Family Illness Inspires Business Venture

Michelle MacDonald started baking gluten-free bagels after her grandfather was diagnosed with Celiac Disease.

Michelle MacDonald started Sweet Note Bakery after her grandfather was diagnosed with Celiac disease.

Celiac disease causes the body to react violently to gluten, and it can eventually lead to small intestine damage.

“He missed his morning bagel the most.” MacDonald said.  “It was the one thing that he couldn’t give up.”

So MacDonald headed to the “lab,” in this case, the kitchen. 

“I’ve always been a baker,” MacDonald said.  “I wanted to make a gluten free bagel that my grandfather would love.”

15 tries later, MacDonald found she was on to something.

Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship

“I had been working in human resources,” MacDonald said.  “It was a good job with good benefits, but I just had this itch to go out on my own.  I had an itch to be an entrepreneur.”

After she finished college in Chicago, MacDonald made her way to a bakery in Wisconsin.

“I went into this bakery, and I said to them, ‘I just want to learn,’” MacDonald said.  “There I was making $7.50 an hour doing something I loved.”

Quickly though, reality started calling, and MacDonald had to head back east to “get a real job.”

“I didn’t want to scratch the itch,” MacDonald said.  “I got scared.  I would constantly ask myself, ‘Is that me?  Could I do that?’”

It’s a start

15 tries later, MacDonald took a couple of her gluten free bagels to Green Line Café in West Philly.

The café ordered three bagels to be delivered everyday.

The next day, MacDonald quit her job.

“I just said, ‘Why not today?’” MacDonald said.  “That doubting voice in my head got quieter, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I can be an entrepreneur.’”

A quick jump into the present

I’m sitting in Volo Coffeehouse with MacDonald and her 19-year-old president of marketing Brittany Nettles, and they’re staring at me.

They brought me one of their bagels to try.

I’ve had gluten free food before, particularly bread.  It’s not for me.

Still, they want me to eat this bagel.  I steady myself.

“I’m going to have lie to these women,” I think to myself.  “They’re so enthusiastic.  I don’t want to crush them.”

I tentatively take a bite.

Well that escalated quickly

After MacDonald received her first order she decided it was time to up production.

“Green Line quickly went from ordering three bagels to ordering four cases,” MacDonald said.  “I wanted to make them fresh everyday.  I was hand-rolling everything.  It just became too much.”

So, MacDonald did the sensible thing.  She purchased a bunch of industrial baking equipment with her credit cards.

MacDonald said, “I have a friend who’s an entrepreneur himself, and I always ask him if I should always be so close to financial ruin, and his answer is always, ‘Yes.’”

Back to the present

I let out an incredulous, “Wow.”

It tastes like a bagel.  I know it’s weird to say something tastes like the thing it’s supposed to be, but gluten free usually means, “here’s a crumbly, dry weird tasting approximation of a thing you like.”

This bagel tasted like a bagel—a good bagel. 

Nettles and MacDonald are smiling. 

“That was so nerve wracking for us,” MacDonald said.  “Even now, we get so nervous whenever someone tries one of our bagels for the first time.”

Dream Big

What started out as an experiment to make a sick grandfather feel better, has grown into a legitimate enterprise.

Sweet Note just opened a facility on Krams Street in Manayunk where they will have the ability to make 600 bagels in an hour.

The company is looking into ways to ship their bagels frozen across the country.  They want to start selling in grocery stores.

In the end, go for it

“This has been so nerve wracking,” Nettles said.  “But in the end you have to just go for it.  You just learn as you go, and you grow more confident in yourself.”

MacDonald added, “We’re called Sweet Note not as in taste, but as in being positive.  You need to start your day on a sweet note, a positive note.  You need to be positive, optimistic.  There’s enough stress out there.  You can decide how you’ll succeed. 

Click here for more information on Sweet Note Bakery, and where you can try their bagels.


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