Gluten-free baker smells success

George Chookazian
George Chookazian
Photo printed with permission of the Culinary Institute of America

George Chookazian starts his days much like he did when he was a kid, before the sun is up. Now, Chookazian’s early wake up is necessary in his dual role as a baker and entrepreneur.

Chookazian co-owns Foods by George with his wife Ceil, who has celiac disease. Every weekday, he oversees the baking and distribution of their line of gluten-free products at the company’s dedicated craft bake house in Mahwah, N.J.

Once the baking begins, so does the fun. Chookazian gets to smell and taste everything from cinnamon currant English muffins to brownies, pound cake, pizza and more.

The story behind Foods by George is one of love and necessity. When George and Ceil began dating in 1989, he was working in finance, and cooking was a hobby. As their relationship grew, he began to share his passion for cooking with Ceil. The problem was the more they ate, the sicker she got.

Then Ceil was diagnosed with celiac disease, and Chookazian started on a mission to make delicious gluten-free foods. He opened Foods by George in 1991 and trained at the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking and Pastry Arts program to hone his skills.

In the middle of a recent busy workday, Chookazian shared what his typical day is like. He reflected on the gluten-free community, noting that he never imagined it would grow as much as it has.

What time do you wake up? 

Foods by George brownies 2I get up at about 4 a.m. I’ve always been an early riser. Even as a kid, I used to get up at 6 a.m.

What’s for breakfast?

During the week, it’s really quick. I just have a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. We are always popping good stuff out of the oven [at work], so I’m always going to eat something later. On any given day, we have two to three types of English muffins, blueberry muffins and brownies.

 What time do you get to work?

We live 15 to 20 minutes away, so I’ll be in by a quarter to five. I’ll start getting things set up for the crew, which comes in at about 5:30 a.m.

 What’s an average day like for you?

Usually by 7 a.m. I’m in the office ordering ingredients, talking with suppliers, brokers, distributors, working out promotions, setting up appointments and meetings and overseeing production. I probably get at least 200 to 300 emails a day. We are a regional company, and our products are available in supermarkets and health food stores in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast.

We just picked up a new chain in Texas, our first entry there, and they are taking English muffins.

I’m always creating new items. So, I try to spend some time each week tinkering. If I have something in particular I’m working on, I might be working on it every day. I usually leave work by 4 p.m.


Is there one product you’re especially involved with during production?

The things that really charge me up are English muffins. I always loved yeast raised items. To me, that’s a work of art because you are dealing with yeast, which is a microorganism, and it has a life of its own. You talk to any good artisan bread baker, and it’s the simple fact of time and temperature. You are taking ingredients and you are mixing thing ups, and when you are dealing with yeast, the end product is completely different than all those ingredients before yeast was added.

 Do you taste test throughout the day? 

Everything and I’m suffering from that. I do it because I like it and, of course, I want to make sure everything is as I want it to be, both in looks and texture.

What’s for lunch?

I will throw our pizzas into the oven quite often because our crew loves them. I always bring in leftovers like roasted vegetables, grilled chicken and salad.

Is there anything surprising about your day?

It’s possible that people might not see that I’m so involved in the day-to-day running of the company. The one thing I always enjoyed and that means a lot to me is the relationships with my ingredient and packaging vendors. It’s part of what I enjoy doing. They are always there to help me out.

Cinnamon currant muffins
Cinnamon currant muffins

What’s your favorite part of the day?

On the personal side, when I see racks of English muffins coming out of the oven. The smell is just absolutely phenomenal, particularly the cinnamon currant. You get the smell of sugar and cinnamon wafting through the bakery. Anytime a product comes out of the oven, there is nothing better going on around here. I will admit from the business side, I do like seeing palettes of product going onto distributor’s trucks.

 What’s for dinner? 

I can work a 12-hour day and go home and cook for an hour and a half. It’s always been a creative outlet for me. I love to grill so I will do pork, chicken, fish. I do a lot of rotisserie items. I roast a lot of vegetables. On a Sunday, I’ll spend hours cooking for the week. This summer was amazing with vegetables. We had a cucumber and tomato salad almost every day. We don’t do pasta that much. I’ll cook mostly rice, risotto and quinoa.

What’s it like to have been part of the gluten-community for 23 years?

