Over the summer I had the pleasure of meeting Jen Schwartz, who co-owns Starry Lane Bakery with her sister Jaime. Starry Lane is a vegan and allergen free bakery located in Santee (San Diego), California. That’s right, allergen free! No nuts, gluten, dairy, soy and eggs–in any of their products!
After sampling some of their goodies (I loved the shortbread and the linzer cookie!), I got the chance to interview Jaime and find out how she became inspired to take on such a project, where she found her passion for allergen free baking and what the first year of business has been like for the sisters. See excerpts of the interview below!
(And happy anniversary to them–they opened one year ago today–November 1, 2011)
MGF: So how did you come up with the name Starry Lane?
JS: My mom actually did. We grew up in PA, on Starry Lane, and she suggested we use the name of the street. It’s very comforting, having this name.
MGF: When did you open?
JS: November 1, 2011.
MGF: How did your first year go?
JS: It started out slowly, a little stressful. But, we’ve gotten a lot of loyal customers who’ve been telling their friends. It’s all about the customer recommendations. You know, you trust your friends. If your friends tell you they had something and it was wonderful, they believe you and they come in. We get customers who come in once and they try something and two days later they come back. It’s definitely our customers and their loyalty that have made us successful.
MGF: How did you decide to open an allergen free bakery?
JS: I had graduated from Rutgers with degrees in anthropolgy and biology which have nothing to do with cooking. Then I decided I wanted to go to culinary school. I graduated and was working as a pastry chef and while I was working I developed my food allergy to tree nuts–specifically cashews and almonds. My sister, who is my business partner, suggested trying to do allergy free. You know when you taste these allergy free foods you find out most of them aren’t good and I have a biology degree and I thought, I can do better than this.
MGF: That’s a lot to take on- what were the biggest challenges you faced at first?
JS: Recipe wise, the eggs. You don’t realize the huge role they play–they are a huge protein source, bind food together, give texture. They play a different role in each recipe so you can’t just put in the same substitutes for each goodie so that was really really difficult. The first cookie we did was a chocolate chip, because everyone loves a chocolate chip cookie. And it took me about 1 ½ yrs to do a chocolate chip cookie. I was giving samples to the mailman, the gardener, my parents, my friends, sending things to my sister. Everyone tasted the cookies and a lot of them were really bad.
It wasn’t until the 12th or 14th batch that I realized cookies don’t spread without eggs. So now we mold all of our cookies. And there are some recipes we won’t try–like obviously we can’t do a sponge cake or pastry creams. But one of my employees came up with a really good egg-free lemon curd, so we’re gonna try to do something with that.
MGF: Has your science background helped?
JS: Honestly, if I didn’t find the link between science and baking, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I’m a giant science nerd. It’s only because I see it as a giant science experience that it works.
MGF: And that’s great. A lot of people are afraid of baking, but once you break it down…
JS: No I agree! Once it’s not a magic trick, once you know what the ingredients are doing–that if you do this, you are going to get this result, its not as scary.
MGF: How did you choose the suppliers?
JS: We go through multiple suppliers for different items. For example, a lot of people make rice flour, but only one company makes rice flour that is guaranteed free of soy, dairy, eggs, gluten and nuts. So that was difficult for us. We have one company that makes one thing and one company that makes something else and we don’t have a lot of choice between suppliers.
MGF: How do you know your products are completely allergen free?
JS: We send out our products to be tested to make sure. There is an Eliza test we use. They break down the cookie into its proteins and they see which proteins are present, so they can tell you how many parts there are of gluten, of dairy, of eggs and we have none.
MGF: What about your staff? How do they help ensure that the goodies stay allergen free?
JS: I’ve only hired people who have graduated from culinary school because they understand about cross-contamination. They know that they can’t eat peanut butter toast and walk into the bakery. They’ve taken all the safety classes. My customers….I have to guarantee their safety. We don’t even let people come in with outside food or drink.
MGF: Cost of allergen free food is a big concern for customers. How do you handle that?
JS: A normal ounce of flour costs 7 cents. The average of ours is 17 cents per ounce. Our products are more expensive, but I think and our customers have said that we’re more reasonable than our competitors. Just because you have a food allergy doesn’t mean you have an unlimited amount of money. It’s not a choice– it’s a medical condition–so we figure out how much these cookies cost and then
base price strictly on that.
MGF: So let’s go to some fun questions. What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
JS: Hmm. I’d have to say the cinnamon swirl cookie. It’s a cinnamon shortbread dough and we dip it in a light cinnamon glaze. It’s a perfect cookie to have with coffee in the morning. There’s always a reason to have a cookie for breakfast.
MGF: Do you like working with your sister?
JS: It’s really fun. It gives me an excuse to talk to her ten times a day!
MGF: What do you love most about your job?
JS: Every once in awhile we get a family that comes in and the kid asks what’s dairy free and we say everything. And their eyes light up because they’ve never been able to have the freedom to choose anything they wanted before, because their allergies are so severe. It makes me really happy.
MGF: With all of these allergen free products do you think you’d supply to stores?
JS: Absolutely. We’d love to. We aren’t big enough yet. We’ve been talking to local bakeries and cafes about giving them packaged goods. And eventually, I’d love to market to airlines because it’s really hard to take a long trip and not have anything to eat, and this way people can eat safely.
Starry Lane Bakery is located at 10769 Woodside Ave in Santee, California. They are open Tuesday- Saturday and ship all over the country. For more information visit http://www.starrylanebakery.com