by Christine Feeley
I can’t remember the last time I had eaten a crème brûlée. Vague memories of seeing it on menus or watching family members order it at restaurants danced around my brain, but there was no distinct occasion that I could pinpoint. It was never my go-to dessert, but after I had the pleasure of seeing one torched right in front of me and getting to crack the sugar crust with my spoon moments later, I began to wonder why.
For CremeBru.LA owners Dan Levine and Theresa Ryan, crème brûlée is a dessert they could not imagine life without. Dan recalls trying crème brûlée for the first time at a restaurant called the Blue Heron over 30 years ago. Looking back, he does not remember if it was in fact that dessert or simply a custard, but it was enough to stick in his mind as a long-lasting favorite. So naturally, when the pandemic hit and all the restaurants where they usually get their crème brûlée fix shut down, the couple decided to make their own.
Despite the eventual name, the initial idea did not begin as selling just the dessert alone. It began instead with selling brisket out of the driveway of Dan and Theresa’s Los Angeles home at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Starved for interaction, as everyone was at the height of quarantine, the couple thought their barbeque pop-up would be a fun and safe way to see their friends and neighbors. Soon enough, however, everyone in LA seemed to follow suit, but the one item that began distinguishing them from the other BBQ sellers was, naturally, their crème brûlée. Over the course of four to five weeks, word of mouth began to spread and they began selling 150-200 jars each weekend. The success was more than they could have anticipated, and although such a novelty dessert is something that the area would scoop right up, the LA location provided its challenges.
Dan and Theresa recognized that while the business venture could easily get off the ground where they were, the cost would likely be exorbitant. Renting out a professional kitchen space for them to cook would cost $50 an hour, and Theresa, who worked in real estate, was all too familiar with the high costs of a potential storefront. That sort of undertaking would require a lot of funding, and the costliness combined with the challenges of living in LA during the lockdown led to the couple ultimately coming to the decision to relocate back to Dan’s roots.
Any transition is difficult, but moving from California to Western Massachusetts was certainly an adjustment, especially for Theresa, who had not grown up in the area as Dan had. But she was pleasantly surprised by Amherst’s welcoming nature and sense of community, especially as they got their business back up off the ground in a new spot.
“It’s been incredible to have this community and support in such a gentle and welcoming place,” Theresa said. “In LA, the idea of this was exhausting.”
“There’s something about this area that makes people love to welcome new things,” Dan chimed in. “It’s a great incubator for a business like us.”
Starting back up in Amherst, the couple now has a commercial kitchen at Atkins farms, where their three cooks whip up the specialty dessert en masse. On Wednesdays, thirty dozen eggs are cracked ahead of their cooking days on Thursdays and Fridays, in order to prepare for the Saturday markets. Depending on the flavors being sold that week, the recipe varies, but they almost always sell vanilla and maple. Dan, however, maintains the mindset that crème brûlée should be a launching point for unique flavors.
“It’s like ice cream,” he said, “You certainly wouldn’t want the only flavor option to be vanilla, would you?”
This has led to a vast variety of flavors, ranging from the classic vanilla to honey-lavender, espresso, pina colada, and seasonal flavors such as eggnog and sweet corn. The proudly-proclaimed “ideas-person,” Theresa has brainstormed some of their biggest flavor hits such as s’mores. They have crafted around 25 to 30 flavors, many of which are gluten free, while dairy free and vegan flavors are also made in order to optimize dietary inclusion. The couple discussed their passion for making their product as natural as possible through buying everything as locally as they can, like milk and cream from Hadley’s Mapleline Farm.
If you’re looking to get your hands on a jar of their famed dessert, you can find them underneath a large white tent at the Amherst Farmers Market, every Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., selling $6 jars or $25 crème brûlée kits. Their first market was April of last year, giving them an initial two-month run that quickly launched into success in other areas. A spot at the Easthampton market was added along with other local venues, such as Provisions in the Mill District and Blackbirch Vineyard on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as specialty events including catering for bar mitzvahs and weddings. Now, they sell over 600-800 jars a week.
“We had no idea it would reach this scale,” Dan expressed. “We have the town to thank for a ton of our success — we’ve met so many people and it’s been incredibly rewarding.”
It was clear to me, as I sat across from the both of them at a small table at Amherst Coffee — a local favorite of theirs, and where their product is available on the menu — that they were truly the perfect pairing for such a customer-oriented business. They’re the kind of people who it quickly becomes easy to talk to like old friends, and who are bursting with energy and engaging stories. It is no wonder that they were able to so seamlessly integrate their business into the community with such great results.
While the business is a bit of a far cry from their day to day life of Dan’s tech job and Theresa’s past realtor and voiceover work, (notably, in Coors Light commercials), it has proved to be the thing that ultimately consumed a part of their life in the best way possible. “He’s a different person than the one who was clocking in and out of work everyday,” Theresa said of her husband. “It’s been amazing to see Dan take the idea and fall in love with it and the product. He’s very passionate about it.”
A freelance journalist of fifteen years himself, Dan says that he uses that mindset to think of ways they can improve the business. “I’m interviewing myself all the time,” he said. “This narrative is constantly running for me – how can we fix this, what don’t people like, how can we make it better?”
In terms of the future, the couple has their sights set on big plans for the business. Currently, Theresa is looking into renovated horse trailers to tow around and vend out of – an idea that meets their aesthetic vision as opposed to their current set up in their big white tent. Although it’s a pricey step, she hopes that the business can generate enough income in order to take it to the next level. Other plans on the more distant horizon, over the next year or two, include a potential brick and mortar retail spot, staffed in part with people with disabilities and who may have challenges finding work elsewhere. This vision was inspired by their three-year old neurodivergent son, who helped them recognize the value and importance of giving people with special needs an opportunity to work.
“Having a kid heightens your awareness,” Theresa said. “We like to think about how we can pay it forward — someone’s going to take a chance on our kid, and we want to do that for other people.” Paying it forward seems to be a large part of their business motto, as Dan described what he calls the “Order of the Torchiére,” where employees give out a card when they see a good deed that is redeemable for a crème brûlée. “There’s a feeling of giving back that permeates throughout this business,” he said.
While a storefront is likely a few years out, Dan and Theresa are aware it would be tricky to open one up that is entirely dedicated to crème brûlée. In order for it to be successful, it could mean making it into a full bistro or cafe and diversifying the menu, giving customers the option to order other items along with the dessert. This idea has already been a smaller-scale success at their farmers market tent, where they realized last April that no stand sold coffee and in turn jumped on the opportunity. Now, along with the various flavors of the week, the CremeBru.LA tent sells lemonade and Pierce Brothers coffee which bumps up their sales, as they noted that no one tends to buy the dessert before 10 a.m. Largely credited with their biggest sales are the college students who flock to the tent when they’re in school (and who then cause a one third drop in sales when they go home for the summer.)
Customers are of course a part of any business, but it is clear that Dan and Theresa are incredibly grateful for theirs. “This business has made us young,” Theresa said of getting to interact with their regular customers, students and retired locals alike. For Dan, it is the customer satisfaction that has been the most rewarding: “I care a lot less about making money with this business than making people happy.”
Essentials: You can find Dan and Theresa’s CremeBru.LA at the Amherst Farmers Market every Saturday from 7:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.