Kelli Watts' ('11) degree in fashion design has taken her different places -- first to New York City, now to H-E-B grocery stores.
It was in New York where Watts fell in love with macarons, the distinctive French cookie. She pursued a hobby in baking macarons and -- thanks to long hours and hard work -- that hobby has turned into a business, Savor Patisserie, with four stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
She just won grand prize in the supermarket chain's H-E-B Quest for Texas Best contest, netting her $25,000 and a Tiffany trophy -- and the cookies will now be sold at H-E-B.
"It's unbelievable," Watts says. "The store I grew up near is going to carry my product. My mission is showing people you don't have to go to Europe or New York City to get an authentic macaron. To bring our product to mass consumers is just incredible."
Watts' journey required plenty of perseverance.
She learned that as a fashion design student.
"I would go to class and then spend my evenings and weekend sewing, which made me feel like an old lady… it was definitely not a normal college activity, but that's what this degree required."
After graduation, she landed a job as assistant project manager for Enchante Accessories in New York City -- and became a fan of macarons. But when she moved to Dallas, she couldn't find them anywhere. Watts, who always loved baking, thought she would figure it out.
"I was like, 'I'm half-French, I'm just going to teach myself how to make them,'" she says.
After a full day of work as a business manager at Neiman Marcus, she would come home and bake. She wasn't satisfied with recipes she found on Pinterest, so she concocted her own versions. She designs each cookie with flavors such as birthday cake, coffee, s'mores, lavender and blueberry cheesecake.
Soon, she was giving them out to friends.
"I could only eat so many of them," she quips.
Then, by word of mouth, she was filling dozens of orders for baby showers and other events. She found herself with a side hustle. She set up a website and an Instagram account. She sold them at farmers markets and, soon, at Neiman Marcus and the now-closed Tea2Go shop in Denton.
She was able to quit her day job. For a year and a half, she baked out of her apartment all day long while listening to business audiobooks. At nights, she worked on the website and tackled emails.
Watts set her sights on opening a brick-and-mortar store. After sending out dozens of emails to shopping centers with no response, she finally got an answer. In January 2016, she opened a pop-up store at the Shops at Park Lane in Dallas.
It became a success, and Savor Patisserie now boasts four locations -- in Snider Plaza and Casa Linda Plaza in Dallas, West 7th/Crockett Row in Fort Worth and the downtown square in McKinney. A team of bakers make the cookies at a facility in Hurst and the baked goods are delivered to all four shops and around the country.
And then she had bigger plans.
During last year's COVID-19 pandemic, Watts joined the Go Texan program sponsored by the Texas Department of Agriculture -- which tipped her off to H-E-B's contest Quest for Texas Best.
She had to submit a video as well as all-new packaging to include nutritional information, net weight and the UPC code. Out of 1,200 entrants, she found herself as one of 20 finalists, where she had to give a Shark Tank-style presentation to the judges in San Antonio.
She sat with the other finalists as they announced the winners.
"Then it was down to the last award," she says. "They called my name. It was just crazy."
Her persistence -- just like those long days of sewing -- paid off.
"There are days I'm doing so good and I'm proud of myself," she says. "But there were days I thought, 'We're never going to make it.'"
Her education helped her in other ways. She remembers one particular assignment at UNT where the teacher gave students a 1-foot cube of Styrofoam and a kernel of popped popcorn. The students had to carve and paint the Styrofoam cube to look exactly like the kernel. They packed the kernels in Altoids tins so they wouldn't get squished.
Lessons like that stayed with her as she built her current business.
"Design is all about problem solving -- how to make something out of nothing," she says. "I use those lessons every day to run this business."