BY GREGORY ZELLER // Bakers are no longer known primarily for innovation. Television contests may demand interesting new shapes for cookies and cakes, but in the early 21st century, virtually every combination of eggs, butter and flour has been tried. The difference between a 350 or 375 degree oven has been well-documented.
There are no baking worlds left to conquer.
Save perhaps one.
In an increasingly gluten-free world, many baked products prepared without traditional wheat-, barley- and rye-based proteins have also proven to be taste-free. And many gluten-free products available online are frozen before or during shipping, an unnatural state for items literally baked into existence.
So while the laws of baking are immutable – one teaspoon of baking powder means, indeed, one teaspoon – gluten-free baking actually leaves space for innovation.
Michelle Gillette Kelly intends to fill it. Along with her husband and business partner, Christopher Kelly, the chef means to prove that gluten- and dairy-free baked goods can still be scrumptious.
Actually, she’s already proved it: The graduate of Manhattan’s Krups Culinary Institute (now the Institute of Culinary Education) started off selling baked goods at local farmer’s markets, including a selection of popular gluten-free products inspired by family health issues. Michelle has a gluten intolerance and Christopher’s mother, who suffers from the inflammatory bowel disorder Crohn’s disease, is also gluten-sensitive.
The little side business grew quickly, prompting the Kellys to open a Bayport bakery. Ms. Michelle’s Urban Gourmet quickly attracted both customers and attention, snagging “Best of Long Island” honors from The Long Island Press in 2012 in the Organic Eatery category and being listed among the 2013 Best Bakeries in America by Delight Gluten Free Magazine. It also won a Town of Islip Small Business Award and was named a Small Business of the Month by the New York State Assembly.
Among its most popular offerings were Michelle’s gluten-free products, even among customers not suffering from celiac disease – the most-common gluten-based disorder, affecting nearly 3 million patients in the United States alone – or any other gluten intolerance.
Now, nearly five years later, the Kellys have closed the brick-and-mortar bakery to focus on distributing Michelle’s gluten- and dairy-free cookies via the Internet. Incorporated as Cooking With Chef Michelle and doing business as Ms. Michelle’s, the Patchogue-based company is renting space at Stony Brook University’s Calverton Business Incubator – primarily to “gauge how much space we’ll need to lease or buy in the future,” Michelle noted – and will flip the switch June 1 on a new website cooked up by Mineola’s Bowen Media.
They’re actually renting time at the incubator, which includes about 8,000 square feet of cooking space, roughly one-quarter of which is dedicated to gluten-free preparation.
“At the beginning of the week, we know how much time we need to fill the orders we have, and then basically we can rent the space as we need it,” Christopher noted. “It’s open to us 24/7, so we can bake whenever we want.”
Sweetening the incubator deal is the fact that other residents are in a similar boat to the Kellys: startups hoping to ride a little entrepreneurial momentum.
“Everyone there has their own grand vision, but everyone also has the same goal,” Christopher said. “It’s not the cutthroat world of investment banking or anything like that. Most people in the incubator are really interested in helping each other out.”
Cooking With Chef Michelle is also getting a dash of salt from the Long Island Forum for Technology. This week, the company will graduate from LIFT’s export-education program, which teaches Long Island businesses the ins and outs of international trade – a vital step, Christopher said, in “Michelle’s plan to take over the world, one cookie at a time.”
When it launches, the new website will be translated into 12 languages, allowing Ms. Michelle’s to reach “92 percent of the world’s population,” Christopher added, with a proposed turnaround time for global delivery – depending on the size of a particular order – “likely a week at most.”
And for the record, Ms. Michelle’s selections will never be frozen, according to the cofounders.
Michelle noted that graduation from the LIFT export program makes Ms. Michelle’s “officially, the first gluten-free cookie to be exported from Long Island.” And yes, the entrepreneurs are anticipating global demand: Christopher noted that in Italy, newborns are tested for celiac disease the same way U.S. newborns are tested for polio.
“Gluten-free is one of the fastest-growing trends in the world,” he said. “Everyone seems to follow the U.S. trends.”
The entrepreneurs have their own individual definitions of “success” for Ms. Michelle’s. Christopher, who studied mechanical engineering at SUNY Maritime, earned his engineering doctorate from St. John’s University and teaches STEM courses in the William Floyd School District, leans toward financial measures.
This can be a homerun for us and a homerun for Long Island,” he said. “There’s nothing to say we can’t be the next Entenmann’s.”
The company’s namesake, meanwhile, just wants to spread a little sweetness.
“My goal is to make sure people understand gluten-free can taste good,” Michelle said. “I just want to make sure people with a gluten intolerance can still enjoy their treats.”
Cooking With Chef Michelle
What’s It? Gluten- and dairy-free baked goods available online for global delivery
Brought To You By: Wife-and-husband cofounders Michelle Gillette Kelly and Christopher Kelly
All In: About $50,000 total, including $30,000 to open a brick-and-mortar Bayport bakery five years ago and another $20,000 to repurpose the company for e-commerce, including website development, packaging, trademarks and specialty ingredients
Status: Fresh out of the oven June 1