Tales of a Gluten-Free Baker

Emma Cech can't do gluten. So her bakery, The Happy Tart, cooks without it.

Emma Cech and her daughter, Rowan, at The Happy Tart. Photo by Michael Ventura

What do you do when, on the eve of embarking on a lifelong dream to open a bakery, you discover you have an autoimmune disease in which gluten is the enemy? In Emma Cech’s case, you proceed full steam ahead. The 46-year-old Del Ray resident opened The Happy Tart, a gluten-free patisserie, in her neighborhood in 2012. It was so successful that she opened a second location in Falls Church City in 2015. happytartbakery.com

How did you find out you had celiac disease?
It was about eight years ago. My [two] kids had all sorts of minor health problems when they were young. They were underweight, lethargic. The doctor wanted to test for celiac. Both kids had it. I started researching it and realized I had those symptoms, too. And then I was diagnosed.

Where did the name The Happy Tart come from?
I found out I had celiac disease right before I was going to cooking school [L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda] to learn how to make all these wonderful pastries. I stuck my head in the sand and worked with flour and tasted things in class. I was depressed, had anxiety, chronic fatigue. All that went away three months in when I gave up gluten. I had no idea life could be so good. I called my bakery The Happy Tart, because I was so happy.

How did L’Academie take it?
When I first told them, they asked, “Couldn’t you just taste it and spit it out?” Once I explained how the allergy works, they got it. They’ve since consulted with me about teaching gluten-free baking at the school. I’ve taught there several times, discussing where gluten is found and the issue of cross-contamination. They’ve really taken it onboard.

How did you get the bakery open?
The plan was to work someplace for five years, then open a place of my own. I started working at a catering company, but I had to have someone there secretly taste things for me. I didn’t want to make things I couldn’t try, so I left after eight months and jumped off the cliff. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center set me up with a mentor, Jack Parker, who spent hours with me working on the business plan, finding accountants, getting licenses, permits. I couldn’t have done it without him.

What was the opening in Del Ray like?
I had created a website and built a mailing list of about 1,000 people who were super excited about a gluten-free bakery. When I opened in 2012, it was a cold, sleety, January day and I thought no one would come. The mayor came for ribbon cutting and we proceeded to sell every single pastry in the store. So I was up all night baking more. By the second year, we had outgrown that space. I looked for a second one with a large kitchen to use as a commissary kitchen. That’s how I landed in Falls Church.

What’s cooking for the holidays?
Thanksgiving is a military operation. It’s the baker’s marathon, three days of hell. Last year we did maybe 650 pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan, chocolate-pecan, pumpkin-praline, sour-cream apple, cranberry Linzer. Also rolls and baguettes. At Christmas, stöllen, bûche de noel and Christmas cookie platters are our biggest sellers. Also decorated sugar cookies, snowmen and angels, and Hanukkah cookies.

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Categories: Food & Drink