A CSA for baking? Is that really a thang??
I wouldn’t believe it except that I was part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) in the Bronx that delivered bread and granola along with veggies. It was amazing! I feel like the more of my food that can be delivered by cool, local peeps, the better. It was awesome then, and with kids, it’s even better now.
So I wanted to hear more when a friend told me her sister Jessie, in Eugene, Oregon, was getting a bakery-boxes, CSA-like project off the ground. Jessie’s business, Elegant Elephant Baking Company, already delivers gluten-free goodies with mostly local and organic ingredients to 15 coffee shops, markets, and other spots in the Eugene area. She’s on Kickstarter (here) until October 17, 2013, to raise funds to expand the business to deliver bakery boxes directly to customers. (UPDATE: It’s funded!!! Now you can say you knew Jessie way back before she got famous.)
Jessie started Elegant Elephant Baking Company at the urging of her husband Evan, who adored her gluten-free cookies (Jessie has celiac disease) and noticed that on his local dairy delivery route–yes, she married the milkman!–nobody was selling gluten-free goods. So Elegant Elephant started up and has gotten rave reviews: The buyer at Market of Choice told Jessie that her twisted-berry scone was the best gluten-free item she had ever eaten!
Jessie is also the mom of Ella the-elegant-elephant, who is two.
I’m always interested in how moms are investing in their careers while raising children. Speaking from experience it’s a complex picture and constantly feels like uncharted waters. So I got the chance to go back-and-forth with Jessie about the business and her new delivery venture.
Me: Tell me more about how Elegant Elephant Baking Company started.
Jessie: I have had celiac disease for eight years, and during that time I’ve had to learn to cook and bake from scratch—something I would have scoffed at previous to my diagnosis.
During my pregnancy, I really kicked it into high gear, trying new things like fried foods, cinnamon rolls, and decadent cookies. (Primarily from the wicked cravings I had for Cinnabon and Chicken McNuggets—things I hadn’t eaten for years prior to not being allowed to!). After mastering a chocolate chip cookie recipe, we had some friends over and I got a wild hair and added toffee and peanut butter chips to the mix and—Violá!—my friends and Evan couldn’t stop talking about them. [These cookies are Elegant Elephant's Not Your Average Cookies.]
Evan at the time was a delivery driver for Lochmead (a local dairy—so yes, I did marry the milkman) and he noticed that at every account no one was selling gluten-free baked goods. I already knew this due to the lack of edible items available at every local coffee shop. I was used to sitting at coffee with friends while they sipped and snacked—and I would keep little treats in the car.
So with Evan’s encouragement, I decided to pursue a small venture as a gluten-free cookie maker for Eugene. My very first account, Eugene Coffee Company, really opened my eyes to what it meant to have a wholesale food business—like having a commercial kitchen and liability insurance and other necessities for selling food. Evan and I had imagined I’d bake ‘em and take ‘em, no big deal. We were wrong! But in the 16 months we’ve been open, we’ve expanded our offerings from that one cookie to brownies, scones, pies, rolls, and many, many more.
We also now have over 15 accounts including Market of Choice, and two spots on the University of Oregon campus. I’m in the works preparing my commercial kitchen to be gluten-free certified—which, with the new FDA regulations–is huge.
Me: I’m always interested in how moms make life work. So how does the bakery schedule work out with your parenting schedule?
Jessie: This is growing more complicated by the day! When I had my daughter Ella, my husband was working full-time and I had the luxury of staying home most of the time. We are very fortunate to have a lot of family support, as Ella has six grandparents who all live in Eugene and are very active in her life. Last December, six months after I started up the business, Evan injured his back and hasn’t been able to return to work. We suddenly found ourselves without income (as the profits of the business are still being turned back into the business every month), moving onto my parents’ property, and fighting a battle with the workers compensation company. It’s a long story!
But Evan is now healthy, and has decided to begin doing sales part-time with Elegant Elephant, as well as returning to school in business. With the help of our family we have three days a week of free childcare, and I try to do all of my baking and delivering on these days. So far it has worked out well, and Evan is able to have his school schedule fall on these days also, so he is available to work or have Ella while I bake or work the other days of the week. It’s not perfect but we make it work. And Ella is one lucky little girl to be surrounded by so many people who want to dote on her.
Me: Where did “Elegant Elephant” come from? It’s adorable and alliterative–I want to know the story….
Jessie: It was hard to choose a name for the business: At the time we weren’t sure if Ella was going to have celiac (my father and I both have it, and she had a 50% chance), so we wanted to have her included somehow. I wanted to go with “Mommy and Me Bake Gluten Free” but Evan thought it was too cutesie. Ella is very interested in elephants, and I played around with lots of names but landed on Elegant Elephant Baking–it just seemed to fit!
Me: You provide baked goods to local Eugene spots like Theo’s Coffeehouse, Market of Choice, Capella, and The Buzz Cafe. How did you convince them that Elegant Elephant was a great bet?
Jessie: The convincing of accounts was and is quite interesting. Almost all of the places I go don’t have other gluten-free goods, so it seems like it should be an instant Yes!, however people who aren’t gluten-free often don’t realize there is such a demand for it. But if I can work the chain of command enough to bring in samples, then I’ve only ever had a few places still say no. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, or in our case the scone.
When I finally sat down with the buyer at Market of Choice, she took one bite of my scone and said it was the best gluten-free item she had ever eaten–and she’s been in the biz a long time. That compliment meant–and means–a lot.
Me: I like to experiment with gluten-free baking, but the coconut flour I’ve been using lately seems to soak up all the moisture and totally change my dough. Please help the novice!
Jessie: About baking gluten-free–most alternative flours suck all the moisture out due to the starchiness (a technical term!). For these flours—rice, coconut, etc.—I find that adding additional butter and egg white are super helpful to keep the consistency right.
I also can tell from the dough if it is going to hold together once baked. Ideally you want to pinch it with your fingers and have it mainly retain the mark, but not be too rigid, and not too sticky. Gluten free baking takes a lot of trial and error–and patience.
If you want to support this small, local business, visit Elegant Elephant’s Kickstarter page here. The cool thing about Kickstarter is that when you donate to support a project, there’s a reward (for example, brownie bites or twisted-berry scones!).
Jessie, good luck! I can’t wait to try everything when I’m in Eugene next!
Other ways to connect with Elegant Elephant Baking Company:
All photos courtesy Jessie Scarola. And thanks to Jenny for putting us in touch!