A few years ago, rumors of something big about to happen swirled around our small town. There’s a Thai restaurant opening on the island! People whispered and shouted, wondering if it could be true. A Thai place? On Vashon?
You have to understand — the dining-out options here are a little slim. There are a couple of good places for burgers, a mediocre Chinese place, two terribly mediocre Mexican restaurants, a great taco stand (thank goodness for Zamorana; thank you Jorge and Effie), a sports bar, a bar across the street that has turned half of the space into a restaurant (inexplicably, they have pretty good sushi), a family-style place right in the heart of town, two pizza joints, a wonderfully homey vegetarian cafe, a sweet little vegan-gluten-free-raw-food place that is super tiny and pretty expensive, and….we’re out. (Oh, a couple of underground supper clubs, but I can’t tell you about those.) There is a huge restaurant at the center of town where three Indian restaurants in a row tried to make a go (three! you’d think after #2 failed, the third guy might pick another cuisine) and now it has sat empty for years.
So, the rumors swirled, everyone growing more excited as the weeks, then months went by. A Thai restaurant on Vashon? Fact is, even if it had been just okay, the idea of being able to go out on a Saturday night and buy Pad Thai was pretty darned exciting. We were ready.
But the rumors stayed there. Nothing happened. No Thai restaurant. No signs of anything. Discussion boards on Facebook raced with possible signs, then the talk died down. I guess it was just a rumor after all. Want to go out for tacos again?
And then, there was a mystery. Brown paper went up over the big windows of the little breakfast place in town that had shut down a couple of years before that. Paper! On the window! This must be something. And then there was a piece in the local paper, announcing that the rumors were true. May, who had once run a tremendous Thai restaurant in Seattle, had moved to Vashon. She was opening a Thai restaurant on Vashon. Coming soon.
Huzzahs went up over the island. And then we waited. And waited.
Rumors went around again. She changed her mind. She went on a trip to Thailand for inspiration. Maybe it was never true. Some folks took to stopping in front of the purported future restaurant to peer in a tiny hole in that brown paper, hoping they might see signs of life in there. (We might have been some of those people.) It seemed it would never happen.
And then, one day? A Thai restaurant. We were asked to go to a private, quiet soft launch. Danny and I had a date and walked into a space transformed. The funky old breakfast place had become a Thai escape. May had brought back wood and furniture and walls from a house being torn down in her hometown in Thailand by slow boat. We were somewhere very different than we expected. The meal was magnificent. Nothing mediocre about it. The Thai restaurant was real. And it was tremendous.
May Kitchen has been open for more than a couple of years now. It continues to be one of the best Thai restaurants I have ever eaten in. Everyone on the staff understands gluten-free and celiac, and I always eat well and safely. We don’t eat there often because we can only get a reservation every so often. Not only do islanders eat there, but people come over from Seattle for a meal. This summer, Travel and Leisure magazine named it one of the best Thai restaurants in the country. Good luck getting in now.
They’ve done marvelous things at May since they opened. It took forever to get the place going because May wanted to get everything right. It was worth the wait, of course.
* * *
The last few months have been the steepest learning curve of my life.
When we first imagined having our gluten-free flour packed and packaged for sale, we never imagined shipping those boxes ourselves.
When we imagined our gluten-free all-purpose flour (and later, our grain-free bakers’ blend) in the world, we always had it in our minds that we would carry these flours through a prominent online retailer. Why not trust the shopping, fulfillment, and shipping to an organization that does this every day? After the Kickstarter was successful, thanks to many of you reading, we returned to the logistics of shipping. When we started crunching numbers, we realized that if we sold all 7400 boxes of our gluten-free flour that way, the online retailer would take so much of our money that we would barely have enough money to do a second run of the flours.
So we decided to ship these flours to you ourselves.
While we never imagined putting boxes of flour into the hands of our delivery driver on a regular basis, we’re so happy that we are doing this now. This is a small business, run by a family. We want to do this ourselves. We want to sell to you directly. And we want to hear from our customers about what is working and is not working. We have many friends who run small businesses who have been guides in this process for us. They all say there will be lots of mistakes, times we want to tear our hair out, and enormous learning. Yep. That has already been true. We’ve only barely begun.
But in the end, we trust small businesses. We buy from family businesses. We believe in the handmade and personal. This is the only way for us to go.
The past few months, we’ve been learning more than I thought my brain could hold. Translation? We’ve been scrambling. On top of our regular work, and the proofreading and final recipe testing for American Classics Reinvented (and all four of us battling a bad flu through January!), we have been learning how to build an online shop, talking with our accountant about sales tax and state codes, and having many many brainstorming sessions about our brand and our approach to hospitality and customer service.
Learning shipping software has been the bane of my existence. We tried three different programs, and I was starting to lose hair, until I finally found one that made intuitive sense to me. (And they have actual human beings you can call on the phone! Thank you, ShippingEasy.) And with that, we had to go through two different online store programs, with our website guy (thank you, Eli), before we found the one that would work for our purposes. There were decisions to make about which shipping carrier to use (thank you, USPS), which boxes and padded envelopes would work and ship for the most efficient prices. There were post office boxes strewn on our studio table for days, while we packed and re-packed boxes of flour again and again to see how many we could fit in flat rate boxes.
Oh, and 7400 boxes of our flour arrived. We all cried a few happy tears that day.
