Solodko is a Boston-based patisserie that offers classy and delectable desserts. Ilona Znakharchuk founded the business while studying at Boston College, and runs the patisserie with her sister, Irina. To learn about Solodko’s past and present, I interviewed Ilona, the bubbly and introspective owner. I learned about her fascinating business and culinary journey, and by the end of our chat, also ended up craving a scrumptious slice of Ukrainian honey cake.
“It sometimes surprises me to see how far we’ve come because when we started, I didn’t think that three years later, I would still be doing this,” Ilona reflected. “And I plan on continuing to do it.”
Ilona always had a passion for baking from a young age. Ilona and her older sister Irina, were born in Ukraine and moved to the United States as children. Ilona would often visit Ukraine to spend time with family and friends, and mentioned that she had a friend who owned a pastry shop there. “I was always just in awe of her desserts because I couldn’t find anything similar to what she had here, in the States,” Ilona shared. Inspired by her friend, “I started just playing around in my kitchen and experimenting and she helped me with a few of her recipes that she was kind enough to give to me,” Ilona added. “And that’s where it all started.”
Photo credit: Solodko
Solodko had its sweet beginnings in a dorm room at Boston College. During her sophomore year of college, Ilona would bake delicate desserts to share with friends. Macarons were her specialty, and she did not shy away from unique flavor combinations. In fact, her blue cheese, walnut, and pear macaron flavor was well-loved. Upon noticing her talent, her supportive roommate urged her to start a business and even made an Instagram page for her to commence her journey. At that time, Ilona chose the name Conditer for her baking business, which means “pastry chef” in Ukrainian. “That was my nickname in the family,” said Ilona warmly. For trademarking reasons, she later changed the name to Solodko, the Ukrainian word for “sweet”.
Ilona started off posting a few pictures on Instagram and was shocked at the positive response. “Before I knew it, students started reaching out to me and placing orders. And I had a little bit of a freak-out moment,” Ilona admitted. However, she soon formulated a routine to manage her influx of orders. “I would go home on weekends and I would bake, and then I would come back to campus Sunday night,” where she would deliver the desserts, mainly macarons, with Irina’s help.
The next year after gaining more hands-on experience, Ilona pitched Conditer in Start@Shea’s Accelerator Program at Boston College. This program helps entrepreneurs realize their goals by offering helpful expertise, networking, and funding. The accelerator program let her “have more of a vision and a plan for how I want to move forward with this in the future.”’ She described this as the point where baking was no longer something on the side — Ilona was all in.
After graduation, Ilona rebranded Conditer to Solodko. Currently, Ilona and Irina both work full-time jobs and spend their evenings attending to orders from customers in greater Boston. Ilona described Irina as her “right hand.” The sisters complement each other to deliver on quality consistently. “She’s there to help out and that really gives me the time and the freedom to carry out our goals and our vision,” Ilona said, mentioning that “background work” should not be underestimated. “Without her, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything that I do in terms of the business,” Ilona concluded.
Despite their busy schedules, the sisters’ dedication to Solodko never wavered. “There were concrete steps for making the business a fully operational legal food entity,” to which Ilona gave examples of sub-leasing a commercial kitchen space and formally registering the business. They also revamped the menu to cater to their schedule and working capacities.
“We started off primarily making macarons just because those were convenient for the Boston College student population. After college, we transitioned from macarons to different desserts.” Solodko moved to eclairs and other pastries, and then to cakes. Ilona found that “it’s easier to make one large cake and deliver to one customer than to make fifty eclairs and deliver them to ten different locations across Boston.” Since time was precious, they had to be efficient. “We had to tweak our business model a little given that we are working full-time jobs. We have limited time in our commercial kitchen and limited time to deliver.” Desserts like macarons and eclairs were more demanding than cakes, which “wasn’t sustainable” for the long-term.