I never imagined it to grow to the extent that it’s grown. When I started out doing this, the diagnosis rate was 1 in 5,000. Then it was in 1 in 3,000. Then it was 1 in 1,000. Now, we are at 1 in 133. I go back and give credit to the early pioneers: the support groups, the doctors and the individuals who worked so hard. We are all benefiting from them.

It’s been remarkable to see the interest created by both companies and individuals. I remember even 5 years ago, some of the retailers I contacted didn’t want to have anything to do with gluten free. Now, every single one of them has at least three freezer doors of gluten-free foods and non-frozen shelf space. There really are so many good products. It’s so much easier for families now.

 How has Foods by George changed you?

It’s brought out the creative part of me. It brought out the entrepreneur in me to grow a business.

 What does baking for the gluten-community mean to you? 

I love it. A psychologist might say I have a deep need to be wanted. It’s a tremendous feeling, particularly when there are so many companies out there. When people are still interested in our product, it’s so rewarding and thrilling.

 Guest blogger Susan Cohen is a freelance writer who often contributes to Gluten-Free Living. This is the 7th in her Day in the Life series.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


A day in the life of Jennifer Goodhue of Tu-Lu’s gluten-free bakery

Tully & Jen - Website
The women behind Tu-Lu’s, Tully Phillips (left) and Jennifer Goodhue (right)

Jennifer Goodhue keeps Tu-Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery running like a well-oiled machine. As chief operating officer of Tu-Lu’s New York City location, she oversees all aspects of the bakery. Goodhue, who has celiac disease and a passion for baking, originally worked in finance, and her background has proven invaluable in the day-to-day operations.

A visit to see how she spends her day seemed perfect given that we are fast approaching Valentine’s Day, with its devotion to all things sweet.

Goodhue joined Tu-Lu’s in June 2011 after being introduced to the bakery’s owner and founder, Tully Phillips. Philips, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, TX, opened the bakery in February 2010, two years after receiving a diagnosis of gluten-intolerance.

Phillips was motivated by the fact that the city, at that time, didn’t have a dedicated gluten-free bakery. “I was having a hard time finding a place to buy a delicious cupcake…in New York of all places!” she shared by email. “That’s when I decided to open Tu-Lu’s in February of 2010. It’s hard to believe we are coming up on our four- year anniversary.”

Since launching her first bakery, Philips moved to Dallas where she has opened two more Tu-Lu’s locations.

On a blistery January day, I bundled up and headed downtown to Tu-Lu’s on East Tu-Lu's Cupcake Stand Pic11th Street in New York City to spend the morning with Goodhue, who kindly opened the door for me before regular bakery hours.  Truth be told, she also opened up a folding chair so I could sit alongside her while she worked at the desk in her office downstairs.

This provided the perfect opportunity to watch her start the workday and see her financial and organizational skills in action. My view was very colorful since I could see stacks of containers filled with sprinkles in a rainbow of hues. And I could smell baked goods being prepared upstairs.

Goodhue noted that she has habit of counting everything, “If I am on a walk, I count how many geese there are,” she said. She puts her number skills to good use keeping track of everything at Tu-Lu’s from how many of a specific cupcake were sold yesterday to which items were most popular last Valentine’s Day.

(A full list of the bakery’s mouthwatering Valentine’s Day offerings at the New York store is available here and the Dallas locations here.)

Here’s a glimpse of her typical day at the bakery.

 What time do you start your day?

My morning routine starts at 5:00 a.m. with the gym at 5:30 a.m. and I stay there until 7:00 a.m. Afterwards, I either drive into the city or catch the 7:18 a.m. train from my home in Katonah, New York.

What’s for breakfast?

I usually have this every weekday:  gluten-free rolled oats with half a banana, some almond butter, some cinnamon and cacao nibs and three hardboiled egg whites. That is my protein/fuel/carb ratio to get me through a stretch of time. I usually eat as I do the scoop and bake list.

What’s the scoop and bake list?

The scoop list outlines the specific items and quantities baked for a specific day.  Our bakers reference this list so that they know exactly what to bake in the morning and how much of a certain item is needed. For example, 36 coffee cakes or 24 vanilla cupcakes are needed.

What’s happens when you get to the bakery?

I greet my team and check in. Then I look at all the special orders or wholesale orders for the next day to determine quantity projections for the bakery case. This dictates how much of a certain item and which specific item our bake team should bake in the morning.

When making the list, I look at the weather. Is it going to be another blizzard? I will access numbers and look at how we did the day before. How many loaves of bread did we sell? Are there cupcakes left? If a certain product has a surge, I definitely want to include that item in the case. If it were a holiday, I would take that into account and increase our numbers.

