacturing-based business. 

“It’s all about operations,” she says. “And as a small company that doesn’t have outside funding, I’m always stuck between operations and sales.”

Because Red Velvet NYC’s team is quite small, Assouline-Lichten plays many roles. One strenuous role has been securing office space that can also meet the strict food safety criteria the law requires.  

From devious landlords to leases falling through, the company has moved 11 times over the past eight years. They’ve been everywhere from Hell’s Kitchen and downtown Manhattan to Long Island City and Brooklyn. When they finally landed in Brooklyn at a multi-tenant facility with about 100 other companies, they stayed in that space for five years, but they moved within the building five times.

In June 2021, Assouline-Lichten and her family moved to Katonah, but Red Velvet NYC remained in Brooklyn. It wasn’t long before she became frustrated with the long commute and the inefficiencies plaguing the Brooklyn location. For example, they needed a walk-in freezer but their landlord wouldn’t let them build one.

“We needed to grow,” she says. “We needed more space, and we needed something that we could grow into.”

That space turned out to be in Westchester. And after five deals fell through within one year, Assouline-Lichten finally secured a space in Mount Kisco, where the company is now located. The new factory is five times the size of their old space in Brooklyn, and for Assouline-Lichten, it’s only ten minutes from home.

Baking should be fun

At the end of the day, Red Velvet NYC is a company based in joy. On the factory floor, they often play music as the workers mix the dough, separate ingredients and package the kits.

“We’re bringing joy to people’s lives,” she says. “So, we should be happy doing it, too. Part of the culture of this company is that this is a safe, warm and inviting place.”

Coming from corporate America, Assouline-Lichten says she knows what it’s like to be in a toxic work environment. So, part of her mission is to create a space where employees enjoy what they are doing.

“People end up staying with us for years, which is a lot for a manufacturing job,” she says. “It’s because they feel good about what they’re doing and they feel like they’re valued and treated well.”

Not only does Assouline-Lichten seek to make her work environment a safe and joyful space, but she also hopes to bring that joy to her customers.

“This is an empowering experience,” she says. “And in the end, you get to enjoy something delicious and share it with people you care about.”

Here to stay

When asked about the greatest reward of her journey with Red Velvet NYC, Assouline-Lichten proudly says, “We’re still here.”

Starting a small business by yourself is no easy feat, much less expanding that business for eight consecutive years.

“I’ve seen a lot of food businesses close,” she says. “Most companies don’t make it past the first two years or past the five-year mark.”

But as far as Assouline-Lichten can tell, Red Velvet NYC is here to stay. She doesn’t know what the future holds, nor what the company will look like ten years down the line. But she is hopeful, and she’s not afraid to dream.

“I know it’s a big lofty goal, but I would love to become a household name,” she says. “I would love for people to say, ‘Let’s make a Red Velvet kit.’”

This article was published in the July/August 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Emma Richman
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Emma Richman is a college student who interned at Katonah Connect in 2023. Emma’s passion for writing and storytelling is what led her to journalism. Outside of her writing, Emma is a competitive swimmer who, in high school, enjoyed singing with her a capella group, The John Jay Treblemakers, tutoring middle school students and playing alto saxophone.