Meet Lisa Gaub, a mental health expert turned cottage baker based in Narberth, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She launched her home bakery, Lisa Fay Bakes, during the COVID-19 pandemic and has built her business selling vegan-friendly gourmet cookies.
What did you do before starting Lisa Fay Bakes?
“I’m a licensed therapist and counselor, and I’ve been working in mental health for 20 years. Last summer, I was furloughed — our client base had really shrunk due to the pandemic,” Lisa said.
“In April 2020, I was working full time and saw there was a movement called Bakers Against Racism. I was aware of the program, where bakers — professional or not — could sell baked goods,” Lisa said. “I wanted to do something in the wake of racial injustice that had been so loud. Friends and family donated money and bought so many cookies that my kitchen table and dining room were just full of cookies. After that, people told me that I should start selling my cookies and pies. Baking has always been my therapy. It’s calming. It grounds me, and it allows me to be creative.”
Today, Lisa spends some of her time consulting and working as a mental health therapist, working part-time. This flexibility has provided her the opportunity to grow Lisa Fay Bakes into a bigger business.
What is the Lisa Fay Bakes origin story? Why did you decide to take the leap and start it?
“After a few months of not working, I offered to sell cookie boxes for Thanksgiving and got a really good response from that. It gave me my first taste of large-batch baking. Christmas came around and I started shipping cookies to people who were asking for them across the country,” she said. “That really forced me to learn to ship and pack cookies, because in Pennsylvania, cottage bakers can ship interstate.”
“A friend ordered some for another local friend who managed a bottle shop and restaurant,” Lisa said. “Then they ended up loving them and asked if they could sell their cookies in the store. Now my cookies are for sale at one of my favorite pubs!”
Lisa knew that if she was going to start selling into retail stores, she needed to get her ducks in a row. “Since the end of December, I’ve been in the process of getting licensed as an at-home bakery. There are a lot of hoops to jump through, but I finally am licensed.”
To get approved to sell her homemade baked goods, Lisa wrote to her borough to ensure her housing was zoned to allow her to sell. “Then I had to set up my business and sales tax license with the state. I had to have those together in order to submit my business license for Pennsylvania,” Lisa said. “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait. I have a limited food establishment license, which required sending in my food labels, business plan, the plan for how I would meet requirements, and what I plan to sell.” As a licensed therapist who was familiar with her state’s other licensing processes, she was prepared to present lots of documentation for her business.
“I’ve been working on my recipes lately. I like to make my own flavors, and to make something unique and creative,” she said. To this point, she hasn’t been advertising, and word about her business has spread via her friends and family. “I want to get bigger, and maybe partner with local businesses or other makers. For example, I know a guy who roasts coffee locally. How cool would it be to do a cookies and coffee collab box?”
How would you describe your products in one sentence?
“Classic cookies with a unique twist, mostly plant-based.”
All of Lisa’s cookies are nut-free and soy-free, and most are egg and dairy-free. “I don’t do only vegan, though — people love my classic brown butter chocolate chip and shortbread.”
What's your favorite way to enjoy your cookies?
“I love when I have extras laying around and I can have one for breakfast,” Lisa said. “Fresh out of the oven is great too, but a cookie for breakfast with coffee is a little bit of heaven.”
“I only make flavors I like to eat, but right now my blueberry cornbread cookie is my favorite.” Her cornbread cookie was inspired by Milk Bar, a popular New York-based bakery. “We’re only two hours from New York, so every time I would go to the city, I’d get half a dozen of their corn cookies. This is like a vegan version but with dried blueberries added.”
Who is another food entrepreneur that you follow and support, and why?
“My friend Daniel Gutter opened what is called the first Instagram pizza shop,” Lisa said. “He would do pizza pop-ups at houses, used a commercial kitchen, and now is opening his fourth standalone shop. To see him start so small as Pizza Gutt and perfect his recipe and do things simply, and see Philly love his pizza, is awesome. He’s been inspiring because I was there at the first pop-up he had at a friend’s house and now he’s a top pizza guy in the city.”
“Another local business that I love is a vegan bakery near me called Crust Vegan Bakery. They started with pop-ups,” Lisa said. “I love them not only because they’re vegan but they're also really big on social justice issues. They donate a percentage of sales to charity, pay a living wage, and use really great ingredients. They’ve stuck with their mission through the pandemic — supporting community fridges, donating to important causes. When I want to treat myself with a treat that I don’t have to bake, I go to Crust.”
What's the best thing about this job?
“After 20 years of working for other people, I’ve always loved working with other people, but I haven’t always loved working for other people. It can burn you out,” Lisa said. “I can supervise and meet with colleagues all day, but dealing with red tape is a lot. This job allows me to be creative. I get to set my own schedule, bake what I want to bake, take on jobs I want to take on, and work as hard as I want to work. I like to work hard, but I can do it all on my terms.”
What advice would you give to a food entrepreneur who is just getting started?
“Everyone should do a pop-up or a larger bake situation to see if you can handle it and if it’s really what you want to do. It’s one thing to bake a dozen cookies. It’s another thing to make 10 dozen cookies in one day. It’s not easy. You have to make sure it’s what you want to do.”
“It’s taken several years of baking regularly to decide that this was the time, and that I was willing to put in the time and effort. If I was working full-time or taking care of my kids all day, it probably wouldn’t have worked. Give things a trial run first — there are so many things to think about, like packaging, advertising, and other costs. It’s taken four months to be licensed, but also four months to get all the other ducks in a row. If I had just jumped in, sent in a check and that was it, I’d be overwhelmed.”