Once a week, I open the bakery myself. It is important to see a few different perspectives at the bakery including the perspective of the customers and my employees.

Valentine’s Day is coming up. How do you prepare and what are you selling?Tu-Lu's V-day cookies

Every holiday, I go back and look at the numbers from the year before. For example, exactly how many Raspberry Linzer cookies did we sell? Today (the day of our interview) is three weeks out from Valentine’s Day and I am going to have a conversation with the bake team to further prepare.

Valentine’s Day is a big cupcake holiday.  The biggest cupcake holiday we have. This year, we are making cute four-inch cakes in heart shaped pans. You can choose chocolate or strawberry. We have vegan cake options as well. We sell boxes of cookies that spell out “LOVE”. I actually just ordered Valentine’s Day sprinkles.

The packaging is important too. We have some fun packaging. Our heart-shaped sugar cookies are packaged in clear cellophane bags and tied with festive Valentine’s ribbons.  Our “LOVE” shaped sugar cookies come in a white window bakery box, so that you can see the cookies inside.  They sit on pink crinkle paper and are tied with a Valentine’s grosgrain or organza bow.

The store is festively decorated with pink and red heart banners. There are also owls holding hearts, as a nod to the bakery mascot!

 How does Tu-Lu’s use social media as part of the bakery business?

I love the social media aspect and getting something we just created spun out there. For example, each Thursday we roll out our cupcake flavor of the week and put it up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. A lot of customers come into the bakery and announce that they saw our cupcake flavor of the week and are excited to try it!  

What’s in your lunch?

I usually bring lunch from home. I bring quinoa, sweet potato or brown rice with vegetables – spinach, green beans, celery or cucumber – with chicken. I finish lunch by eating two dates. I love occasionally getting quinoa salad at a store nearby. If I really want a treat I get a smoothie.

 What does the rest of your day look like?

I always take notes and make to-do lists. It helps me be prepared and stay organized. I am always looking around and assessing our inventory. We have tons of supplies and ingredients, so there is a lot to take into account. Do we need eggs? Do I need to order cupcake liners? Do we have enough buttermilk?

Do you sample sweets during the day?

I sample when we are experimenting. Saturday is my personal sweet day. After dinner I have dessert. I think about what I am going to eat all week!

 Anything surprising about your job?

There is a whole other side to running a bakery. It’s not always cupcakes and frosting. When you run a business, you deal with it. My day yesterday was dealing with a radiator that wasn’t producing any heat. My employees were freezing and we were all wearing long Johns! It’s especially imperative that I maintain a positive and upbeat attitude when these situations arise, as it really sets the tone for my team and our customers.

 What time does your workday end?

When you run a business, your day never ends.  There’s always an email to write, phone call to return, spreadsheet to update, new idea to set into motion, etc.  I always make myself available to my team and am constantly checking-in when I am not at the bakery.  Since we stay open until 10:00 p..(and 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays) I am in communication with my employees that late at night since I like knowing how things are going and if it’s been busy. So really, my day ends when I go to sleep!

How has your job influenced your life? 

My days are filled doing something that I am passionate about — making gluten-free items accessible to people.  It’s hard work, and my days are long, but I like what I do!

Next up, we’ll find out what it takes to run a national organization.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Guest blogger Susan Cohen regularly writes the New for You column for Gluten-Free Living and also contributes to the In the Mix column. 


A Gluten-Free Day in the Life of Jules Shepard

Jules2I’ve always been curious about what goes on in the daily lives of the people whose names are so familiar in the gluten-free world.

What’s it really like to run a gluten-free bakery or other business? What goes on behind the scenes to keep a support group going?  Most importantly, how do you make time for all the Facebook posts and tweets on Twitter?

In a series of blog posts, beginning with this one, I’ll share what movers and shakers in the gluten-free world say about what their day is like.

Jules Shepard is a jack of all gluten-free trades. She founded Jules Gluten Free, a gluten-free flour and baking mix business, authors gluten-free books, hosts an Internet radio show, is an eHow Presenter, manages her multiple very active social media accounts and travels the country to talk about living gluten free. In 2011 she  co-founded 1 in 133, a campaign that lobbied the Food and Drug Administration for gluten-free labeling standards, a campaign that paid off with labeling standards set to begin this year.

