Gluten-free experiment turns into popular business for ‘Naked Baker’ founder

Every cookie Sue Knutson has ever created goes through rigorous taste testing with her four teen sons and her husband. If they like them, they’ll likely be rolled out at the Tosa Farmers Market for more taste testing. If they sell, she knows she has a winner. 

Knutson, founder and creator of gluten-free baking company The Naked Baker, based in New Berlin, doesn’t have any allergies. Nor does anyone in her family. She started out baking traditionally, but kept getting requests for gluten-free options. Two years ago she added gluten-free options. When those started outselling her other items, the Viroqua native decided to build her business around entirely gluten-free baked goods, from brownies to classic chocolate chip cookies to birthday cake and lemon with passionfruit icing, even breakfast cookies and a rotation of seasonal cookies including pumpkin chocolate chip and eggnog snickerdoodle.

Knutson lives in Elm Grove with her husband, Jeff, and their sons, Andrew, Colin, Jonathan and Christopher. Look for The Naked Baker items at local retailers including Outpost, Sendik’s Fine Foods in Brookfield, Good Harvest Market in Pewaukee, and the Tosa Farmers Market from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Oct. 13. Order online here

Baking beckons

I baked and cooked with my grandmother a lot. I grew up wanting to go to culinary school. I  didn’t because I didn’t want to work every weekend and holiday. I actually got a degree in accounting and worked at Deloitte and Touche. I had a corporate job and hated it. … I got married, we moved to New York. I didn’t want to work on Wall Street. My husband said find something you like. I started coaching gymnastics, still I always loved to cook and bake. I would always bake cookies on Fridays.

Then my husband’s job moved us to Wisconsin and we had kids. I have triplets, and another son that is 15 months younger. Now my triplets are going to be 17 in October and my younger turns 16 in January. I was always the person that brought the treats in for school, and I never bought store bakery. I always made things from scratch. Moms from school would say you should sell your stuff.

Going gluten free

With the gluten free stuff, I started with a chocolate chip cookie. I figured if I can get that right, I can do everything. I worked on that for a year to a year and a half. Then it just went crazy. People who weren’t gluten free were buying it. My kids loved it and couldn’t tell the difference. I started working on other flavors using the flour blend I’d developed. 

What’s in a name

The Naked Baker is clean ingredients, GMO free, naked of all the bad stuff. And gluten free. There are a lot of cookies out there with high fructose corn syrup and artificial vanilla or other artificial ingredients. I still use vanilla, the real stuff, even though the price has gone very high in recent years. We use all real butter. Only cane sugar. A lot of chocolate has soy lecithin in it, and is not GMO free. I use European chocolate.

Finding inspiration

I can’t tell you the hours I have spent watching baking videos online. I have a collection of 400 to 500 cookbooks. I was just in New York and I went around bakery to bakery and toured a few. I put myself around people who were running successful businesses. That is like getting a degree. You learn so much by doing.

Tosa taste test

The Wauwatosa (farmers) market is less than 1% of my market, but that’s where I test my sales, trying to see what people want. 

The funny thing is I have no allergies. To me gluten free is no different than regular baking. I have a family of four teenage boys and a husband. They all have a sweet tooth. If these baked goods don’t pass the test with them, they don’t make it to customers. 

Learning curve

Figuring out the gluten free was the biggest learning curve, but now that I’ve got my flour blend I can do just about anything. I have a little ratio I keep in my head. I also usually cut the sugar lower. Most gluten-free baked goods have a lot of sugar.

Building her business

Moving from a 1,000-square-foot kitchen to a 6,000-square-foot kitchen and having a staff, that has been a challenge. Now I can bake like 920 cookies at a time.

Kristine M. Kierzek, Journal Sentinel

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