Recently, Chef’s Training and Food Therapy Graduate Heather Esposito made a dream come true – for herself and the allergen-sensitive community. She opened Sweet Freedom Bakery in Philadelphia with her business partner Allison Lubert. Natural Gourmet catches up with Heather to see how Sweet Freedom’s business is faring in its first few months . . .
NG: When did the idea of opening Sweet Freedom first come to you – in school or before?
HE: I think it came to me while I was in school (I can’t remember exactly when). I am pre-diabetic, sensitive to gluten, and lactose intolerant, which makes it difficult to find decent gluten-free baked goods that don’t have refined sugars or dairy in them.
One day I just decided to make my own baked goods and, like Forrest Gump when he was on his running kick, I just couldn’t stop. At the same time, I was doing some health counseling and had a client who was allergic to soy and another allergic to corn (both common allergens and in a lot of baked goods). I decided to try to do stuff without those ingredients as well.
The overall idea snowballed into creating a place where people with the most common allergens (wheat, dairy, eggs, soy and corn) had the freedom to enjoy everything without refined sugars (instead of “this is vegan but not gluten-free” or “this is gluten-free but not vegan” etc.).
It’s funny how it came to me. As a kid my parents never took me to a bakery, so I don’t have nostalgic feelings about going to one. Except for these amazingly delicious (but so unhealthy) chocolate chip cookies I used to make, I was never much of a cook either, let alone a baker. I’m really not even sure how the idea came to be and why I couldn’t shake it (I tried many times). It’s said that you don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you. That would definitely be the case with me and the bakery. As weird as it sounds, I really feel like it’s chosen me.
NGI: Insofar as Natural Gourmet provided a foundation in subjects like gluten-free, how did you develop your expertise in this area? Who are your favorite authorities on the subject?
HE: I definitely do not feel like an expert in this area. I was just persistent and kept trying. In my mind, if I were an expert, I would be more like Alton Brown who understands how things all work together. For us, it was more of an intuitive process.
As far as authorities, I’m grateful to authors Bette Hagman & and Jax Peters Lowell (author of The Gluten-Free Bible and one of our customers) for paving the way in gluten-free baking and information. Among chefs, Christina Pirello has been a big influence on me being more intuitive in the kitchen.
NGI: What are the most difficult technical challenges in allergen/gluten-free baking?
HE: I think that one of the most difficult challenges is that there really are no set “rules.” While I was experimenting, I would either read something or have people tell me I had to do “xyz.” I would do that and, whatever it was, it wouldn’t work. Then I would read or hear the complete opposite and that didn’t work either.
There are gluten-free cookbooks or vegan cookbooks but very few gluten-free, vegan cookbooks to go to. Plus, I wanted my stuff to be mine, not just something I copied from a cookbook. What I found is that it just comes down to experimentation and going with gut instinct.
Another challenge is that the ingredients are expensive. The years prior to opening I was working different jobs (substitute teacher, health coach, personal chef, and prep cook) that weren’t high paying. Any extra money I had was invested in ingredients that were part of the hundreds of recipes on their way to being great but just weren’t there yet. Sometimes it seemed I was just throwing money into the trash.
Another technical challenge was cutting out soy and corn. Not using soy was easy, but corn was a bit trickier because it’s in baking powder, most extracts and xanthan gum. Figuring out how to convert recipes without baking powder and sourcing ingredients that didn’t have any corn derivatives was tricky, but eventually I was able to do it.
NGI: What flours and sweeteners do you work with?
We use a mixture of flours depending on the recipe – sorghum, brown or white rice, garbanzo bean, fava bean, garfava bean (a mix of garbanzo and fava bean), tapioca flour and potato starch. We use all-natural, low-glycemic, unprocessed sweeteners for our products: coconut sugar, agave nectar and pure maple syrup.
NGI: Who is your business partner, and how did the two of you wind up working together?
HE: Allison Lubert and I have known each other for a few years. Like me, Allison has a master’s in counseling through University of Pennsylvania and also attended Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is a fantastic, intuitive cook and baker. She is also allergic to wheat, cane sugar and cow’s milk. So between the two of us, we had enough food sensitivities to understand how frustrating it can be to eat out.
When I was thinking of doing the bakery, I would talk to anyone who would listen to me about it. Allison and I talked about it a few years back but nothing came of it at the time. Last May I was still talking about the bakery and Allison said, “Let’s do it” and the ball started rolling. Her husband Jon has been a huge help to us with the business aspect of it; we’d be lost without his help.
NGI: Do you want to tell us anything about the logistical hurdles of starting your business – stuff such as business plan, finding a space, certifying your kitchen, marketing?
HE: Philadelphia is a difficult city in which to start a business. You have to have a permit or license for everything. Fortunately, Jon helped us with a majority of this stuff. My advice to anyone starting a business: Find people who do well what you don’t, and don’t give up if it’s really your dream! It’s a lot of work for not a lot of money, so it’s definitely not for someone who is looking to get rich fast.
NGI: Tell us a little about the media attention you’re getting. You’ve received a lot locally, but are you gaining fame outside of Philly? Are you recognized as leaders in your field?
HE: We are in a good situation because we are very unique and offer something people are seeking out. The web is a huge resource for people getting to know who we are – especially in this field. People are specifically looking for gluten-free, vegan dining-out options. Sites like Yelp and different gluten-free blogs have been helpful. We do have customers come in from other countries (last week I talked to people from Belgium & Australia) and also other parts of the country, along with people in the states surrounding Pennsylvania (New Jersey, Delaware).
I know we’ve been blogged about in many places throughout the US as well. Since we just started shipping, we are working with our PR guy about gaining more national attention.
Two weeks after we opened Alicia Silverstone’s assistant contacted us to place an order for the cast she was working with on Broadway. Allison and I personally delivered our goodies to her.
NGI: What are the bestsellers on your menu?
HE: Overall our bestseller is our chocolate chip cookie sandwiches (chocolate chip cookies sandwiched between either vanilla or chocolate frosting). Cupcakes follow that, along with the Magic Bar and seasonal Fruit Oat Crumble.
NGI: Is there a typical “Sweet Freedom” customer?
HE: Our customer base is pretty varied – vegan hipsters, families with kids who have allergies, celiacs, people who don’t want to eat refined sugars, people who don’t care what they eat but just love our products. I would say the most “typical” thing about our customers is that they are all grateful for us being here. That, I would say, is the most fun part of the job: hearing daily how grateful people are.
NGI: How do you see the business growing and developing? What are your plans for the future?
HE: As already mentioned, we are starting to work on becoming more nationally known. We have both local delivery and shipping in place so people can enjoy our baked goods nationally. We are working on wholesale accounts with different stores (currently DiBruno Brothers is carrying our cookie sandwiches).
We’ve talked about the possibilities of opening up a second location and also on a cookbook.