Photo credit: Solodko
Ilona points to significant people in her life and baking career who helped her develop her culinary skills. Ilona shared that Solodko’s cake recipes are actually from a pastry chef in Eastern Europe, which offers something new to a largely American customer base. In addition, Ilona interned at Jonquils Cafe & Bakery on Newbury Street. She worked with a pastry chef who “taught me so much that I now use in my day-to-day life of running the food business.” This includes culinary tips and tricks and how to pivot “when things start going wrong in the kitchen.” Ilona shared that “without his expertise, and without my experience in that cafe over the summer, I wouldn’t have had as much knowledge as I have now.” Solodko’s menu reflects Ilona’s baking acumen learned from talented pastry chefs, her Ukrainian background, and her own personal techniques, style, and creative flavor pairings.
Currently, Solodko’s menu consists of a variety of cakes, cake jars, cakesicles, and assorted tarts. In particular, Ilona pays homage to the classic Ukrainian honey cake, honoring her roots. The honey cake is “a very popular Ukrainian cake flavor, called medovik in Ukrainian, so that has to be there.”
Here are some of Solodko’s flavors, as listed on the website:
“Mango Passion Fruit Coconut: Almond sponge cake layers with mango passion fruit confit, a coconut soak, and a light cream”
“Raspberry Chocolate: A fluffy chocolate sponge cake with raspberry confit and a light vanilla cream”
And Ilona’s favorite flavor that she highly recommends to customers new to Solodko:
“Berry Vanilla: Vanilla sponge cake layers with mixed berry confit and a whipped cream cheese frosting”
Ilona also recommended the custom-tarts: “This seems like a small dessert but you have up to three different layers within the tart itself and then you have the topping.” In one dessert, “you get a lot of different flavors coming at you all at once.” From cakes to tarts, Solodko offers something for everyone.
As much as flavors are important, aesthetics matter as well for Solodko. The business exudes elegance in branding, from dessert decoration to website design. “We focus on things to be as delicious as pretty.” Ilona said simply. “And that’s important for us. So, I think that did definitely emphasize our branding and our style.” Ilona wants her desserts to embody a “timeless classic aesthetic through time.” For Ilona, too much going on is “overwhelming” and can take away from a breathtaking visual. “I feel like there’s beauty in simplicity.”
Photo credit: Solodko
Because Solodko cakes are custom, design is a balancing act between customer expectations and patisserie standards. Ilona walked me through the design process with an example. A customer reached out to Solodko for her daughter’s birthday, and shared ideas about the cake. “She likes leopard, she likes pink and she’s very feminine,” the customer said about the daughter in question. “That gives me right away something to work with,” Ilona articulated. She will then find inspiration on the internet and in life around her, “like nature, art, and fashion.” She looks at the work of pastry chefs and artists as well, and weaves her favorite aspects of those cakes into the final product, all while respecting artistic integrity. Ilona found that when customers hand over the reins to her in terms of design, the result is often impressive. “Sometimes those are the cakes that come out absolutely beautiful [because] you’re given the full liberty to execute your vision.”
As for the items that are non-custom, Ilona “developed a style that works best for us in terms of aesthetics and time requirements. And that’s what we usually stick to.” For example, most of the eclairs, whenever on the menu, “are decorated with whipped ganache on top, piped in different patterns. We find that that’s the most comfortable for us to work with, especially when there’s a very large batch of eclairs that we have to make.” Ilona’s reasoning was practical. “You wouldn’t want to decorate each eclair in a different way because that’s unsustainable. And I think in business, you have to find a very smart balance between what’s artistic and creative and what’s sustainable.”
Towards the end of our chat, Ilona contemplated on her years of trial-and-error, learning, and growth both as both a business owner and a pastry chef. “Every time I do something with the business and I take a step back and look at it, it’s a testament to the fact that… things that start out little can become big, with consistent hard work.”
Ilona emphasized the power of persistence in achieving her goals. “You just should never give up on your dreams even when things don’t go according to plan. Because, as in anything that ultimately ends in success, consistency is key.”
For the future, Solodko is looking to get its own commercial space, take more wedding cake orders, and open a cafe. Ilona sees this as an opportunity where she can expand their menu and definitely bring back their highly-requested macarons. No matter what the future holds, one thing is for certain: Solodko desserts are as aesthetically exquisite as they are indulgently delectable. Don’t be shy — help yourself to an irresistible slice of Solodko honey cake! After all, we all need a little sweetness in life.
Cover photo courtesy of Solodko