Sweet Business Reinventions

All it took was a passion for food—and a little moolah—for each of these women to go into the “delicious!” business

by Nicole Blades
baker image
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

Since then, she’s had her share of nightmare moments. In December 2009 she decided to expand her calamondin grove by planting seeds instead of buying expensive saplings from a nursery. “I believed I’d done my homework with the USDA and the Florida Department of Agriculture and was told time and again that calamondins are not regulated,” she says. “But it turns out their propagation is heavily regulated.” To avoid the possibility of contaminating commercial trees with diseases lurking in backyard trees, calamondin seedlings may be grown only in licensed citrus propagation nurseries. “We had 1,077 beautiful healthy seedlings, some bearing fruit,” she recalls. They all had to be destroyed. “It was like watching your cat get run over by a truck.”

Despite the setback, Gutstein started selling her first cakes online in November 2011. With about $20,000 in sales to date and six employees—to manage the grove, handle sales, bake and pack—she expects to turn a profit in mid-2014. This fall she’s launching a calamondin coulis. “When the Whole Foods people sampled it at the food show, they said, ‘You won’t be able to make enough of this,’ ” Gutstein recalls. She still puts in five eight- to nine-hour shifts reading medical X-rays every week. “Radiology pays for my passion,” she says. “A friend once said to me, ‘Ask yourself if you have 10 years to give to your venture. If your answer is no, then find your happiness doing something else.’ ” For now, her answer is yes. 

*Web Extra*

Lucy Gibney, MD, 49

From emergency room physician to president and CEO of Dr. Lucy’s LLC

More than the panic and drama, it’s the awful sound that Lucy Gibney remembers most clearly. It’s 2 p.m. on Easter Sunday, April 13, 2004, and Gibney is in the kitchen of her home in Norfolk, Virginia. In the next room, her husband, Paul, is offering their four-month-old son bottled formula for the first time. Gibney listens, ears keen. A few seconds after the formula hits the infant’s mouth, she hears the high-pitched wheezing sounds characteristic of stridor—inflammation and swelling around the vocal chords brought on by an allergic reaction. “Thankfully, I recognized the symptoms quickly, and we rushed him to the hospital,” says Gibney, who, like her husband, is an emergency room doctor.

Little Colin’s reaction to the formula was so traumatic that Gibney had him tested for other food allergies. Wheat, barley, milk, eggs and all nuts came up. He would not be able to eat most commercially available cookies and cakes, and she discovered that those he could safely eat tasted terrible. “Think about the social aspects of eating: play dates, birthday parties,” she says. “I didn’t want my son to be the outcast toting around an ugly, sawdust cookie.” So Gibney set out to bake her own treats. “I have baked all my life, and my mom was a phenomenal baker,” she says. At first, most of her cookies ended up in the trash. “A huge turning point came when I applied the tricks I learned about baking without egg or wheat to my mom’s old recipes,” she says. After a month, her creations tasted so good that “Paul had his hand in the cookie jar all the time. He kept saying I should start a business. I thought he was joking.”

He wasn’t. So Gibney decided to research the number of people who have food allergies or are vegan or kosher. “It was very obvious to me then that there was a huge market,” she says. “We talked to an attorney, an accountant, people we knew locally who were in the food industry. We attended the Specialty Food Trade show, where we each took courses to learn how to launch a business. We were staying in a hotel, and every morning we would go down to this little café and have breakfast and talk about what we were learning and review our data. One morning, we just sat there and said, 'OK, we’re going to do it. Let’s go for it.' ”

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