By Christina Griffin
Bakeries in Boston aren’t falling apart in the health food craze that’s sweeping America–in fact, they’re rising to the occasion. New research suggests the bakery industry in America was valued at 203.8 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow 3.2% annually between 2019 and 2025, according to Grand View Research (GVR), a firm that offers market-based research reports.
GVR suggests the growing industry is due in part to the busy life Americans lead–leaving a need for on-the-go, prepared foods. Additionally, vegan, gluten-free, paleo and allergen friendly diets are becoming increasingly popular across the United States. These customers want the sensation of visiting a local bakery, picking up a box of pastries on a Sunday morning and chowing down without forfeiting their diet. Google searches for “baked goods near me” increased 75% between 2012 and 2015, which means more and more Americans are looking to satisfy their sweet tooth, according to Webstraunt Store.
The bakery scene is rising to the occasion in Boston by creating products that fall under new national dietary trends—such as vegan, paleo and gluten-free. These specialty diets were once un-seen on local bakery shelves, but they’ve found their way—some bakeries are now entirely gluten-free and vegan.
The baking industry across the state of Massachusetts is certainly rising to the occasion with 16,025 direct jobs, according to the American Bakers Association’s Baking Industry Economic Impact Study.
Where are Boston’s Baked Goods?
Boston’s baked goods are sold in farmers markets, neighborhood bakeries, specialty bakeries and cultural bakeries. Tourists and residents alike visit the North End for a classic Italian pastry or visit a local artisan bakery—like Clear Flour Bread in Brookline.
Jon Goodman grew up purchasing bread every week from Clear Flour Bread. Now he and his wife, Nicole Walsh, are Co-Owners of the bakery. Walsh and Goodman have been in their roles for almost two years.
Clear Flour Bread opened in 1982 and was the only artisan bakery in Boston at the time. Walsh and Goodman have noted how more bakeries are opening in Boston and they’ve seen some fail at the task. They say to open a new bakery, you need to get your name out there and find a way to stand above the competition.
“Maybe five, eight, ten years ago it would be much more attainable,” said Walsh, “You have to hire people, get the right vibe—have a little certain something.”
What Clear Flour Bread offers is traditional methods and a well-trained staff to create their artisanal selection. They make their baguettes with the same recipes and techniques as they did in 1982.
Traditional doesn’t mean the same old same old—in fact, since taking ownership of the bakery, Walsh and Goodman have experimented by adding new items to the menu with changing seasons.
This summer, Walsh and Goodman are experimenting with recipes to sell ice cream sandwiches—using their homemade ice cream—and attending Brookline’s farmers market every week.
“It’s very European to be at farmer’s markets and that’s our brand,” said Walsh.
Even if farmer’s markets aren’t extremely lucrative, it still makes sense for Clear Flour Bread to attend and sell because they have to continue getting their name out there in the midst of competition.
It’s not extremely common to see bakeries with storefronts at a farmers market in Boston. Most of the bakeries you will find are located outside the city or are new bakers starting out. The farmers market scene isn’t lucrative, as Walsh said, but it’s a fantastic place to get a name out and build a customer base.
The Copley Square Farmer’s Market
Alev Gulden started One Bite Sweet out of her kitchen. She’s been baking Mediterranean, Turkish-style pastries for seven years and her husband encouraged her to start selling them in farmers markets. Today, she’s selling her Turkish goods in The Copley Square Farmers Market.
“Turkish people love bakeries,” said Gulden, “In Turkey, you eat breakfast, lunch in the bakery. You don’t see this here.”
She’s hoping her traditional methods will inspire the baking scene in the city. “That’s why I want Turkish bakeries in Boston—I can’t find them,” said Gulden.
She’s noticed people will visit supermarkets for breads, but supermarket breads are chalked-full of ingredients consumers have not heard of and can’t pronounce.
“If you want good bread, the supermarket is not selling good bread. It is cheap in quality. Bakeries, we are using high quality products to make high quality bread,” said Gulden.
Neighborhood bakeries and farmers markets are the most popular scenes for bakeries in Boston for a reason—they’re local and easy for consumers to walk to. Researchers define local bakeries as those located within a one and a half mile radius of the homes of locals who go to their local bakery to purchase baked goods.
Another hurdle for bakeries is the health community. Some bakeries use wholesome, organic ingredients to attract customers. There is one bakery in Boston that is completely vegan and allergen-friendly.
Can allergen-friendly bakeries be successful?
Opening a bakery is a risky business. Price fluctuations and high competition are some of the risks bakers face when opening a bakery. Most of the bakeries today opened 10, 20, sometimes 50 years ago. They have a strong clientele and good reputation in the community.
If a baker can overcome the obstacles, they’ll benefit from a loyal customer fan base, high profits in high-traffic locations and low barriers to entry. This was the case for Jennifer LaSala, who opened Sugar Coated Heaven in 2011 and baked out of her parents kitchen while she was still in high school.
“In 2013, Goldman Sachs named me Global Entrepreneur of the Year for all of New England, which is a huge deal,” said LaSala. She was supposed to open a storefront in Providence later in 2013, “but it just didn’t pan out,” she said.
LaSala used traditional recipes and ingredients–until she suffered an accident while working at J.P. Licks in 2014.
“While I was working as a Full-Time Supervisor at J.P. Licks, I fell conming out of the walk-in freezer and I broke my neck, I had a seizure and I blacked out,” said LaSala.
While she recovered, she began to break out into hives on her body. “They kept telling me it was a gluten and dairy allergy,” said LaSala, “So I gave both of those up which was very difficult at twenty-one, I couldn’t go out with my friends, I just kind of stayed home and it was so miserable.”
About a month later she was tested for allergies, which revealed the opioids caused the reaction–not food. This experience changed her life—and her bakery. Her bakery’s name changed from ‘Sugar Coated Heaven’ to ‘Jennifer Lee’s Allergen-Friendly Bakery.’
“We’re completely free of gluten, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and the bakery’s completely vegan. We’re also almost completely free of soy and coconut as well,” said LaSala.
60% of LaSala’s customers are new customers and 40% are returning customers. Some of her customers are local and live a short walk, train, or bus ride from LaSala’s allergen-friendly mecca, whereas others travel from across the world to stock up on treats.
LaSala thinks its relatively easy to start any business, but growing a business and maintaining a strong clientele is another story. Her location in downtown Boston works in her favor, and local bakeries like Mike’s Pastry in the North End often send customers to LaSala for an allergen-free cannoli.
Her bakery is often mentioned in a Facebook group for moms who have children with severe allergies. Once a year, a family from Scotland comes to see LaSala and stock up on baked goods for their child. Many customers freeze her products so their children can enjoy them for months—not just during a one day visit.
Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have food allergies—and 5.6 million are children under the age of 18 with food allergies.
One out of thirteen children have a food allergy–or approximately two children in each classroom. The eight most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. The majority of these products are used in traditional recipes, making it a challenge for specialty bakers to use different ingredients to attain a similar taste, texture and smell.
LaSala’s bakery gives people who live with food allergies a chance to enjoy a cinnamon roll without a reaction—or try a cupcake for the first time in their life.
“Part of me hopes that there is more bakeries that have more options for people if it’s done in a correct way,” said LaSala.