IF Helene Godin had decided to rethink her life at a different time, a bed and breakfast might have been her chosen fate. Or perhaps a little independent bookstore with a marmalade cat, good coffee and some comfortable armchairs.
But this being the second decade of the 21st century, Ms. Godin chose a different course after she quit her job as a Manhattan lawyer, resolved to temper her workaholic ways, and set out on a second career. She opened a gluten-free bakery.
So did Edie and Dan Irwin in Los Angeles after their graphic-design business faltered in the recession. (Their specialty is artisanal gluten-free bread.) And Christine Reed in Ashford, Conn., when she concluded that working as a buyer for a manufacturing company did not fulfill her soul. And Michelle Gillette in Bayport, on Long Island, when she gave up teaching high school Spanish. (The grand opening of her gluten-free bakery and cafe, called Ms. Michelle’s Urban Gourmet, took place on Memorial Day weekend.)As long as there have been jobs, there have been fantasies about leaving them. Often this involves escapes to pretty settings (the proverbial bed and breakfast in Vermont), or fitness nirvana (ski instructor), and, if not financial reward, at least no irritating co-workers or domineering bosses (in fact, usually no bosses at all).
Some fantasies run their course; owning a little country newspaper, a common daydream of past generations of journalists, has all the allure of a migraine these days. But into the vacuum usually come other ideas more illustrative of a particular moment. And so it is today that we find the growing appeal of gluten-free, not just as a dietary regimen but as a professional Plan B.
Who even heard of gluten (or the lack thereof) a decade ago? The estimated 1.3 percent of the population who had celiac disease, which is basically an inability to digest gluten, did, but the general public awareness was minimal.
Now, many more people know that gluten is a protein contained in wheat, rye and barley, and it has a crucial elastic quality that holds together the ingredients of breads, cakes, cookies, pasta and most any other baked good you care to name. Those who are allergic to gluten, or who simply have a hard time digesting it, can’t eat many desserts or dietary staples like pizza or sandwiches.
Even those who can eat all the gluten they want increasingly have some vague idea that it’s healthier not to. Certainly many weekend athletes took notice recently when the tennis star Novak Djokovic partly attributed his stunning 40-plus-match winning streak to his gluten-free diet.
So naturally, gluten-free has become a growing business concept. The Gluten Free Registry (glutenfreeregistry.com), a database, now lists more than 19,000 “gluten-free friendly” establishments around the world. The Chicago Tribune named “gluten free” one of its top 10 buzzwords a few years ago. Ms. Reed’s gluten-free vegan bakery, called Shayna B’s & the Pickle (after her two dogs), got a big contract last month when it was hired to supply the Wesleyan University graduation with 1,300 gluten-free blondies, biscottis and chocolate chip cookies.
Helene Godin didn’t think or care about gluten — or baking, for that matter — when she was catching the 7:01 train to New York City every morning. In a 22-year career as a media and intellectual property lawyer, she had held some big, wonderful jobs — including positions at NBC, Reader’s Digest and Bloomberg.
She loved it. But, acknowledging her workaholic inclinations she said, “I realized I needed to stop.” With the encouragement of her husband and teenage sons, she walked into Bloomberg one day last spring and quit on the spot. “I’ve decided I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore,” she said.
On a recent Thursday morning, Ms. Godin was tending to last-minute details before her grand opening, which was to happen that Saturday, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Representative Nita M. Lowey. Everything looked perfect.
The door handle to the shop, on the main commercial thoroughfare in the Westchester County town of Hastings-on-Hudson, was made of a French rolling pin. The walls were freshly painted in a cheerful yellow (shade: buttercream) and rich brown (chocolate). Delectable raspberry muffins, ginger cookies, coconut cake, lemon cake and four-layer chocolate cakes lined the countertop. (She was offering samples to her many testers in town, not to mention to a reporter.) Neighboring merchants dropped by with good wishes. The liquor store guy came bearing a bottle of wine.
“I didn’t quit with any plan whatsoever,” Ms. Godin said. With her free time, she enrolled in a baking boot camp at a culinary institute (vegan baking, since that was the class with spots available) and came up with an idea. She had known she wanted her next act to be local (no more commuter trains), and ideally appealing enough that her sons would want to stop by on the way home from school. A bakery seemed to fit. Yet a regular bakery wouldn’t do it.
The baking boot-camp instructor had told the class that gluten-free was “hot” these days. Ms. Godin wanted to start a business that would be “a destination” for people in neighboring towns. People might not drive to Hastings for a raspberry muffin, she reasoned. But they might make the trip for a supremely delicious, healthful, gluten-free raspberry muffin, especially if allergies kept them from eating the regular kind. And she was going to work until she came up with the best, tastiest gluten-free treats around. “I didn’t want to do muffins that tasted like beans,” she said.