We’re very excited to have Shepard speak at the upcoming Gluten-Free Living Conference in Orlando, April 4 -6. She’ll be a featured presented at Blogger U, a one-day event designed for bloggers who write about gluten-free food, the lifestyle and more. Shepard, who pens the very popular blog, Jules Speaks Gluten Free, will share tips on how to make your blog more successful and widely read.  She’ll also be one of the experts in the conference panel discussion on all thing gluten free.

I spoke to Shepard last month when she called me from her home near Baltimore after a busy morning getting the kids ready for school and doing some early social media work. Shepard’s 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter do not have celiac disease like their mom but are gluten-free appreciators.

We talked about her gluten-free journey, which she described as having some unexpected turns.. “It’s been this process where I never set out to do these things, but the opportunity presented itself,” she explained. Here’s what Shepard had to say about her typical day.

 What time do you start your day?

My day starts at 6:45, but 6:36 if you want to know the truth.

What’s your morning routine?

I start working on packing lunches and getting breakfast ready and feeding my cats and checking my phone to see if any text message came in. I try not to get on the computer yet because then I am consumed. I go get my son out of bed. That takes a long time. I feed him and get his lunch packed. Teeth brushed and we are out the door by 7:45 a.m. Then I pick up carpool and drive to school and then come home and wake up my daughter, get her ready and take her to school.

What’s for breakfast?

Often times I just make a protein shake with Vega One  powder in a chai tea flavor that is so good. I just keep not finishing it and putting it back in the microwave to heat up.

Sometimes I make a green tea and add chai powder or have coconut yogurt with homemade granola or KIND granola or Jules oatmeal. I love to put in nuts and flax meal and berries.

Do you check email, Facebook or Twitter first?

I always check email first. Facebook is way more insane than Twitter when it comes to responding to people who’ve posted comments.

 What’s a typical morning in the office like?

I called you when I was finally done catching up with email, Facebook, Twitter. I do social media at least three hours before I get caught up every day. Then I can start doing other things. On a day like today, I have my radio show that I have to get ready for and record.

Everyday I am in the kitchen. I have a weekly recipe that I have to come up with. I have to write the recipe and photograph it and eventually post it on the blog. I have to do that at least once a week. That takes a lot of time.

Simultaneously, I am working on product development. Right now, I am emailing back and forth with the food manufacturing plant asking can if they can tweak one of my products.  There are products I have been working on for years.

Next, I do a lot of videos for eHow. They send ten recipes ideas at a time, and I have to write gluten-free recipes based on the idea. eHow sends a video crew down from New Jersey, and I record 10 cooking videos in one day. I can be preparing for three weeks for the filming.

Then I’m a mom. My kids get home in the afternoon and usually I try to be on the computer until they get home and then do kitchen stuff from then on so I can hang out with them.

 What’s for lunch? Dinner?

If I am not eating leftovers, my very favorite thing for lunch is gluten-free flatbread with a veggie burger, hummus, mustard and chips. I always make a double or triple batch of flat breads and put them in the freezer. I stick one in the oven on broil for a few minutes to warm and toast it up.

 For dinner, every week we have something a bit different and some old standbys.  Our old standbys every week are tofu tacos for my kids. I love them too.  We grill salmon once a week with a ton of vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots and portobello mushrooms.

For at least two others nights, we have leftovers. I cook a big pot of quinoa and stir the grilled vegetables and salmon into the quinoa. I add San-J Thai peanut sauce and stir it in. My kids won’t eat salmon without it! It’s good cold or hot.

Then I usually saute some shrimp or something one night. We do a lot of things with black beans. I make quesadillas for my kids. I love almond cheese (Jules and her daughter are both lactose-intolerant).  Other nights might be gluten-free beer battered fish sticks or salmon noodle casserole. I love plantains so I’ll do fried plantains. We make homemade pizza once a week.

What time does the workday end?

Well, it’s funny. It doesn’t. I’m in the kitchen working and then I make dinner. Often I’ll tweet or post photos on Instagram of what I’m making for dinner to inspire people about what they can be making. After I put my kids to bed, I come back and do more social media work and that can go anywhere from 9 until midnight. I try to make sure I go to bed around midnight.

 Thank you Jules for sharing your workday! Also, can I come to dinner?

 (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 Next up we talk to a gluten-free sweet treat expert just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Guest blogger Susan Cohen regularly writes the New for You column for Gluten-Free Living and has also done features for the magazine, including the most recent on gluten-free 20-somethings.