Written by Micah Solomon
As a girl, Helene Godin never had an Easy Bake oven, nor did this register as a deprivation. She’d have been the last one to anticipate that one day she’d create the dominant chain of gluten-free bakeries in the Northeast, which is what her By the Way Bakery has quickly become, growing to four retail locations so far and finding its way into 47 Whole Foods Markets and counting.
Instead, as far back as she can remember, Godin wanted to be a lawyer. She was a legal-minded Hermione Granger, the kind of kid I picture turning in an unsolicited legal brief for extra credit in Junior High. But in 2010, after a staggeringly successful 22-year legal career, including stints as outside counsel for Columbia Records (later Sony Music), in-house counsel for Reader’s Digest and NBC, and General Counsel for Audible, where she and her team facilitated the sale of the much-loved company to Amazon, she landed, finally, as counsel for Bloomberg’s data operation and quickly knew that her dream-come-true had run its course. “Every job I’ve had has taught me something. And what my two years with Bloomberg taught me was that I was done. Done with the law. Done with the corporate world, period.”
Four days of post-retirement boredom
It only took four days of post-lawyering retirement for Helene to find herself, she tells me, “bored out of my skull.” In an attempt to keep her sanity, this non-domestic goddess signed up for one of the only enrichment classes–“why not? I was bored”–she could find locally, which turned out to be “Vegan Baking Bootcamp.” She also took her first leisurely visit to a supermarket in years (“I hadn’t done more than dash in and back out in years, practically with the engine running”), a trip that set her business antennae tingling; gluten-free products were getting what struck her as an inordinate –or, she started to think, ordinate–amount of shelf space in her local grocery.
“I sensed an opportunity, something that could mesh with my desire to do something non-corporate and non-lawyerly that could be pulled off right in the adorable little town where I live”–Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, which, it pained her to realize, she had barely had a chance to see during daylight hours.
As her plan to open a bakery began to form, “my family quickly offered the reasonable objection, ‘Helene, you don’t know how to bake.’ I said, ‘I’ll pick it up.’ ‘But Mom, we’ve had to tell you for years, ‘it’s bake, not broil—charred muffins are not a thing.’ Again, I told them, ‘I’ll pick it up. And, by the way, it’s going to be not just a bakery, but a gluten-free bakery. And not just a gluten-free bakery, but a gluten-free bakery where everything we’ll offer will taste as good as, or better, than, products baked without ingredient constraints.’”
This hardcore insistence was at the center of Godin’s ethos, and provided the name for what soon would be Godin’s growing empire: Customers should be so delighted with how her baked goods taste that the fact that they are gluten-free, non-dairy, and kosher (I’ll get to that) should be subordinated to the status of an “oh, by the way” detail. “This was, from the very beginning, going to be a top-flight bakery, period. I wasn’t going to open for business unless I was able to offer baked goods that were as good as conventional baked goods, if not better.”
She hoped that such a uniqueness of positioning would afford By the Way Bakery the ability to thrive in spite of another, physical, constraint. “Locating the bakery in the town where I live required violating a rule of retail: that you want 360-degree access, a store that people can access from all directions. Hastings is on the Hudson River. So it was cut off at 180. I needed to create a strong enough pull that it would convince people to travel.”
I suggested that they could come have come aboard a boat, but she wasn’t having it. “Boaters are a limited market, Micah–and we don’t have a dock.”
This ambition was easy to aspire to and fiendishly tricky to pull off. Without wheat or butter, Helene had to focus on achieving perfection with the remaining ingredients that were available to her. It became quickly clear how hard this can be to get right; you can’t just swap in one cup of gluten-free rice flour to replace one cup of wheat flour and expect to get the same results. “Gluten-free baking requires a blend, and I spent a long time playing with ratios to get that blend right, a flour mix that would work with the six core recipes I felt my bakery would need to be able to open: the blueberry muffin, the traditional brownie, the chocolate layer cake, and so forth.Once I finally had that worked out, the flour mix was on lock down. From that point forward, if a new recipe didn’t work with the flour mix, I wouldn’t use that recipe.”
Micah: “And you were doing all this where?”
Helene: “In my home kitchen.”
“I created every recipe myself; I really threw myself into it. I had no training, but I was fearless. It was bake, bite, throw out. Bake, bite, throw out. Just keep doing it. Tweaking, learning as I go. Using myself and my neighbors as the tasters.”
Micah: “Because they were going to be your customers anyway.”
Helene: “They were going to be my customers. Exactly.”
Godin insisted on building her bakery from scratch rather than taking what might have been a more typical retirement-business approach for someone with a few bucks in the bank and solid credit to boot: buying an already operational business. As she had been on the recipes, she was hands-on in every other aspect as well. Though she engaged outside designers for store design and logo creation, she worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them on both.
