Did you know that you can turn your home kitchen into a bakery?

I met Ren Buenviaje at a Kitchener pop-up a few years ago.  She’s the pastry chef/owner of Renby’s Sugar Shoppe, a gluten-free bakery based in Emeryville. It’s a Cottage Food Operation, which means she runs the business out of her home.  This can be a good way to start a small business relatively fast, without a lot of overhead costs – click here for the pros and cons.

We are asking small business owners about how they got started and the obstacles they overcame in the hopes that we can all learn from each other.   Ren told us about her process for testing recipes, how she’s partially responsible for a wedding and why she started a gluten-free bakery even though she’s not gluten-free.

Why did you decide to start your business?
A friend of mine, with whom I used to swap baking tips, was diagnosed with celiac a few years ago.
It inspired me to try making gluten-free baked goods that even gluten-tolerant folks would enjoy.
About two dozen attempts later, I had a solid chocolate chip cookie recipe.
People loved it, and they would say, “That was gluten-free?? You should sell that!”
So I did!

Describe the process of starting your business.
I knew I needed more than just one solid recipe, so I started a monthly series of gatherings
called Sugar Socials. I would make large batches of four or so new recipes, then have people
come try them out and give me feedback. At first it was just a few friends, and then they started
bringing their friends who brought their friends. By the tenth one, I had half a dozen recipes
and a pretty good number of potential customers. (Side note, I’m actually making wedding cupcakes
this weekend for a couple who met at one of my Sugar Socials!)

What obstacles did you face? / How did you overcome them?
Running a gluten-free bakery comes with a very unique set of challenges.
For one, I had to overcome people’s biases toward gluten-free food.
It’s very tricky marketing gluten-free to people who don’t need to follow that diet.
In the end, I opted to put the emphasis on taste. Lots of free samples go a long way!
To this day, 9 out of 10 of my customers don’t even have a gluten intolerance.

There was also the matter of kitchen space. Minimizing gluten cross-contamination was a top priority
and that gets tricky in commercial kitchens with shared equipment. I found some pretty creative workarounds but thankfully I didn’t have to do that for long. The cottage food law passed about a year after I officially started Renby’s Sugar Shoppe, and now I have a lot more control over the presence of gluten in my home kitchen.

What do you wish you would have known when you were starting your business?
People have become much more discerning eaters in recent years. Nowadays I get queries like, “You’re gluten-free, but do you do paleo? Are you GMO-free? How local are your ingredients?” These are things I wish I’d been able to plan for early on. Instead, I find myself with a new challenge: How do I prioritize and address these needs in a cost-effective way? Should I address them at all?

What advice do you have for someone who might be thinking about starting a business?
Have a solid idea and formulate a plan around it. And if your plans don’t initially work out, don’t be afraid to take a step back. It’s better to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve instead of rushing out of fear of losing momentum. Also don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask your family or ask your friends, but don’t burn yourself out too early — there’s lots of work to do!

Sabrina Mutukisna on why she co-founded The Town Kitchen

the town kitchen, OFPC

I’ve been following The Town Kitchen on social media for a few months, and got the chance to meet co-founder Sabrina Mutikisna a few weeks ago.   It’s a business that hires young people and delivers locally-sourced lunches like a Turkey Club Sandwich, Chicken Taco Wrap, Smoked Tofu Cobb and Quinoa Waldorf.   They prepare the food in their kitchen and work with local artisans (like Mamacitas Cafe, Kika’s Treats and Tart! Bakery) to complete the meal with a drink and dessert.  You have to order at least 10 lunches at a time, but there’s no minimum for delivery at Impact Hub Oakland.

The Town Kitchen is a powerful concept:  “Our vision is to create community through local food; a community where low-income Oakland youth can shine; a community where we will introduce under-served youth to talented chefs & start-up entrepreneurs so they have the skills and network to pursue their future.”

Sabrina invited me to the kitchen to see the action and then she answered a few questions about how she got started, overcoming obstacles and advice for others.

