Tucked away in an unassuming—yet fully licensed—home kitchen in West Somerville, the Clancy family works up to 12-hour days to create some of the best gluten-free baked goods in the region.
Dawn Clancy, the principal baker at Curtis Street Bakers, often joined her mother in the kitchen as a young girl. But her love of baking didn’t grow into a serious project until her niece, Katy, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes eating gluten—a protein in wheat, rye, and barley—potentially hazardous to the small intenstine, affects about 1 in 100 people in the United States. Katy was an undergrad at Wellesley when she was diagnosed, and there was almost no gluten-free food available in the area, let alone in her campus dining halls.
Dawn’s husband, Kevin, was working as an airline pilot, so they were able to live wherever they wanted and relocated to Boston to help Katy.
Dawn, her sister Blair (Katy’s mom), and Katy examined cookbooks and medical research to get a better understanding of celiac disease and figure out which foods they could make for Katy that she could reheat in her campus housing. Dawn says this got her comfortable with gluten-free eating and cooking.
Long after Katy graduated from Wellesley, Dawn continued to refine her recipes and dreamed of opening a bakery. Her goal was to produce treats Katy and others with celiac disease could enjoy at coffee shops like their friends could.
Dawn graduated from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Professional Chef Program in 2001, where she learned more about the science of baking. She developed her formula by testing and adapting recipes from Bette Hagman’s cookbook, “Gluten-Free Gourmet: Living Well Without Wheat.” She used Hagman’s classic gluten-free flour blend of rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch, and built on her recipes by incorporating tricks from America’s Test Kitchen and other gluten-free baking books.
Over time, she developed the recipes that have become staple favorites at Curtis Street Bakers: raspberry bars, pumpkin walnut muffins, and scones.
Kevin, who handles the books and the business side of Curtis Street Bakers, explains that most gluten-free baking blends are a mixture of tapioca, rice flour, and xanthan gum. What sets Curtis Street apart is the blends they use, sourcing the best and finest grains. Their Authentic Foods Tapioca flour, for example, comes from California.
“The finer grain really makes a difference” when it comes to gluten free baking, Kevin says.
Many people who taste gluten-free baked goods for the first time say they are too grainy or mealy, Kevin explains, so using a fine-grain flour dramatically changed the outcome of Dawn’s baking.
Dawn’s dream for starting Curtis Street Bakers became feasible when the family that was renting their basement apartment moved out. “We converted the basement apartment to a residential bakery, got it certified with state and local departments, produced the logo and website, and went coffee house to coffee house with samples,” Kevin explains.
“Rhett, the owner of True Grounds in Ball Square, was our first customer. Steve Darwin [of Darwin’s Ltd] was soon on board,” Kevin recalls. “1369 got wind of their delightful goods and wasn’t far behind. Dawn and Katy left samples at Rosie’s Bakery, and [they] called immediately to have more.”
The bakery hasn’t marketed since, but continues to get calls. “Dawn thought she’d be carrying around a little basket of brownies [for sale], but it’s grown to big catering orders,” Kevin says.
The bakery soon became a full-time job for Dawn, who had been teaching preschool with Katy at the Open Center for Children. Kevin, now working part-time in real estate, took over the business end. Five years in, the home kitchen has reached capacity, with demand matching what the small, family-staffed kitchen can produce.
The family, including Katy, her husband, and her 6-year-old son, Thompson, lives in the triple-decker above the bakery. Having five adults around works well, Kevin says. Everyone pitches in on both baking and childcare, and it’s easy to take time off for things like doctor’s appointments—a thing most working families struggle to find.
“We call the house the Clancy Compound,” Kevin explains.
The kitchen has white cabinets and countertops that would be at home in a typical Somerville apartment, but the shelves full of flours and baking supplies—not to mention the giant metal racks to hold trays of baked goods—set it apart.
As a licensed residential bakery, workers are limited to immediate family members, which means the bakers can’t hire a second shift of workers to increase production. To grow their production, they’d have to move to a commercial kitchen space, which Kevin says they don’t plan to do, as they feel it would take away from the family nature of the business.
Dawn sets the baking schedule for the week based on regular orders like Darwin’s, 1369, and True Grounds, and then fills in orders from caterers and universities on other days— typically large requests, like 20 dozen muffins.
Dawn, Blair, and Katy bake, wrap, and label, while Kevin and Katy’s husband Danny handle deliveries. The bakery typically produces up to 1,000 items in a week.
To meet their production goals, Dawn typically gets to the bakery fully caffeinated by 7 a.m. Kevin and Blair join her by 9 a.m., and Katy follows after walking her son to school.
When school gets out, Katy and Blair usually peel off to take care of Thompson, and Dawn and Kevin sometimes shop for baking supplies. Kevin handles phone calls and office duties while Dawn bakes.
“If anyone is sick or has a doctor’s appointment, we are all trained in each other’s normal duties and can fill in for a day or two,” Kevin says. “If Dawn is out, we can bake under her guidance.”
After the day is baked, wrapped, invoiced, and delivered, Dawn usually has an hour or two of doing dishes, cleaning up, and sanitizing the space, as well as recording temperatures in a notebook for state and local regulations. The feedback from happy customers gets Dawn through the longest days, she says.
In the Clancy Compound, Dawn and Kevin share regular household duties with Katy and her family. They also share a large refrigerator and freezer in the garage.
“This is as close to co-housing as you can get, with three generations living on the same property and sharing some meals, birthdays, and keeping the ice cream in the garage fridge,” says Kevin.
Even as demand for Curtis Street’s treats has increased, the Clancys don’t see themselves outgrowing the compound kitchen anytime soon. The bakery’s successful, but the setup still leaves time for family.
“As long as everyone is happy and working,” Kevin says, “we’ll keep going!”
This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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