Micah: “I expect Seth chimed in on the logo design, no?” (Helene’s unusual last name may have you wondering if she’s related to marketing guru Seth Godin. “I get that question a lot; so, Micah, please set the record straight for your readers. Not only do I know Seth Godin, I’ve had marital relationswith Seth Godin,” she tells me in her best legalese. (The two Godins have been together since they were college sweethearts back at Tufts.)
Helene: He did chime in; of course he did. It was pretty amusing, because his suggestions were on point–but on point for if it had been Seth’s logo, not mine: ‘I love your logo, but I’d love it more in purple and orange.’”
Micah: “Yes. That would be a perfect Seth Godin color scheme.”
Helene: “Right. But for me? Not so much. And this was my thing”
This initial contact resulted in an invitation to compete in a regional New Product Category Review (a bakeoff) in February of 2013, and soon Helene was happily having her products sold, on a small scale, to her local White Plains and Yonkers stores. This self-confessed “terrible driver” made most of the deliveries herself in her mini Cooper; when that proved too small, she graduated her delivery operation to a roomier Subaru. For two years, “life was good, because I had [Whole Foods] bragging rights, but I didn’t need to worry about producing more than my tiny kitchen could handle.”
“Call me in a year.”
This equilibrium collapsed in late 2014 when Helene got a call from Jay Jay, a Whole Foods employee who was working on the opening of a new Whole Foods on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. With great fanfare, he told Helene that By the Way had been selected to supply baked goods for the “grab & go” of that new store, which Whole Foods’ calculations predicted would be one of the busiest in the country.
Helene’s response? “Call me in a year,” once her little bakery had its ducks in a row. Jay Jay politely told her that this was a one-time offer, and implied, again politely, that she’d be crazy to not accept it. So, she took a deep breath, and at the end of that breath, heard herself say, “Of course!”
This invitation proved transformational. Not only did orders from the new Upper East Side store pour in, By the Way products soon found their way into all of Whole Foods’ Manhattan locations by fall of 2016, then expanded outward in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) area. With the Subaru obviously insufficient to handle deliveries, By the Way signed with a distributor in late 2018, allowing them to have their products in all 47 stores in Whole Foods’ Northeast Region.
In addition to being gluten-free and dairy-free, By the Way is Kosher-certified. (That last designation may not be a big draw where you live, but it goes a long way in New York and, besides, says Godin, “my Bubbie [grandmother] is kvelling [welling with pride] from above.”) Running a bakery that’s kosher as well as gluten-free can be tricky. Helene tells me she came up with a new take on honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “A Jewish honey cake is like the fruitcake for Christmas; it’s similarly, universally, loathed. So, we came up with something better. A citrus rum soak with walnuts added to the mix. I go ahead and put it on the menu, and I’m really excited until I get a note from the Rabbi, “You know, it’s customary to avoid walnuts on Rosh Hashanah.”
Micah: “Oh, no.”
Helene: “‘Because walnuts tend to dry your mouth and when you are praying you want to pray as clearly as possible.’”
Micah: “Because God might misunderstand you?”
Helene: “While ’He’s God, he’ll figure it out’ may have briefly passed through my mind, the reality is, I do love learning new things. Just sometimes I’d rather learn them before I’ve put an item on the menu.”
Moving into the future
“Everything was baked until the end of 2016 in the back of our Hastings store. So we had 400 square feet of retail in front and 800 square feet in back. It was super, super tiny. We had to make the same batter five times because we didn’t have enough room for a big enough mixer, which was insanely inefficient. Then in September of 2016 we opened a 7,200 square foot commissary in Pleasantville, New York–20 minutes from Hastings–just three turns. Even a terrible driver like me handle it. And the best thing is that it includes a ‘perch,’ where I make my office, five feet up with big windows that overlook the kitchen.”
Micah: “Does it have a corner? Is it a corner office?”
Helene: “It’s a corner, but the only window is into the bakery. The other wall backs up to the ladies’ room.”
Micah: “Oh, so you’re the bathroom monitor. Great, everyone wants their boss to be the bathroom monitor.”
Helene: “I can’t actually see that door. But what I am watching are the cake decorators and Ruben at the sheeter making tarts. It gives me great joy. As does sitting down at Thanksgiving and being able to picture all the people who sit down and eat things that I played a role in. The idea that I brought some sweetness to their life makes me really happy.”
Even though Helene, apparently, allows herself to sit down once a year for Thanksgiving, it’s clear that By the Way Bakery is all-consuming. I was wondering if it’s changed her relationships with others, who perhaps don’t see her as much as they used to. She says it hasn’t, “because I was always all in. All in as a lawyer, every day of the week.”
Micah: “And you’re still all in.”
Helene: “And I’m still all in. I had a dog and pony just yesterday with a prestigious chain, a high-end fast casual that has a catering side, that is looking for bread. They said, ‘Do we get a discount if we order 10,000 rolls?’”
“Of course, the answer has to be, ‘Let’s wait till you order 10,000 rolls to discuss discounts.’ But it’s very exciting to think about.”
Photo credit: Julie Bidwell
Thanks for reading!