Heart of the House: Jen Wells, Tu-Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery
Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
No food lover would ever wish Celiac disease on themselves, but for Jen Wells, the diagnosis was a blessing in disguise. Not only did it trigger her to leave a lifelong career in finance to pursue the culinary arts, but it led her to the perfect venue to do so. At Tu-Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery in the East Village, Jen leads a team that accommodates a wide range of food sensitivities, providing customers with sweets that wouldn't make them think they were missing a thing.
Last June, Jen partnered with Tully Lewis, the original founder of Tu-Lu's, after being introduced by an ICE professor. Since then, she's been manning the busy shop—and spreading gluten-free love in the form of whoopee pies, cupcakes that change with the season, and even panini sandwiches—on East 11th Street, while Tully oversees the bakery's second location in Dallas.
We caught up with Jen in between conference calls and cupcake baking to talk about her baking journey, the growing demand for gluten free sweets, and what her customers are loving.
How did you come to run a bakery? What's your professional background? I started off in the financial industry and worked on a trading floor for a few years. And before that I worked at a hedge fund in Greenwich. I had gotten on this path of being in the financial world and was very business-oriented. During that time I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, and it completely changed my eating habits and my outlook on food. I'd come home after working these ridiculous hours for the bank and spend three hours in the kitchen coming up with these crazy ideas and recipes. And I thought, I'm so passionate about this, I have to pursue this further.
That's a serious decision to make. How did you proceed? I wasn't quite sure which venue in the food industry I wanted to tackle, so I thought it'd be better to take some classes and start to put my feelers out there. I signed up for a bunch of different classes at different culinary schools, and aside from working at my job I was going to classes at night. During that time I met a professor at the Institute of Culinary Education and I said, "I'm in finance but I want to be in culinary, and specifically I want to be in the gluten-free world. I have Celiac disease and I'm just really passionate about spreading the word out there."
A few weeks later he e-mailed me that one of his students was looking for a partner to take over her bakery, and asked if I was interested. And I said yes, absolutely. So that's how I met Tully. Tu-Lu's opened in February of 2010 and we're just growing. We opened the Dallas store this March.
How do you go about creating your recipes? If something inspires us we certainly try to work off that. A lot of our customers and employees have some great ideas. We keep a little book up front where if someone's like, "you guys should do lemon bars," we'll write it down and add it to our wish list. It's a way to see what's hot right now.
I imagine they'd be difficult when you can't use some of the key ingredients that are typically in baked goods. How do you overcome those challenges? A lot of it is adapting our existing recipes, so a crust might be something similar to what we do in our Linzer cookie or our Mallomar. And then we just have fun and play in the kitchen.
Do you have a sense of who your customers are? Are they mostly gluten-free eaters? It's a total mix. Some people don't have any allergies and restrictions. Our coffee cake is one of our most popular items and people just come in for that. We're seeing a lot of demand for more vegan stuff so we're working on some recipes.
What have been your other hits? The red velvet cupcakes. The Mallomar cookie are also really popular. It's a homemade graham cracker and a homemade marshmallow dipped in a chocolate glaze. The cupcake flavor of the week changes, usually on Thursday. People get really excited about that. We post the flavor with a picture on Facebook and Twitter so people can follow us and know what it is. And that's exciting, it keeps everyone on their toes.
Gluten-free desserts don't typically sound like an easy sell. How has your business been embraced by customers? Fabulously. We have a strong following, a lot of dedicated, loyal customers. And we're constantly being pursued and contacted by other stores and restaurants to carry our products. We started selling our bread at Dean & Deluca in Soho. Harney & Sons Tea carry some of our products. And we deliver to G-Free NYC, a little gluten-free grocery store on the Upper West Side, three times a week. And Mailino carries our bread every day. We're working on a few other big accounts right now and we have some exciting stuff rolling out. And our wedding cake business is growing. I have about two different tastings a week right now and we're contracted out through late November right now. For weddings, we see a lot of people doing cupcake trays and dessert spreads with whoopee pies and mini brownies. The cupcake thing is hot right now.
So has your business benefited from New York's cupcake craze? It's definitely a huge part of our business. The mini cupcakes are really hot. They're great for kids too, because a two-year-old isn't going to eat an entire cupcake. And it's nice for people who want to sample different flavors, so instead of having one big one they can try two or three little ones. We go through about 90 regular sized and 100 mini cupcakes every day. And we'll usually sell out by the end of the day.
You guys are anchored by two more classic bakeries—Black Hound Bakery and Veniero's—on either side of you on this street. What has that experience been like? It's fine. The Veniero's guys are great. I have some Italian in me so it's nice to keep it in the family. If someone's gluten-free and they can't find something at Veniero's they'll come here. And the other bakery we're not really affected by it, competition-wise.
You have this East Village shop and now one in Dallas. Are the plans for more Tu-Lu's popping around the city or beyond? Yeah, I think so. There's certainly demand for it. I'd say at least twice a week I get an e-mail from someone saying, "can you please open one up in Brussels or Australia?" We'll see what happens.