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Meet Jaime Schwartz of Starry Lane Bakery in Hillcrest

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jaime Schwartz.

Jaime, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
At one time or another, everyone’s life hits a turning point. The path you’ve been traveling for years pivots, or forks, or on rare occasions ends in a sharp precipice overlooking a bottomless and terrifying gorge. My downfall came from a most unexpected source, the snowy white marzipan coating on a three-tier wedding cake.

After four years at Rutgers University studying biology, evolutionary anthropology, genetics, and any other discipline of science I could fit into my schedule, I realized that spending my life doing lab work held little appeal. Congratulating myself on avoiding a life of boredom, I immediately packed up my sporty little pt. cruiser (yes, people still drive them) and headed across the country to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of California.

I mixed, I chopped, I piped things out of plastic bags with funny shaped tips on the end, and I realized that most of what I was learning was based on the basic scientific principles I had studied during college.

Time passed, I graduated culinary school and got a job prepping, cooking, and most importantly baking, for a hotel in downtown San Diego. I loved it. I spent all day cooking, people would eat what I made and be happy, which made me feel good so I cooked more and they ate more, and it was perfect. Things were going so well in fact that one of the managers at the hotel asked me to make her wedding cake. It was a gorgeous cake; 3 floating tiers of square dark chocolate cake with panels of marzipan coated in sunshine yellow royal icing, decorated with flood filled flowers piped to resemble stained glass.

Of course, I hadn’t made a wedding cake before and I was nervous, it was my boss’s wedding, and it had to be perfect. So, I practiced, and I practiced some more, and when I was sure I had it down, I practiced a little more just to be sure. The wedding went off without a hitch; the cake was perfect, everyone was happy, and I went home and had a piece of one of the practice cakes to celebrate. Then my throat closed up. It was the marzipan. Marzipan is a paste made of sugar and finely ground almonds, and I had been elbows deep in the stuff for weeks. After a rather eventful ER visit, and an extensive allergy test panel at the doctor’s the next day, I was diagnosed with Adult Onset Food Allergies. Or more specifically, I was now highly allergic to almonds and cashews.

As anyone who is living with a food allergy knows, overnight the world becomes a scary and uncertain place. Was my burger cooked on the same flat top as the almond encrusted tilapia? Did my candy bar get made on equipment that also makes nougat? Had the friend stealing a sip of my soda just finished eating a handful of spiced cashews? The answer was inevitably yes. I went through a dozen epinephrine pens that first six months. My family had to relearn how to eat, and how to shop. Almost all processed foods were out, restaurants were chancy (putting my life in the hands of an overworked line cook did not appeal), and all baked goods were out unless I made them myself. Worst of all, my job, the job I loved, disappeared after an ill-fated meeting with a batch of rainbow cookies in the kitchen (almond flour and paste are the main ingredients).

I couldn’t blame them, I was a liability, and I put my own health and safety at risk every time I entered the kitchen. The only solution, as daunting as it seemed, was to open my own place where I could control what ingredients were used, and what products were created. While I was researching for my business plan, I discovered something interesting. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the United States just like me. Children who had to be homeschooled because they couldn’t risk a peanut butter sandwich at lunchtime.

Adults who were baking their own bread because they couldn’t eat gluten. It was like an epidemic had swept the country, and the only people who were aware of it were the ones affected. So, I started playing with my recipes. It’s easy to make a chocolate chip cookie without nuts, but what about eggs? What if you don’t use the common vegan egg re-placer that contains soy? Then remove the flour. That pancake-like greasy puddle on the cookie sheet? That’s what happens when you remove the flour, or the eggs, or the milk, or one of a hundred other ingredients that may not have one of the top six food allergens, but could be contaminated by one due to how it was processed.

What started as a challenge, a way to fight my way out of the depression that inevitably follows a health crisis became a passion. How many people are there out in the world who crave an honest to goodness chewy oatmeal raisin cookie just like their grandmother baked, but are allergic to the ingredients it takes to make one? As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately, not all of the allergen-free baked goods on the market today would pass the grandmother test. The truth is it’s difficult to bake great desserts without flour, butter, and milk. Very difficult. But it’s not impossible. By deconstructing each cookie, determining the cause and effect of each ingredient and their combinations, and using a basic knowledge of how molecules interact with each other during the baking process, I was able to develop recipes that taste, feel, and look as much like the genuine article as it’s possible to get them.

There were failures, and they were epic, but the successes more than made up for them. All those times I dreamed about the future when I was a kid, I never saw myself here. Owning my own business. Waking up at 3 am every morning to essentially bury myself in cookie dough. Spending hours each night pouring over accounts and product catalogs. I hit my turning point, swerved off the road, and found to my surprise that I’m thoroughly enjoying the scenic route.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Allergen-free baking is a fairly new field. There just aren’t a lot of people doing it right now, and 6 years ago there were even fewer. Most baking is fairly simple, personal recipes are just variations on a theme. Add a bit of lemon zest, toast the cinnamon before mixing, buttermilk instead of whole milk, most bakers are just putting their personal touch on a recipe that’s existed for hundreds of years. Our recipes are nothing like anything anyone has ever seen before.

Knowing how to make a sugar cookie did absolutely nothing to help us develop a sugar cookie recipe. Our recipe doesn’t look anything like what you would find in a cookbook. It barely looks like a cookie recipe at all and breaks about 12 different rules of baking. But when it’s done right, it makes the most amazing sugar cookie that just happens to be free of the top ten food allergens. We’ve invented a new way of baking, and even though it’s been difficult, the rewards are more than worth it.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
There are very few allergen-free bakeries in the United States. Places that are completely dedicated free of the top ten food allergens. We take the safety and well-being of our guests so seriously that we don’t even allow outside food or drink inside our facility for fear of cross-contamination. It’s common to find one or two gluten-free items in a restaurant, but for someone with a severe allergy, that just isn’t safe enough. Even when you can find safe to eat food (and for the 1/10 Americans with a food allergy that’s very rare), it never what you want it to be. The texture is funny, or the taste is off, or even if both of those passes muster the pastry looks nothing like what it should. It’s a very frustrating and isolating experience.

Starry Lane is here to change all of that. Our products look smell, taste, and feel just like their regular counterparts because they’re real food. We make amazing pastries and breads that just happen to be allergen free. Not allergen free pastries and breads that people are willing to eat because they don’t have any other options.

The most gratifying part of what we do is the children. Not a week goes by that one of our new customers doesn’t tell us they bring their allergic child to a bakery for the very first time. Some of those kids are in their early teens, but due to severe food allergies, they’ve never been able to walk into a store and just pick out anything they wanted. It’s such a simple thing that many of us take for granted, but we truly believe that it can be a profound experience.

What were you like growing up?
I was a bit of a strange child, I can admit that now. I think I spent about 70% of my waking hours reading. It doesn’t sound like that would be a bad thing, but when your parents have to make an actual rule that you can’t walk while reading and that there need to be at least 3 other people at the table to bring your books to dinner, it might be time to admit you have a problem. I just really loved books, still do actually, and the idea that anything I wanted to know was out there, and I just had to find it, was incredibly seductive.

I was also a bit of a pain. I think my very favorite word until high school was “why”. I wanted to know why everything. Why was the moon brighter on some nights than others? Why did people sleep at night instead of during the day? Why did we wear socks every day but not gloves? Why, why, why, as an adult looking back, I can only say that my parents were very patient people who did not get nearly enough credit for having to endure that.

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