Kick off Women's History Month with the bakery queen of Chicago: Arshiya Farheen
The beautiful display of Verzenay Patisserie’s assortment of French pastries is the most wonderful welcome as you enter Lincoln Park in the morning, reusable shopping bags in hand waiting to be filled with the bounty awaiting you. Up ahead, kale awaits, but first — treat yourself to an irresistible buttery croissant, a flaky pear tart, or a savory scone from Verzenay.
The mastermind (mistressmind?) behind Verzenay’s decadent treats is Arshiya Farheen, baker, businesswoman, mother, and major supporter of other women. Arshiya grew up in India where the seeds of her connection to food and its source were planted. As an adult, she moved to Paris for culinary school to deepen her passion for baking at Ferrandi Paris.
In 2014, she and her husband Aqeel returned to Chicago to start Verzenay and began selling at Green City Market, actively sourcing local and sustainable ingredients to make their products.
Arshiya’s vision for her business is rooted in quality: quality taste and texture, quality local ingredients, and quality treatment of employees. “I am constantly working to improve my established recipes,” Arshiya explained. “Taste and texture are my highest priority. Many people stop at talking about using good quality and local ingredients but for us, this is just the starting point. I never compromise on flavor just to incorporate or market a trendy ingredient or new fad.”
But perhaps most striking about Arshiya’s dedication to her business is in her philosophy towards her employees. Arshiya knows the challenges women face, especially in the workforce, as well as the “support that’s vital to help them grow,” which is why Verzenay predominantly hires women. “I strongly believe in paying someone based on their skill, hard work and experience and not their race or gender,” Arshiya stated. “I am lucky to have a supportive husband, but women in general have a bigger challenge when it comes to managing their families and work. I try my best to be helpful and flexible with my employees so no one has to be forced to give up or choose between taking care of their family versus coming to work.”
While this is a reality many women face in general, Arshiya was especially saddened to see that women took the vast majority of the brunt of jobs lost due to the pandemic. “The pandemic has brought to light the many challenges that women, especially moms, face on a daily basis,” Arshiya explained. “Women, for the most part, take on the role of family and childcare without being asked or told. We need to recognize, acknowledge and not take for granted, the gender inequality that still exists and keep doing our part in providing more support and flexibility in terms of work schedules for women.”
Of course, the pandemic still severely affected Verzenay’s business. The shutdown of schools and daycare centers especially resulted in losing some beloved employees who had to work from home to take care of their families. Arshiya and Aqeel had also signed a lease right before the shutdown and are paying rent and other utilities for a store they have not been able to open yet. But Arshiya found a silver lining, as we all have strived to do for the past year: “Thanks to GCM, our GCM customers and a couple of our coffee shop clients, we have adapted, evolved and are still in the game, working towards a better future."
Despite the challenges, baking has made Arshiya happy. Finding it difficult to choose a single product as her favorite to make, she listed the various things she loves about baking. “Working with chocolate makes me feel sophisticated,” she divulged, “working with bread and laminated doughs is like meditation, working with choux, tarts, and glazing and decorating cakes brings me a lot of satisfaction and pride.” She finally settled on “chausson aux pommes,” a buttery, flaky apple turnover, because she loves scoring the dough and watching the dramatic result after baking.
“I started this business with the idea of creating a safe, comfortable space for women to work and thrive, having fun doing what they love,” Arshiya concluded. It's clear from Arshiya’s passion and dedication that she has done just that, and opening their store in Lincoln Park this May will help realize this dream in a bigger capacity.
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