By Vic Dolcourt
Michelle Belanger’s motto is, “Everybody deserves a wedding cake or a birthday cake,” and she puts that into action as the owner of The Gluten Free Wife Bakery, based in the beautiful coastal town of Pacifica just south of San Francisco. Living up to her motto can present a challenge to her baking skills. Michelle recently told me about an order for an upcoming wedding cake: “The bride needed a beautifully decorated cake that was not only gluten-free but also free of milk, egg, grain, soy and corn. Fortunately, she gave me enough time to develop both a recipe that tasted really good and a set of procedures that met her needs. In the process I had to make my own corn-free baking powder and icing sugar. If you read labels you will see that cornstarch is an ingredient in both of those products. The bride and groom loved the cake, and I was happy that I could help them celebrate their special day.”
Cake deliveries in San Francisco Bay Area
Michelle (pictured), who has been gluten-free for the past eight years, has baked specialty cakes for two and a half years. Although she bakes in Pacifica, she serves an area stretching from Benicia in the North Bay to San Jose in the South Bay. She said that most of her customers hear about the bakery from other people, or as a result of her past gigs as a Munchery chef and Half Moon Bay Farmers’ Market vendor. “I’m a one-woman operation,” Michelle said, “so I either needed to clone myself or just focus only on the things I love to do.”
What does Michelle love? “Although the farmers’ market and the Munchery were lots of fun, they were also very time consuming, and they required repetitive production of menu items. I’m into some of that, but I really want to spend most of my energy being creative and experimental,” she said. It turns out that Michelle has a knack for cake baking and cake decorating.
Discovering a passion for cakes
Before moving to the Bay Area, Michelle and her husband, a Coast Guard pilot, lived in Pensacola, Florida. “We were new there, and I got a chance to do something I had always wanted to try – cake decorating,” Michelle said. “So, I took a class. It involved learning how to make different types of icings, sugar flowers, fondant techniques, and most importantly how to properly construct your cakes.” It turns out that Michelle had a real intuition for decorated cakes, and she wound up as an instructor after finishing her courses.
“After we left Pensacola,” Michelle said, “I knew I wanted to bake for the public. First and foremost, I want to bake cakes and cupcakes for children’s birthdays and cakes for weddings. These people deserve to have cakes that make them happy.” Michelle investigated a number of options for her baking venue and decided that her home would be the best because she did not need to work around the issues of a shared commercial kitchen. “I became an official home business four months after the California Cottage Food Act was passed,” Michelle said. “I have been inspected by San Mateo County in order to be able to sell to other retailers, and I passed with flying colors all three times.” (Michelle is the second successful entrepreneur I’ve interviewed about the Cottage Food Act. See Babsi’s Viennese Treats for a cottage food baker in Berkeley.)
Muffins, cookies, cinnamon buns, bread and more
A number of Michelle’s customers have no dietary restrictions. When she worked the farmers’ market most of her customers just enjoyed the flavors of her pastries and cakes and didn’t care whether they were gluten free. Michelle sells wholesale to three coffee and tea shops in Pacifica and neighboring Montara. “I bake coffee shop favorites for them,” Michelle said, “cinnamon buns, cupcakes, muffins, cookies, vegan cookies and gluten-free oatmeal bread – those sorts of things. I’ve educated my wholesale buyers and follow up with them, stressing that my items need to be on designated plates or display trays, have separate tongs, etc. The coffee shop owners tell me that they have regulars that come in every week for my gluten-free goodies. However, if a potential customer is concerned about contamination I recommend that they order directly from me because my kitchen is 100% gluten free, and I use only gluten-free ingredients.”
A treat for everyone’s needs
Not all of Michelle’s customers have dietary restrictions beyond gluten free. “It turns out that probably three quarters of my custom cake customers need only gluten free, so their orders are made with butter and eggs. People who need dairy free have a wide range of choices as well.” Egg-free requirements are more limiting, according to Michelle. “I tempt my customers with a large flavor list from simple to more sinful”, Michelle said. What would be more sinful? One example is tiers of chocolate fudge with Nutella and bananas.
Michelle enjoys being a one-woman business, at least for now. “Someday,” Michelle said, “I would like to open a retail shop. But that is down the road for now, and it will be more than just me when that happens. Right now I love what I’m doing as a one-woman business and making cakes and goodies for people who need them.”