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Former French teacher, now baker, lands in Harris Teeter

ShopTalk video: Claire Putterman of Modern Muffin

For her second act, former French teacher Claire Putterman launched her own company, Modern Muffin, four years ago. Today, her products are in 34 Harris Teeter stores. Video by Celeste Smith
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For her second act, former French teacher Claire Putterman launched her own company, Modern Muffin, four years ago. Today, her products are in 34 Harris Teeter stores. Video by Celeste Smith

On an April Fools’ Day, veteran teacher Claire Putterman told her French students she was ending her lengthy education career to go into the muffin business.

She wasn’t joking.

Putterman caught the baking bug when her children were small. Making muffins became a good way to sneak zucchini, bananas and other vegetables and fruits into healthy treats that everyone in the family enjoyed.

It took 25 years before Putterman switched to making muffins full time. Today, her Modern Muffin products are in 34 Harris Teeter stores, in the freezer section at Whole Foods in south Charlotte and Lake Norman – where she provides samples nearly every weekend – and at local cafes.

“They have a good homemade taste to them that some of our regulars just love!” Rob Rondelez, owner of Rhino Market & Deli, said via email.

Putterman ships her products all over the country. Two years ago, she moved production from her home kitchen to a co-packing company with a commercial kitchen.

“The word in my mind is amazing,” says Putterman, now 61, about the growth of her second career. “When I started this four years ago, I thought, this is a hobby, and I hope one day I can teach the world how to eat healthy, one muffin at a time.”

That April Fools' Day announcement

She describes her product name, Modern Muffin, as fitting in with consumers’ interest in smarter eating. Putterman says her products have less sugar and fat than other muffins, and are loaded with fruit: Pumpkin muffins have three cups of pumpkin in a dozen, and the banana chocolate chip has five large bananas per dozen.

Years before her muffin-making days, Putterman taught French at Carmel Junior High School (now Carmel Middle). After having children, she stayed home for a decade, then taught at Providence Day School.

Teaching French was her passion. She took students on international trips, and would convert her classroom or class setting into what students were studying at the time. She’d design her room like a cafe if they were studying restaurant vocabulary and ordering protocol. They’d head to the tennis court, referee whistles and all, to learn the game of tennis in French.

All the while, she kept baking the muffins she first started making when her children were small.

By this time, Putterman knew she wanted a business, but it was hard to pull away from teaching.

Then, on that April Fools' Day, she announced to students she was leaving at the end of the school year.

“Nobody believed me,” she says. “It was hard enough for me to say.”

“I know I did the right thing...If you want something to work, you can’t do it halfway.”

A snowy drive with muffins

For the first two years, Putterman worked out of her home kitchen. She describes the scene: Cabinets coated in batter, commercial mixers and muffin pans spread out on counters, and friends, family and sometimes former students on hand to peel pounds of bananas and pack boxes for shipments.

One of the regular helpers was a teaching colleague and friend. She shared muffins with her physical therapist, who was also the PT for the wife of a Harris Teeter executive. The wife heard about Putterman’s muffins, and said she’d like to try them, too.

On a snowy Friday in February, Putterman drove to the house and dropped off muffins. By Monday, the corporate office called, saying the grocer would like to sell her product.

Her family members all play roles in the business. Son Matthew handles the budget. Daughter Rachel does social media, runs the website, and also designs logos and labels. Another son, Andrew, designed a demographic study to understand their customer and set prices. (Their key audience is women, including mothers, 30-55. A four-muffin box costs $5.99.)

Putterman is CEO. Company president is her husband, Paul, a vein specialist who recently trimmed his physician hours to work more with the family business.

Most of what the company makes goes back into the business, and to pay off debts for startup and expansion to the commercial kitchen, which bakes and packs the muffins. Revenues are about seven times higher than the company’s first year, when it was online only, Paul Putterman says.

Ultimately, the family goal is to get into stores nationally as a frozen product.

“We’re taking things nice and slowly,” Putterman says. “We’re not trying to jump into 100 stores...We want to make sure our muffins stay as they are now.”

Second Acts

Did you start a business after getting laid off? Did you leave a longtime career to start a venture in a completely different field? Or maybe you took a risk at age 50-plus and left a steady job to launch your own company? If so, we'd like to hear your story: Send us an email at shoptalk@charlotteobserver.com with “Second Acts” in the subject line.

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