For people struggling with celiac disease, gluten allergies, or intolerance, finding delicious baked goods can be a frustrating and disappointing experience.
But for Sharque and Jordan Starr of Nece’s GF, less than delicious is non-negotiable. With a retail location opening in Monterey on May 15, Nece’s GF (formerly Nece’s Gluten-Free Bakery) is raising the bar on baked goods.
“‘When we hear ‘This is good for gluten-free,’ that means it is not good enough to go on our menu,” said Jordan Starr.
The Startup Challenge Monterey Bay 2020 Main Street Division winner has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the Starr family kitchen 13 years ago when Sharque discovered she had a gluten allergy.
At the time, tasty gluten-free options were far and few between. “[Events like] holidays and birthdays end up centered around food and Sharque would always end up just sitting in the corner really sad,” said Jordan. “And 13 years ago, a lot of people didn’t even understand what we were talking about when we said it was a gluten allergy. So it was really hard not only to find delicious food, but to trust that something that you’re eating isn’t going to hurt you.”
Tired of trying the available gluten-free options, Sharque took matters into her own hands and started testing recipes in the family kitchen. “When I found out that I had to switch over my whole life, it was devastating,” she said. “Food wasn’t delicious, especially gluten-free food. And it was a struggle to find things that were tasty that I could enjoy. With my family, I would have to have separate food all the time. So out of that, Nece’s was born.”
With a natural flair for baking, Sharque decided to bring her baked goods to market. As she worked on baking and developing the business, Jordan worked at restaurants in the area, the two balancing work with parenting their growing family.
“Trying to start a gluten-free business, the challenge starts with baking— testing and retesting and tasting and re-tasting until there’s a product that my husband and the kids, who aren’t necessarily gluten-free, could eat it and be like, ‘Hmm, this is tasty.’ Not, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s mom’s gluten-free stuff.’”
In February 2019, Sharque began selling her goods at local farmers’ markets. Nece’s cookies, cakes, and pies were a hit at markets throughout the county. Still managing the business entirely on her own, Sharque struggled to meet growing customer demands and keep a work-life balance.
Then 2020 happened.
When the covid pandemic hit California in March 2020, farmers’ markets shut down and restaurants cut back on staff— a tough situation for a family in the food and restaurant industry.
But the Starrs grabbed the opportunity to pivot. With Jordan out of a job, it was the perfect time for him to join Sharque in taking Nece’s to the next level.
“Having him come on board when the shutdown happened was definitely a blessing,” said Sharque. “It was my dream to begin a family-owned business, and having him on board definitely helped.”
Searching for help with redirection, the Starrs applied to participate in the Startup Challenge Monterey Bay, winning first place in the Main Street division. Armed with a new website, direction, connections, and prize money, Nece’s was ready for the changing marketplace.
Two years later, the Starrs remain in close contact with their mentor, Dr. Brad Barbeau.
“Brad has been really a good resource for us because there have been times when we really have no idea what to do in this situation,” said Jordan. “And he’s been able to either give us good advice or connect us with some people who would be able to give us the services that we need.”
After their success at Startup Challenge, Nece’s GF also participated in Startup Investment & Community Capital Expo in Fall 2020. The bakery ramped up production to meet growing demands and began delivering baked goods throughout the area and selling their products wholesale to local businesses.
The Starrs credit much of their success to their faith and perseverance in the face of challenges.
“There are times when I’d be discouraged from baking in the kitchen and not having time to devote to other things like serving at church, being there for my kids, and keeping the house clean,” said Sharque. “I had the faith to keep going and believe that God didn’t give us this idea and this dream of a business just to have a dream and idea, that it was meant to go somewhere.”
Most recently the Starrs faced the challenge of finding a suitable space for expanding their business. According to state guidelines, home kitchens are limited to $50,000 a year of revenue. As the demands for Nece’s GF products grew, they needed to expand their space.
Finding the right kitchen is particularly difficult with gluten-free baking, due to the risk of contamination. “We hit that revenue threshold and we’re like, ‘Okay, we need to get out of our kitchen,’” said Jordan. “But there are very few kitchens available. Many of the ones that are already built out were very large restaurant spaces. And it was a long journey, there was a lot of prayers, a lot of just waiting.”
Nece’s GF has since found a new home at 25 Soledad Drive in Monterey. The bakery will have a soft opening on May 15, 2020.
“We just kept believing and kept stretching and putting out little feelers,” said Sharque. “Is this where it’s supposed to be? Is this where it’s going to be? And we went through four different places that seemed like they were going to work out, but they ended up not working out and that could have been a whole bunch of disappointment to just throw up our hands, say, ‘You know what? Maybe this isn’t going to happen.’ But having the faith to stick it out and keep believing. And so here we are now.”
Looking back, Jordan is grateful for the challenges that helped shape Nece’s GF into what it is today.
“Looking at it now, you realize that each failure helped to prepare us for where we are right now. I really believe that the biggest thing for any successful business, one of the biggest traits of any successful business is just not quitting because there are so many opportunities to give up.”