Why did you decide to start The Town Kitchen?

Well, I grew up in the food industry — hosting, waiting tables, barista, pantry chef, and then I finally started my own cupcake business. When I was a kid, I saw the food industry as a way to pay my bills and I always saw the “9-5 job” on the horizon. My first job out of Berkeley was working at a law firm and I just couldn’t connect with anyone. I started working Sundays in a small restaurant in Bernal Heights and loved it. At the same time, I started working in youth employment and saw that the work was really important.

I’ve been equally passionate about food, entrepreneurship, and youth development for the last 8 years. When I met (my co-founder) Jefferson, he had recently transitioned from sous chef at Google to executive chef at SpoonRocket. We began exploring how food tech can intersect with workforce development to create scalable impact in low-income communities.

On a personal level, I created The Town Kitchen because great food naturally builds community. We know we can create a better world for our young people but we first need to get them in jobs they love and surrounded by people who are invested in their futures.

Describe the process of starting your business.

I’d be lying if I said it’s easy. There are so many moving parts. You learn to assess problems and pivot quickly. While we did a lot of research before launching, there’s a lot of things that you can only learn from the trenches. Things are always going to go wrong and I’ve learned to celebrate the small victories.

On the other side, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of community support. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the crew at Mamacitas Cafe and Red Bay Coffee. It’s also been such a joy to partner with Oakland food businesses like Tart! Bakery and Sugar Knife Sweets. And we have a fabulous accelerators in I-SEEED, Tumml, and Impact HUB Oakland.

What obstacles did you face?

Raising capital — obviously I think this is shared with most startups and small businesses. We’ve had some great advisors in Tumml and Michael C. Bush but you have to get used to walking into a room of investors that are white men. Being a woman of color, an immigrant, and working class means answering questions that the white guy next to you doesn’t get asked.

I think the other obstacle is creating a mission-driven business while simultaneously growing a startup. It’s easy to cut corners when money is tight and founders are working ridiculous hours but we believe in treating our employees well and we believe that begins on day one.

How did you overcome those obstacles?

I think the most important thing is for us to take a moment to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of that goes hand in hand with how well we know our employees. If someone is showing up late to work or is having a bad day, I want to know why. It’s easier to overcome the corporate challenges when the teams’ needs are met.

What do you wish you would have known when you were starting your business?

On one side, it’s tempting to rattle off a long list of lessons learned from the past year. “If only I had known this going in…”  On the other hand, I’m taking pleasure in the journey. Everyday is a new experience and there’s never a dull moment.

What advice do you have for someone who might be thinking about starting a business?

Go for it! Meet lots of people and don’t be scared to share your idea. Research and innovation will get you so far. The other 99% is perseverance, humility, and hard work.

My last piece of advice is to reach out to your network. The Town Kitchen would be nothing without my friends and family.

John Oliver on Food Waste


It always feels like a shared achievement when critical issues that seem overlooked in everyday culture make it to mainstream.
The popular show, Last Week Tonight hosted by John Oliver recently covered the issue of food waste. Where a narrator asks “what is more American than food waste?”

“What’s more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger, loaded with a hotdog and potato chips in the hands of a model in a hot tub in a pick up truck on an aircraft carrier in front of the statue of liberty? I’ll tell you whats more American. If that cheeseburger is then thrown away along with 15 other cheeseburgers in front of a food insecure family of four you frankly cannot believe their f*cking eyes as they stand on top of 14 tons of perfectly edible if aesthetically unappealing fruits and vegetables which in turn sits on 80 tons of dairy products all one day passed their arbitrary “sell by” date all of which sits inside a tear rolling down Abraham Lincoln’s face on Mount Rushmore which is now nearly chin deep in millions of discarded cheeseburgers all gradually decomposing and emitting flammable methane in red, white and blue. THAT is f*cking American.”
Take the few minutes required to view the entire segment (click):