For more than two years, Lisette Armstrong lived the full-bore side hustle life; grinding 9-5 in the corporate world, while at night cooking up a vegan chocolate brand in her kitchen.
Armstrong juggled her day job as head of marketing at a large financial services firm and her fledging business, Treat Dreams, a dairy and egg-free chocolate company, until February, when she went full-time.
The business – which now employs eight and operates from a dedicated vegan commercial kitchen in Rozelle, in Sydney’s inner-west – started in 2016 out of personal necessity for 38-year-old Armstrong, who is lactose intolerant.
“I struggled with pain when eating dairy products for many years and then in 2013, I became a vegan, for health and ethical reasons,” the chocolatier says.
“The one thing I found I missed was those old nostalgic chocolate treats. You know sometimes only a bit of chocolate will make you feel better?” Armstrong laughs.
“As a kid, I had made chocolates with my mum, using those old-fashioned plastic moulds, and I thought to myself ‘surely, it can’t be that hard to make some great vegan chocolate?’ so I gave it a go at home, just trial and error.
“It was nearly Easter and my husband sort of joked about trying to make a vegan version of crème eggs, which everyone loves. Since then, we’ve never had a quiet Easter!” she says.
Armstrong shared her kitchen bench creations with work colleagues, who encouraged her to open a market stall, which was a huge success, selling out when she offered pre-orders. So she kept working and kept growing.
For the first 12 months, Armstrong went from a “pretty demanding day job” straight into her kitchen each night, without even sitting down.
“I’d walk in the door, get changed, tie my hair back, put the apron on and start again. Depending on what orders we had, I would be in the kitchen until midnight or 1am, three or four nights a week. And then if I stuffed up a batch, it was 2am or 3am,” she says.
“Thinking back, it was a crazy time, exhausting. I remember thinking ‘I don’t necessarily want a business’, but it ultimately came down to me wanting people to know vegan food can be great. It’s kind of a way of advocating, but without being preachy. I found there was definitely a market, too.”
Armstrong rented a bench in a commercial kitchen after a scary late-night incident.
“I spilled molten sugar, at about 110C, on my hand, badly burning it, and it stopped me in my tracks. Maybe I am tired? Maybe it is time to get some staff? To get some space to allow us a base level of production each week? Leasing a single bench was a big step, but a huge weight off my mind.”
The company’s progression continued, as Armstrong hired staff, launched a website and racked up stockists – which now number 22 across Australia.
Replacing animal ingredients with plant-based ones, Armstrong’s creations have the “rich, decadent taste of non-vegan treats”. Treat Dreams is most famous for its filled chocolates, which use fair trade, European couverture chocolate to “cut through the sweetness of the ooey-gooey creme centres.” Among its fans is The Veronicas’ Lisa Origliasso.
Armstrong’s advice for those “hustling” on the side? Do you.
“There are a lot of different ways to go about it. Some people might want to look for an investor at the very start, to go big straight away, but if you’re more conservative, like I am, it’s okay to want to prove the concept, to understand it will work and go at your own pace. And you need the passion; for what you’re doing and to keep going.”