The trick for Ms. Godin (and herein likes the key for many gluten-free entrepreneurs) was not to turn off regular, allergy-free customers by trumpeting that all the offerings are gluten-free. Hence the name she came up with: By the Way Bakery (no “gluten-free” in the title). The concept: boy, this is delicious and, by the way, it’s gluten-free.
The appeal of gluten-free bakeries speaks to the current interest in food and health, and to our allergy-laden times. It also has that all-crucial Plan B element of providing joy, satisfaction and pleasure to others.
Ms. Gillette, the former Spanish teacher who opened a gluten-free bakery last weekend, spent her summer break teaching a baking class for children a few years ago. She found a startling number of them could not eat the treats they made because of allergies; the most common allergy was to gluten. “There’s nothing like seeing a five-year-old make a chocolate chip cookie and she can’t dive into it,” Ms. Gillette said. “It kind of broke my heart. I told myself I’m going to have to teach myself how to be a gluten-free chef.”
A number of gluten-free bakers, like Taylor Nicholson, a former litigation consultant, and Anne Hoyt, a former banker, were drawn to the business because of their own health issues. The pair, who are mother and daughter (Ms. Hoyt is the mother), suffer from celiac disease. After altering their own diet and cooking habits, and with the encouragement of friends, they decided they could put together a viable business selling the products of the gluten-free recipes they’d devised. They held their breath and quit their jobs. Their Wholesome Foods Bakery in East Dallas opened just over a year ago.
“It was very scary in the turbulent economic situation,” Ms. Nicholson said, “to quit a job that had a good career path for my mom and I. But I think we had a lot of faith in our product.”
So far, so good. “It’s been incredibly fun,” Ms. Nicholson said. “Owning your own business, your mind never shuts off. But it’s different, and we’re so passionate about what we’re doing.”
For others, gluten-free is a different sort of Plan B, a way to pick up the pieces after a previous professional life faltered. For years, the Irwins had been lucky to have corporate clients from the booming mortgage business for their graphic-design business, who had ample need for commissioning of logos, advertisements, invitations and other designs. The biggest lender of all, Countrywide Home Loans, was their biggest client.
Then came 2008, when Countrywide became the public symbol of ineptitude and corruption in the mortgage business — and the Irwin’s business went down, too.
But Edie Irwin had always loved to bake. She had already been doing some work on the side for a vegetarian restaurant and was becoming interested in gluten-free. “I’d tasted a lot of gluten-free bread and thought, ‘Wow, this stuff is terrible,’ ” she said. “I thought I could do better and thought because I didn’t need to eat gluten-free, I could hold it to a higher standard.”
So when the partners in that restaurant had the opportunity to buy a gluten-free bakery in Culver City, outside of Los Angeles, they asked the Irwins to join them, take a one-third ownership stake, and take over the running of the business.
The Sensitive Baker, as their bakery is called, is growing fast. “I spent years sitting in my office and didn’t realize how much I wanted to be out talking to people,” Mr. Irwin said, citing another important quotient to most people’s Plan B equations.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Paul and Marilyn King were going through a similar crisis. Their business, a contracting company that built and maintained commercial buildings across the country, had done very well for 20 years. But when the real estate industry collapsed, their business did, too.
“I was pretty much in a state of depression,” Mr. King said. “I didn’t want to do anything, I didn’t know what to do.”
In the past, his wife had conducted a side business baking wedding cakes and other custom cakes for friends, business clients and members of their church. She’d stopped a few years earlier after learning she was gluten-intolerant. But with their economic livelihood in a shambles, she came up with an idea to give it a try again, this time focusing on gluten-free products.
“One day my wife comes to me and says, ‘I’m going to start a bakery,’ ” Mr. King said. “I wasn’t the most supportive husband: ‘The worst economy in our lifetime — you want to start a business? Gluten-free?’ ”
He agreed to it as a “stopgap source of income.” Today it’s become an all-encompassing enterprise; their business, Tia’s Bakery, now sells gluten-free products in health and natural-food stores across the country, including Whole Foods stores in 14 states.
“There was a certain satisfaction in putting up a 10-story building,” Mr. King says of his old profession. “But it can’t be matched when someone thanks you for something you’ve given them that they haven’t been able to have.”
Nevertheless, the prospect of their gluten-free enterprise ever becoming as successful as their commercial real estate business is a long shot, Mr. King acknowledged. “Anyone who thinks they’re going to start a food company as we did, with no money, better be passionate about it,” he said. “If you’re in it for the money, good luck to you.”
But then again, Plan B’s are about so much more than getting rich.
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