When Laura Shafferman was laid off from her real estate marketing job at the end of 2014, she didn’t know what to do. She had a yearlong noncompete clause in her contract and couldn’t wait around for it to expire. So she decided to cook up a cookie company.
She started selling her Legally Addictive Crack Cookies at a holiday market that year, and 11 months later she had her first big order: Dylan’s Candy Bar had come knocking. Now, Shafferman sells everywhere from Union Market to Bridges General and even as far as Japan.
“My mom thinks this is very funny. She’s like, ‘I couldn’t even get you in the kitchen,’” said Shafferman, 44, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Shafferman, like many women entering the food industry, shirked the more traditional culinary school or rise-through-the-ranks restaurant route, instead opting to be her own boss from the start.
“It never occurred to me to go work in a restaurant,” she said. “I was just jumping in with what I know. It’s surpassed my expectations because I did not know what was going to happen.”
Shafferman makes her cookies out of 630 Flushing Ave., the old Pfizer building in Williamsburg. She previously belonged to the incubator Pilotworks, which is located there as well.
The city’s food incubators and small business support services tend to be very women-centric. Of the 213 businesses that have gone through Hot Bread Kitchen’s incubator, HBK Incubates, 80 percent have been women-owned, according to the company.
And since the city’s Small Business Services launched its Food Business Pathways program for NYCHA residents in 2015, 91 percent of the 151 businesses started have been owned by women, according to the agency.
For those taking the non-restaurant or -culinary school route, commercial kitchens offer food entrepreneurs a place to produce their goods and a sense of camaraderie amid a collaborative environment.
“It’s been amazing here because the food community in Brooklyn is so supportive,” said Lotta Andonian, who operates her sweets company, Eat Chic Chocolates, at 630 Flushing Ave., and also participated in Pilotworks. “Everybody helps each other. . . . It helped me a lot to grow because I didn’t know anything.”
Andonian first started her chocolate business in London, encouraged by the reaction she got when she brought homemade peanut butter cups to her marketing office. She then rented out space in a bakery in the evenings before deciding to move back stateside in 2016 and make her nut-butter cups a full-time gig.
“I think nowadays there’s so much information available that you actually can learn all this stuff by yourself without going the traditional route,” said Andonian, 31, of Clinton Hill. “You don’t necessarily have to go through the whole start-to-finish culinary school and learning from other people.”
Brona Cosgrave, president of the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, said setting up a business is a lot of work, but women tend to like the opportunity and escape from the traditionally male-dominated restaurant industry entrepreneurship provides.
“It’s one way to avoid a glass ceiling,” Cosgrave said. “They see it as giving themselves some flexibility.”
Restaurant kitchens have been infamously less welcoming to women, according to experts who have worked in the business.
Last year, Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side, penned an editorial in Esquire, writing that: “Women are second-class citizens in the restaurant world. We have less access to investors and are perceived as less profitable investments because, in large part, we have smaller profiles than male chefs. We get nominated for fewer awards, our restaurants get reviewed less often, and we get less press coverage than men.”
Even rates of women who attend culinary school tend to be lower than its small-business alternatives. Just under 53 percent of enrolled students at the International Culinary Center were women in 2017. Similarly, enrollment for women at the Institute of Culinary Education was about 54 percent last year.
A Cake Baked in Brooklyn founder Luquana McGriff personally didn’t see the value of paying for culinary school — and couldn’t afford it anyway.
“I already had the skills of baking, I already had recipes that I’ve made myself that people already loved,” McGriff, 35, said.
What she didn’t have? The know-how of starting the business. To get that, the former 911 dispatcher participated in the Food Business Pathways program. She graduated in December 2015 and started her dessert catering company a few months later, now based at 630 Flushing Ave.
Hedvig Bourbon pounded the pavement to start her crispbread company, Norwegian Baked.
A former stay-at-home mom, Bourbon, 50, went door-to-door dropping off samples of her knekkebrød, a nutty Norwegian flatbread. The next day, she had orders. Within two months, Norwegian Baked had outgrown her home kitchen. She’s now at a commercial kitchen in Sunset Park.
Bourbon didn’t consider doing it any other way.
“I kind of just jumped into it,” she said. “Having the passion and just going for it, really.”