By Vic Dolcourt
Jolynn Spinelli and Tracy Horton are the power behind Imagine It Allergy Friendly Bakery in Santa Clara County. They sell to the public on weekends at farmers’ markets in Santa Clara, Willow Glen and Campbell, and via wholesale, including Great Bear Coffee in Los Gatos and allergy-friendly locations at Stanford University.
Longtime partnership, Kickstarter and launch
Tracy, Jolynn, and Jolynn’s husband, Juan Carlos have been friends and working companions off and on for many years. The trio started out fifteen years ago catering for the back-stage at Shoreline Amphitheater. Then Jolynn and Carlos moved to Honolulu where they owned and operated a restaurant and a micro-roasting coffee business for seven years. It was during this time that Jolynn perfected gluten-free and allergy-friendly baking; she personally maintains a vegan lifestyle and she was baking custom allergy-friendly goodies for their customers.
In late 2011 Jolynn and Juan Carlos sold their restaurant, returned to the Bay Area and teamed with Tracy to successfully create an allergy-friendly bakery. They used a rented commercial kitchen and had to ferry supplies and implements back and forth. Their business increased to the point where the toil was too much. They scraped up some of their own capital, launched a Kickstarter campaign (27% over-subscribed) and voila! (It wasn’t exactly “voila” – it took a lot of hard work.)
Emphasis on deliciousness, variety, nutrition and allergy commitment
Today, Imagine It Bakery creates delectables in their new dedicated, gluten-free, allergy-friendly, organic, vegan custom bakery kitchen in Santa Clara. Imagine It produces 6 types of cookies, 14 types of muffins and cupcakes, cinnamon coffee cake, 8 types of scones, 4 breads, 5 types of cakes, 2 types of granola, and custom creations of cakes and pies. Imagine It shares a site with Cosmic Coffee, a micro-roaster of fair trade coffee that Juan Carlos manages. The coffee roaster is in a different area from the bakery.
“We are much more than just a gluten-free bakery,” said Tracy. “Our products contain no wheat, soy, eggs, peanut, tree nuts, sesame seeds, refined sugars or preservatives. We don’t use corn with the exception of baking powder, because lots of people are sensitive to it, including me. We are really into good nutrition; instead of rice and an abundance of refined starches, like many gluten-free and vegan baked goods, we focus on higher protein, fiber, less sugar and an abundance of natural ingredients with alternative grains and legumes.
We buy from suppliers that have stringent production and cross-contamination standards. Gluten free and vegan are common labels, but allergy friendly is a higher standard and our customers are aware of that.” So are some of Silicon Valley’s high-tech business that operate food services for their employees. Tracy and Jolynn have been sought out to discuss dining solutions because employers are starting to recognize that a number of their employees have food sensitivities that normal dining room catering firms cannot satisfy.
Farmers’ markets are part of thoughtful business strategy
Imagine It sells primarily at farmers markets right now, and cherishes the product freshness and customer contact. “Jolynn and I want to sell fresh bakery products that aren’t loaded with preservatives to make it shelf-stable. We don’t care if you freeze our products, but we will never do that. It has to come to you fresh and tasty.”
Sometimes a regular customer will tell a new customer: ‘Try this, you’ll really like it.’ said Tracy when I asked her why the farmers’ market venues are best for Imagine It Bakery. Jolynn said that her face-to-face contact with customers guides her recipe creation. “Farmers’ markets are important; it’s how I get direct feedback from customers, what they like or dislike and what new products they’d like to have.”
“We are selling at three farmers markets that couldn’t be more different,” said Tracy who also focuses on finance, sales and marketing in addition to baking. “People’s preferences are all over the map. What sells well at one market doesn’t sell at another. Willow Glen is the smallest farmers market and just the neighborhood people come. Santa Clara is somewhat larger and we are selling more to families but also to Santa Clara University students. Campbell is something else: It is a real happening every week. People drive for miles just to come to Campbell on Sunday.”
As far as opening a retail shop, neither Jolynn nor Tracy see that as a good distribution channel at present. “We would like to have a retail shop one day, but prefer to grow the wholesale business first and build some capital – retail establishments are very expensive and many fail quickly. We would also love to have our items carried in retail stores like Whole Foods or Sprouts. However, stores require a fairly hefty margin and we’re not willing to pass that cost off to our customers right now.” said Tracy.
Most memorable custom orders
I asked about the most unusual custom item they had baked and received two answers. One woman hadn’t had pumpkin pie in 8 years because she couldn’t have gluten, eggs or dairy. She was in heaven when Imagine It baked a custom gluten-free vegan pumpkin pie for her. But the most unusual cake order was for a decorated cake with an inscription “Not sharing. Hands off!” It seems that the customer was invited to a party in which there was virtually nothing for her to eat. So she had the cake baked and put it in her refrigerator for her use alone. Tracy and Jolynn are constantly getting plaudits from patrons who can now buy treats that they couldn’t eat before. “We really feel like we are doing something to make people happier and healthier,” said Tracy.
Well, what is in the future? Imagine It’s new kitchen is only a few months old. We’re excited to see what new delectables will be created next. Two places to look are the Imagine It’s website and Facebook page.