By Vic Dolcourt
Melinda’s Gluten-Free was an open secret until June when Melinda Harrower and Hannah Balliet opened their first retail shop on busy 41st Avenue in Capitola, a small city near Santa Cruz, California, on the Monterey Bay. That Sunday event wasn’t the grand opening of Melinda’s and Hannah’s bakery. They have been baking gluten-free breads and pastries since 2009 and distributing to retailers who sold to the public. If you’ve bought gluten-free at Aldo’s Italian Bakery in nearby Soquel or donuts on Gluten-Free Fridays at Psycho Donuts in Campbell or San Jose, you’ve experienced the delights of Melinda’s and Hannah’s bakery.
The walls are too close
“In April Hannah and I figured it was crazy to keep baking in our 400 square foot, dedicated gluten-free space that we rented from Aldo’s bakery. Our wholesale business
grew faster than we had forecast. We needed to add staff and capacity, but there wasn’t enough space to do that,” said Melinda, founder and co-owner. They found the perfect spot – a former cupcake shop, vacant for a number of months. “The City couldn’t have been more cooperative. Instead of dragging us through a complicated planning process, they made it a change of ownership. We got our license quickly.”
“Hannah was our project manager, and we did a soft opening just three weeks after signing the lease,” said Melinda. “So, you just moved in to the cupcake space and started baking, right?” I asked. “No,” said Melinda, “the bakery had been stripped. We brought in a professional cleaning team to rid the place of hidden gluten. Then Hannah and I completely repainted the store, re-plumbed, moved in our equipment and bought additional equipment. It was an exhausting pace, and we opened on time.”
Virtually overnight Melinda’s went from a wholesale-only operation to mixed retail and wholesale in the hub of Capitola. People wait in front of Melinda’s prior to opening for items that are in short supply. “Croissants are one of our more unusual items,” said Hannah, the chief operating officer and co-owner. It’s a very labor-intensive, two-day process. We limit purchases to three croissants per person because we can’t make enough. We want a number of people to have a few rather than a few people buying us out completely. The croissants are very fresh and very fragile. They don’t keep well. These are authentic croissants, and we source French butter, which bakes up differently than American butter. People tell us that they have never been able to eat croissants until we baked them.”
The baker’s art
Melinda’s retail shop offers a wide variety of baked goods ranging from cinnamon rolls and donuts, which are best sellers, to custom cakes, cookies and pies. They also offer burger buns, soft rolls and artisan breads like Francese – northern Italian French bread–and sourdough. For me, artisan breads, like sourdough, really reflect the baker’s art. Wild yeasts are notoriously unpredictable, and it takes some doing to coax them into making delicious bread with just the right flavor. “Is this real sourdough bread like San Francisco sourdough with a starter and not yeast bread doctored up with vinegar and the like?” I asked Melinda. “Our friend, Nancy, is a culinary genius. She coaxed the starter using millet, sweet rice and sorghum. The starter seems to like the ocean and the humidity here in Capitola,” said Melinda. “Hannah and I then worked on our sourdough for six months before it met our standards.”
I’m picking up a theme. In addition to making the traditional bakery standards, Melinda and Hannah are willing to push the gluten-free envelope. “Ok, Hannah,” I asked, “Croissants are difficult. Have you taken on choux pastry yet?” “Actually, yes. We can make the pastry without a problem, but until recently I hadn’t found a filling I liked until a chef friend showed me how to make Italian crema pasticcera. Our problem is that we make so many things – does it make sense to keep on adding? Or should we rotate choux pastry in and something else out? We’ll decide that come the holidays, and we’ll tell our followers on social media.”
The role of social media
Hannah and Melinda use social media to communicate store events and announce products. For example, the bakery celebrates Throwback Thursdays. Once a week they bake a goodie from our childhood that is now forbidden or we could never eat but wanted to. Commercial examples are Whoopee Pies, Hostess cream-filled cupcakes and Twinkies. These have been reborn and re-energized with authentic ingredients like real chocolate, real vanilla and real cream. Red velvet cake has been re-imagined as a red velvet donut. “We even have a following of customers that are not gluten-free,” said Melinda. “They just like what we do.”
Looking to the future
Where do the partners want to take the business? “I love retail,” said Melinda. “I can be spontaneous. The other day I took cinnamon roll dough and rolled it up with goat cheese and apricots. It sold out. You can’t do that with wholesale. Your retailers need standard and predictable products. But we need wholesale, too. We’ll grow our wholesale business, but we also need a shop in Santa Cruz or maybe Monterey.”
Hannah said that wholesale isn’t as easy as it first sounds. Every time Melinda’s adds a wholesale partner they take on an education task to teach the partner how to maintain a safe and effective gluten-free experience for their retail customer. The partners are also investigating a third strategy – farmers’ markets. They have hired a person to work that business channel. Don’t be surprised if Melinda’s shows up at a farmers’ market near you.
Melinda’s is fast moving, so the best place to look for special events, special treats and business hours is their Facebook page. You can preview the in-store menu on their website. If you need something special or want to make sure you can get croissants, you can do a special order via Melinda’s website.