When bringing a dessert over a friend’s house, ordering a cake for a celebration or bringing in snacks to a school party, the reality is you have to be really careful because you don’t know who may have what allergies. Sisters Lauren Gershengorn and Brittany Baker struggled with this when seven years ago they each discovered they had food allergies. Brittany was diagnosed with celiac, which meant she needed to follow a strict gluten-free diet, and Lauren was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis, also known as EOE, which meant she could no longer eat eggs.
As restaurants and bakeries started to accommodate certain food allergies, Brittany was able to find gluten-free options and Lauren found vegan alternatives, but the chances they would ever be able to eat the same thing were slim. For the past seven years, the two had gotten used to cooking for themselves, but still ran into the dilemma at family and friends’ parties. Ultimately, there wasn’t one dessert that could accommodate everyone.
They wondered: why couldn’t you purchase something that was allergy-free and still tasted good?
Lauren and Brittany have been asking this question since the day they got diagnosed, and they finally decided they wanted to be the ones to answer it. In April 2018, while Lauren was retired from the practice of law and Brittany decided not to return to work after the birth of her first child, it seemed like it was now or never.
“It was kind of the perfect opportunity to take a chance on something we’ve been talking about for years; to actually make it happen or stop talking about it,” said Lauren.
“We asked, ‘What’s the basic? What’s something that everybody loves?’” added Brittany.
The conclusion was a warm chocolate chip cookie. The original thought was to go the vegan and gluten-free route, but once they noticed that it wasn’t going to be difficult to eliminate other top allergens, they took that on as their mission. Both their cookies and their facility, the sisters decided, would be gluten-, egg-, dairy-, nut- and soy-free.
“We don’t have any formal training, but we’ve spent the past year recipe tasting, making dozens of versions of cookies. We’ve tweaked each ingredient one by one and figured out how best to replace the traditional items you bake with,” explained Brittany.
The goal, naturally, is for it to not just appeal to those with the allergies, but to everyone.
They currently have six different flavors: sugar, snickerdoodle, chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and oatmeal chocolate chip.
“Our thought with our product is that not only is it allergy-free, but you wouldn’t know the difference,” Lauren emphasized.
She joked that every day during the spring when she would pick up her kids from school, her friends would be waiting in the car line ready to taste test the next batch of cookies. In fact, they relied on the reviews of their friends and family because they wouldn’t risk giving it to someone with the actual allergy for fear of cross-contamination. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been bad batches.
“In the beginning, especially when we were trying to figure out what flour substitutes we wanted to use, there were some that were just awful. We gave them to people and they said, ‘Please don’t ever give that out again,’” confessed Brittany.
Though Lauren and Brittany began looking for spaces about a year ago, they didn’t sign a lease until November. It was difficult to find the perfect location, but not because they don’t exist. Instead, they had been turned down multiple times.
“We would show up and talk to the landlords or the brokers and they would look at us and say, ‘Maybe your dad should come.’ It was actually shocking in this day and age,” expressed Lauren. “We would say we have a startup and they would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ They had no faith in us.”
When they think about those missed opportunities, they know they’re better off. They actually ended up in the exact space that they envisioned for themselves. They got lucky with a location on Chestnut Street in Ridgewood that they had been eyeballing for a while, and they’re grateful to have a landlord that supports them. It was also important that they have a space where they can build a kitchen from scratch.
“Cross-contamination is too much of an issue,” explained Brittany. “There’s a statistic that says something like 2 percent of adults have food allergies, but 7 or 8 percent of kids do. There’s been this huge rise and so many families are affected by it. It’s not just the kids eating that way; it has to be the entire family,” she continued. “A lot of companies don’t disclose what else is made in the facility, where their ingredients come from and for people with a serious allergy, that’s terrifying.”
Due to the rise in such allergies, there’s been a great deal of discussion regarding the potential causes. On one hand, people believe it may be because of an increase in awareness, but on the other, there’s research that supports there are environmental and lifestyle differences that have occurred in recent years. Unfortunately, the short answer is, nobody knows for sure.
For this very reason, Lauren and Brittany want to be 100 percent transparent with their customers.
“We know how serious these allergies are and we want our customers to make educated decisions. Everybody has different versions of the allergy and we want to disclose to them what goes on in our facility and what goes on with our suppliers,” said Lauren.
While they can declare that their cookies are free of the eight major allergies, they’re currently unable to declare if they’re sesame-free. Sesame isn’t classified as a major allergy, so it’s not required by law to be clearly labeled on food packages. However, people are lobbying for it to be listed as the ninth major allergen. Brittany recalled a woman who has already inquired about the use of sesame in their products, so each time they get a response from their suppliers, they’re quick to relay her the message.
“Safety is first for us. We want people to love them, but we want people to feel comfortable,” added Brittany.
They don’t intend on carrying a daily inventory of their cookies. They don’t consider themselves retail or wholesale; instead they say they’re direct to consumer. People will be able to order on their website with the option of picking it up or having it shipped. They want to completely work against the stigma that allergy-free has to taste like cardboard, which is why they want everything to be fresh and made to order. They intend on having orders nationwide because they believe they’re providing a need that hasn’t been met elsewhere.
The concept behind their brand in general is to dispel the misconception that having a food allergy is boring or a burden. Their company name, FOMO Baking Co., could not be more aligned with their vision, though it didn’t necessarily come easy to them. After multiple attempts, it was a phone call between Lauren, Brittany and Brittany’s husband that resulted in Lauren suggesting a Google search of “things millennials say.” She called out acronyms like “LOL” (laughing out loud) and “OMG” (oh my God) before she landed on “FOMO” (fear of missing out). It didn’t take long for them to realize how well that actually reflected their story. They no longer wanted to feel left out from delicious desserts or celebrations, and they were excited by the idea that a new generation of kids didn’t have to either.
FOMO Baking Co. has already received messages through their Facebook page where parents of children with allergies have written encouraging notes. Brittany recalled one instance in which a mother wrote that her 3-year-old has never had a cookie before and she almost started to cry when she saw their launch. Aside from their own experiences, it’s those messages and comments that remind Lauren and Brittany of their purpose.
“Obviously it’s a business and we want it to do well, but there’s also something that feels really good knowing that you’re helping kids have a normal childhood,” said Brittany.
They also intend to partner and be involved with organizations such as Beyond Celiac and pediatric allergy foundations.
“It’s important for us to give back and connect with the people that are affected by the things that affect us,” said Lauren.
By Natalie Zisa
Photos courtesy Sarah Merians and Rachel Straining – The No Gluten Girl