For Jill Bommarito, taste is the ultimate compass. The founder of Ethel’s Baking Company, Bommarito has solved the problem many with gluten-free diets face: how do you make gluten-free desserts that taste as good—or better—than the conventional offerings? An MMPA customer, Ethel’s Baking Company counts on the farmer-owned cooperative’s butter to help solve this challenge.
The number of people following a gluten-free diet has swelled in recent years, but it’s nothing new for Bommarito. Celiac disease—an immune disease that causes consumption of products with gluten, like wheat, to damage the small intestine—has been in her family for over 40 years. “No one had heard of it when my aunt was the first to be diagnosed here in Detroit at Henry Ford [Hospital],” she said.
Her family’s experience led Bommarito to develop baking solutions by crafting dessert bars and cookies that fit the needs of a gluten-free diet—without compromising taste.
“I feel sharing food is a highlight in life. Everyone should be able to sit at a table and share amazing food together,” Bommarito said.
In 2011, she opened Ethel’s Baking Company in Shelby Township, Michigan, with their signature product—the “Pecan Dandy”—and operated as a wholesale business. Ethel’s Baking Company’s current product lineup includes a variety of gluten-free dessert bars and cookies.
“We trust our taste buds and our experience to guide the way,’ Bommarito said. “We also say there is a little magic in our kitchen.”
And a little magic goes a long way. “We are the largest baker of truly handmade desserts sold nationally in in-store-bakeries. We are also the first dessert to pass the threshold on a national level to be an in-store-bakery offering that is gluten-free, as an attribute, but loved by all,” Bommarito said. “That allows us to be offered on traditional bakery tables, along with cookies, pies and other traditional sweets.”
Over the years, Ethel’s Baking Company has grown the footprint of both their kitchen and their distribution. Today, their dessert bars and cookies can be found in Canada and all across the U.S., including stores like Meijer, Whole Foods and Plum Market.
Bommarito asserts the company is taking a pragmatic approach to manage the 10-year-old company’s development. “Our goal is to grow strategically. Growth can sink your ship faster than anything. Our goal is to continue expanding with key retailers, the convenience channels and food service,” she said.
Their most recent endeavor is a new 15,000 square foot production facility plus space for administration and sales. The expansion, supported in part from a Food and Agriculture Investment Fund grant, increases their production capabilities and adds new efficiencies in packaging and operations.
Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, says he was excited to reinvest in Michigan through this project. “In addition to creating new jobs for a rural community, this project will also help support other great Michigan companies that supply Ethel’s with key ingredients such as butter, honey and eggs,” he stated.
The butter, of course, comes right from MMPA. The relationship has grown in lock step with Ethel’s Baking Company over the years. Bommarito recalled that when they first started out, they drove to the MMPA plant in Ovid, Michigan with a cashier’s check in hand to pick up their small batch orders. Now Ethel’s Baking Company requires so much butter they have it direct delivered right to their facility.
Bommarito says they are proud to work with MMPA because she loves how MMPA butter is fresh, local and award-winning. Plus, they are able to support farmers and the Michigan economy.
“I would like to thank the dairy farmers personally for all they do for their families, animals and customers. It is a passion, a lifestyle and a tradition,” Bommarito said. “Thank you for being a partner with us in caring for our customers, our team, our families.”
From the farmers to the bakers, baking delicious gluten-free desserts is a team effort. “We believe our team is much bigger than just ourselves,” Bommarito said.
“Our team extends beyond us and includes our suppliers, our vendors, our stores, partners, all those who help us grow this baking business and help us care for the customers. That means that we want each partner to have a smile on their face when they think of us or walk through our door or interact with our team.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethel’s Baking Company has not been immune to the added issues. “Like all, we’ve experienced challenges with production, suppliers and distribution during this time,” Bommarito said.
She added that they have sought creative solutions in purchasing while still managing their expansion plans in 2020. “To say this has been an interesting year seems like such an understatement,” she said. “But truly, we continue to learn,
and we are thankful for so many things, including the opportunities ahead.”
This gratitude is evident in everything they do. It’s clear Ethel’s Baking Company strives to be more than just an exceptional gluten-free bakery.
“We also believe we have a larger purpose, to make a difference every day. That can just be saying a kind word to our UPS driver, offering an ear for a team member who is having a struggle or working with a community partner on their project,” Bommarito said. “But the most important thing is that we care for others through food, bringing them something really special that they can enjoy and be proud to share. It is a thread that we think of daily and it shows in the care and dedication of our team.”
This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of the Milk Messenger. Subscribe »