Meanwhile, we’ve been working with trusted friends and new colleagues, a team slowly forming to sit at that studio table and make decisions that will take our business far into the future. (We hope.) We’ve been talking to grocery brokers and people who run food shows and other folks in the food business who want to help us succeed. Those are ongoing conversations, just beginning. We hired a new accountant, a bookkeeper, someone to teach us Quickbooks, and listened to the stories of countless friends who started small businesses successfully and those who have closed theirs for various reasons. Slowly, we’re gathering a group around us, a group of people far more knowledgeable about their area of passion than we could ever be. We’re not just trying to run a successful business. We truly want to help other people do the work they love.
(Thank you, again and again, Trish.)
I’ve learned a new language, once completely foreign to me: COGS, gross profit margins, B&O tax in Washington state, federal tax deadlines for s corps. There have been countless subscriptions we have to buy to commerce sites, email newsletter sites, plug-ins, and a thousand other online things that make this all possible. It is unfathomable how much money you have to spend to start a small business.
(Please buy gluten-free flour from us!)
Then there were nearly 600 boxes of flour to send to those of you who supported our Kickstarter. Last week, we had 200 padded envelopes filled with flour boxes on that studio table nearly every day.
(There are still 146 left to go. They will be to you soon.)
And let me tell you this: I am not complaining. I have found these past few months exhilarating. Scary as hell sometimes. I’m not going to lie. But unbelievably awake and alive.
As I have listend to podcasts (Invisibilia! Sex Death and Money! Radiolab! RuPaul!), I have been humming a little as I go. It turns out I like spending part of the day stuffing flour boxes into padded envelopes and boxes. As I stuffed envelopes and printed out labels, I imagined the boxes in the kitchens of homes in Kalamazoo, Sarasota, Morro Bay, and Portland, Maine. And I thrilled to think of so many of you cooking and baking with this gluten-free flour.
You see, if we truly loved any of the gluten-free flours out there, we would have long ago created an affiliate program with them, promoted them in every post, and made our money that way. We truly believe this is the best gluten-free flour out there. And we want you to have the convenience of opening up one of these boxes and start baking with your kids.
But beyond that, personally? I like this work. So does Danny. (He’s helping with the boxes too, but he’s mostly holding down the home front right now, organizing our lives, and taking care of Desmond. A tremendously curious nearly 1-year-old does not like NPR podcasts or staying at the studio all day while his parents run their business. He deserves time at the playground and music groups and long naps. When Lucy was a baby, Danny was working late into the night at restaurants. This time, Danny is the primary caregiver. And the cook, the scheduler, and the best ear and occasionally shoulder to cry on this woman could ever imagine.) I like putting flour boxes into padded envelopes. My days are much more practical these days. I quit Facebook in the middle of these months. I didn’t need the distraction anymore. I don’t waste time tooling around the internet anymore. I have work to do.
I go to bed every night exhausted. But happy. I never wonder anymore if I have done enough productive work that day. All this work is necessary before we open for business. It’s just like setting up mise en place before we start to cook. Without that planning and preparation, there is chaos.
And as I told my friend Trish yesterday, “I feel like I am wearing many heads these days.” I meant hats, of course. But really, I feel as though I have grown several new heads. All this learning is firing my neurons. indeed. I’m loving this.
Of course, I’ll love it even more when the store is open and we can finally sell you this gluten-free flour.
Stay tuned, folks. In a couple of days, we’re about to take the paper off the windows of this business.
We want you to know this: you can use our gluten-free flour for nearly anything you want to bake.
The other day, I saw that David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food writers and recipe developers, adapted a cake by Alice Medrich, another of my favorite food writers and recipe developers. (In fact, Alice came to bake with us in December, an experience I still haven’t shared with you. But I will.) I love how this community can help each other create cakes. Alice made a meticulous recipe. David made it his own. We made it gluten-free. Now, you can make it for your family.
This isn’t a light, fluffy cake, like a birthday cake that came from a box mix. It’s my favorite kind —— dense and moist and filled with plump dried fruits and nuts. This is a cake with heft. David made it in two loaf pans, but he mentioned the possibility of making it in a bundt pan. I ran with that. I hummed while I roasted the sweet potato, toasted the hazelnuts, and soaked the dried sour cherries in honeyed water. There was no rush. I had a plan. After lunch today with a team of people helping us to envision this website overhauled, and the flours out in the world, I passed out pieces of this cake as an end note to a great discussion. Everyone agreed —— more, please.
And no one mentioned the fact that it was gluten-free and dairy-free.
115 grams (about 2/3 cup) dried cherries
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup water
225 grams (about 1 3/4 cup) gluten-free girl all-purpose flour blend
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
200 grams (1 cup) organic cane sugar
90 grams (1/2 cup) coconut sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
75 grams coconut oil, melted
zest of 1 lemon
1 cup sweet potato puree
125 grams (1 cup) toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Prepare the cherries. Chop the cherries as finely as you can. Drizzle the cherries with the honey, then cover with warm water. Let the cherries sit for 30 minutes, then drain the cherries. Save the water. Set aside.
Prepare to bake. Heat the oven to 350°. Grease a bundt pan liberally with coconut oil.
Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
Make the batter. Whisk together the cane sugar and coconut sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the mixer running on low, add the egg. When they are light and fluffy together, drizzle in the melted coconut oil and mix until coherent. Mix in the lemon zest.
Finish the batter. With the mixer running on low, pour in 1/2 of the dry ingredients, then the sweet potato puree, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Add the cherries and hazelnuts, then drizzle in the leftover honeyed water until the cake batter is light and pourable.
Bake the cake. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the top of the cake has started to brown, the edges are pulling ever-so-slightly away from the sides, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool to room temperature before removing it from the bundt pan. Serve immediately.