By Vic Dolcourt
January 2016 – “Every one of our gluten-free products has to be at least as good as a conventional product, or we don’t offer it.” That is the credo of co-owner Patrick Luke’s Zest Bakery in San Carlos. He really means it, too. “My wife Charissa and sister-in-law Cynthia are the enforcers. They don’t have to eat gluten free like I do, so they are in charge of comparing our products to their wheat-based counterparts.”
Zest Bakery launched in July 2010 as a result of a number of happy coincidences. Patrick began gluten-free baking in 2009, at first to assist his sister-in-law’s cheesecake endeavor. “But I wanted to expand beyond gluten-free cheesecake crust, and finding suitable baking space was a real challenge. Happily, a shop that used to house an ice cream parlor became available, and we remodeled it. It’s a 100% gluten-free bakery,” said Patrick. “We’ve been growing here since then. The area is perfect, and we’re in downtown San Carlos where people like to walk.”
Who loves Zest best
A number of fairly distinct types of customers rely on Zest’s products, and Zest puts in extra effort to please them. “One of our newer markets is the paleo movement,” said Patrick. “We make a number of grain-free offerings, and one of our more popular is almond cookies. We also have some nice vegan offerings, and one of the most popular is carrot cake.” In addition to gluten free, Zest is noted for its flexibility in supporting those with allergies, including dairy and egg allergies. “What I try to do,” said Patrick, “is listen to what people want and then make it for them.” Patrick can often be found out in front talking to customers and getting their opinions. That is where he gets product ideas. But Patrick said one of his biggest ‘attaboys’ comes from the people who don’t need gluten free and just come into Zest for pastry and coffee because they like it. “We’re competing with Starbucks, virtually next door,” said Patrick.
Expanding and innovating
New product development can be a real challenge, so I asked Patrick to reflect on this. “Making something completely new used to be tricky and took some time; however, we’ve gained lots of experience in the past 5-1/2 years. Now we can usually get a new product right in two or three rounds. The art of gluten-free baking has come a long way, and the science is pretty well understood. Our main challenge, and where Zest has grown the most, has been in categories rather than products.” Zest used to be a place only to pick up bread and treats, but now they offer seven different sandwiches for lunch, quiche, and pizza by the slice nearly every day. With 45 minutes of lead-in, Zest will put a cheese or pepperoni pizza in the oven. Zest also sells pizza shells and frozen, oven-ready pizzas. And they have a new pasta machine that they use to create interesting raviolis.
The life of a baker
I’ve heard it’s a pretty widely held rumor that baking for the day starts at 4:00 a.m., so I asked Patrick. “Not always,” he said, “we’re in at 1:30 a.m. in preparation for Thanksgiving and custom cake orders. And we’re baking most of the day.” One of Zest’s more popular seasonal offerings is their Thanksgiving Survival Kit. It contains virtually all of the baked necessities for a Thanksgiving meal, ranging from dinner rolls, through stuffing, on to pies and desserts. You customize your kit. But there is also a Christmas survival kit and a Hanukkah survival kit. Zest even offers a gingerbread house kit. The winter holidays are busy times for Zest.
A well-deserved getaway
Charissa and Patrick had a daring getaway to Italy last January. “Our Zest staff is well trained, and we felt comfortable taking a European trip,” said Patrick, “My sister-in-law, who runs our baking operation, took over. There were no frantic calls, and email took care of our communication.” Charissa and Patrick initially planned their visit based on places where Patrick could safely eat gluten free. “You don’t say gluten free in Italian if you have celiac disease,” said Patrick. “You say ‘sono celiaco’ [I have celiac]. Italians were well informed about celiac disease everywhere we went. Either they could strictly accommodate me, or they said they couldn’t. I never had a problem with the food, even in the tiniest place.” I asked Patrick his opinion on why Italy is so accommodating. He said that Italians have no greater incidence of celiac disease than other Europeans and North Americans; they are just more aware.
Opportunities abound for entrepreneurs
I asked Patrick if he thought that the gluten-free food category had become saturated. “Not at all,” he said. “If you’ve done your research and you’ve found an underserved market or a product that fills a gluten-free niche, go for it. Our part of the peninsula was underserved and still is. We’re still the only dedicated gluten-free bakery between San Francisco and Santa Clara. There is still a lot of opportunity for gluten-free food and related food for niche diets if you have the right stuff. And if you have an idea, give me a call. I’m happy to offer advice.”
It is clear that Zest has the right stuff for growing from an idea to full-fledged bakery café. Zest is open Wednesday through Sunday at 1224 Arroyo Avenue, San Carlos. Their website lists their menu and hours, as well as hosting Charissa’s blog. And by the way, Patrick said that Zest is constantly looking for new employees who share the Zest passion for tasty gluten-free food, even potential employees who aren’t presently chefs, bakers or cake decorators, but would like to be.