Editor's note: This story ran in the May 2009 issue of Lake Norman Magazine.
Family and food have always been central themes in Paulette De La Rosa’s life. Now, they’re also central themes in her business. With her mother, she owns The Whirling Whisk, a Davidson-based Internet bakery company specializing in nut-free desserts – a niche catering to those with allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Products include chocolate-chip and cherry-oatmeal-raisin cookies, brownies sprinkled with espresso and rugelach bars (made with cream cheese pastry and fillings). And working with her mother, Lily De La Rosa, doesn’t carry the pitfalls one might fear – while there may be differences here and there, there’s no family squabbling, both women say. In honor of Mother’s Day, the mother-and-daughter team have shared their story.
An early love of baking
Paulette De La Rosa’s love of food started early, with memories of her grandparents, “Mama” and “Papa,” always encouraging her to try new things. “Saying you didn’t like a type of food was not an option,” she recalls. “You had to try something at least once.” While Mama cooked, Paulette and her cousin Julian would play chef beside her. That love of cooking lasted. “Whenever we get together, we’re always in the kitchen,” says Lily De La Rosa. She noticed early on that her daughter’s interests gravitated toward baking. “Paulette always enjoyed making cookies more than cooking,” she remembers.When Paulette De La Rosa was 23, the family moved from Michigan to Florida, where she enrolled in the Orlando Culinary Institute with plans to become a chef. A baking class during her final year caused her to slightly change course to become a pastry chef. She continued her studies at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.As she studied the topic, she recalled the allergies her mother had suffered since Paulette was 11 years old. That year, Lily De La Rosa suffered an allergic reaction to pecans. “At first I noticed my mouth would become very itchy. Then one day after eating a slice of lemon pie, I developed a lump in my throat and couldn’t breathe,” she recalls. The pie crust had been made with pecans. The problem soon developed into an allergy to all tree nuts and peanuts. “No more pie,” De La Rosa says. She went over 15 years without ever buying a bakery pastry. “I complained to my husband all the time ‘Someone needs to open a bakery for people like me.’” From that lament, a business idea was born last year.
Starting a business
“I always knew in the back of my mind I wanted to have my own business,” says Paulette De La Rosa. “I’d been watching my mom experience the frustration of not being able to eat anything (from bakeries) for years, and it occurred to me: I want to help people like her.” So what’s it like for a mother and daughter to go into business together? Both women agree their relationship hasn’t changed. “We’ve always been very close,” Paulette De La Rosa says. “She’s more like my friend. When I was attending school sometimes I would call her four times a day just to chat.” Lily De La Rosa recalls that her daughter loved to be in charge when she was growing up. That hasn’t changed either. “She was a sweet girl who was very bossy,” she says. Both women laugh. “Yes, I have to be the boss,” admits Paulette. Paulette De La Rosa assumes the “people duties” of the job: meeting with marketing representatives, talking to sales consultants, and taking customers’ orders. Her mother stays behind the scenes. They pitch ideas back and forth to each other. “I’m always thinking creatively, always wondering what a recipe would be like if we added this ingredient or that ingredient,” says Lily De La Rosa. Her daughter interjects: “And I see the science side of baking, where you add certain ingredients – and specific amounts of those ingredients – for a reason.” The brownies they bake have always been popular, but Lily De La Rosa wondered about adding espresso to the recipe. “I snuck some in a batch without asking Paulette because I knew she would say no,” she laughs. In the end, the new brownies were a hit. The De La Rosas have partnered with a Charlotte-based marketing firm//WHO?// to develop a new logo and packaging to become more competitive (they recently changed their name; the initial business name was No-Nuts Baked Goods). The women have been invited to participate in the trade show for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade next month//JUNE?// in New York City. The show will give them a chance to get on shelves in more specialty stores and grocers.The two will also be sending bakery samples to Disneyland in California, courtesy of Angel Service Dogs, an organization that trains dogs to sniff out nut allergens. Angel Service is providing nut-free food samples in hopes that the executives will consider selling the treats in the park.Someday, Paulette De La Rosa dreams of opening her own café. For now, the duo bakes their products in a Davidson kitchen loft space. They plan to relocate to a warehouse in the Lake Norman area as the business expands. Their distinct personalities help each other out. Operating a nut-free bakery is difficult. Ingredients must be purchased from specific companies that also specialize in nut-free items. The equipment must be brand-new to avoid contamination. “Starting your own business is time consuming, frustrating, and costs a lot of money,” says Paulette De La Rosa. “For every step forward. you take two steps back, and there were times I wanted to quit.” So, like many daughters, she has turned to her mom for support. “I just kept telling her everything would be fine,” her mother says. “We’ve come too far to turn back now.”