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!