Fat x Flour: A pastry chef’s pivot to eCommerce
Figuring out what you want to do with your life is exciting (and a little scary), yet sometimes—when fate throws you a bone—the path seems obvious. Helena found her fate in the form of culinary school and the art of the pastry.
No stranger to creative pursuits—with a long and continued love for writing poetry—the deeply structured world of restaurant cooking gave her creativity shape and momentum.
In 2019, she started working as a pastry chef at a pan-Mediterranean restaurant in Portland, Maine. Then a global pandemic hit and she started Fat x Flour.
I talked with Helena all about how Fat x Flour came into existence, her top five pastries, her obsession with TV, and where she sees her business going from here.
Sendle’s small biz quiz
Name, title, and location
Helena Ainsworth, Owner | Portland, Maine
How would you describe your business?
Fat x Flour is my baby.
Eventually to be just the name of my cafe, it now exists as the home for all my creative work.
I specialize in custom recipe development and focus on the science of baking to create my products.
What kind of cookie is the perfect cookie for right out of the freezer eating? Or to pair in an ice cream sandwich for a local business?
What about a cookie to be served at a bar? How can I supe it up so drinkers can get some protein and other good stuff in there to balance out what’s in their stomach?
I also like to work on emotional foundations. Is there a dish the client is nostalgic for?
Many of the businesses I’ve worked with are native cuisine restaurants. How can I replicate that as a baked good and do the memory justice?
I strive for balance in my flavors and err on the side of never-too-sweet because sugary doesn’t equal tasty.
And, what if you only had three words?
Custom. Multicultural. Flavors.
Did you always want to start a business or did this creep up on you? How and when did you get started with Fat x Flour?
In kitchens, I found an acceptance for authority I’d never known outside of cheerleading (I cheered for 6 years!).
I was always the ‘fight the power’ type, but in kitchens, rules and hierarchy make sense to me.
Part of why these rules make sense to me is that it’s not uncommon for chefs to strike out on their own as they grow more skilled. Then they take on apprentices and the cycle starts anew.
So, in that way, yes, I’ve always wanted to start a business, but I hadn’t quite imagined it taking form like this so soon!
How did you come up with the name Fat x Flour? Did you have a slate of other names in the running?
So the name Fat x Flour is a silly story really.
I’m a huge TV nerd, like, I’ve probably seen more TV than anyone you’ve met, just because... it’d be simply hard to beat, I’m talking like 6 hours a day on average.
Since that’s a lot of TV, I tend to watch some silly stuff in the off seasons for new TV, and one of those shows is Librarians!
I’m a sucker for campy monster of the week fantasy/sci-fi shows. So, in one episode in one of the later seasons, somehow or another they destroy magic and get sent to a negative black and white world.
They’re walking around the town and seeing all the names of stores like, “shoes daily”, “buy food here”, and similar drab and obvious titles, and then they walk by a bakery that’s named “fat and flour” and I was just like floored by it, like, that’s a great name!
They totally created it as a throwaway two-second-shot and it’s become this sweet notion to me that so much of the world’s foods begin with a fat and a flour.
I had a ton of other names in the running in college as I wrote my thesis. I have a degree in Baking & Pastry Arts and our thesis was a business plan for a future restaurant.
I’m Buddhist and was raised with many Japanese ideals as, for a time, much of the TV, movies, and food that I ate was Japanese.
Neither of my parents are of any Asian descent, but my mom lived in Japan before I was born and traveled throughout Asia to model, and my dad spent weeks at a time in Asia for business and would return with gifts for me and my siblings.
I am, however, Greek, and we traveled to Istanbul (among many other countries and cities) when I was a kid. I’d seen the melding of Asian and Mediterranean influence in the city and fell madly in love with it.
So, my initial business dream was a small cafe of Asian/Mediterranean fusion food that I grew up on named Lotus.
Do you still write? If so, what do you like to write (poetry, short stories, essays, etc)? Are you funneling some of that creative energy into your blog now?
I do still write, and yes I do feel that I channel that into my blog now. Here I am writing this and it’s six pages long and I’m like wow where did the time go!
My relationship with writing has changed drastically over the years.
I had a difficult time growing up and after spending my childhood traveling the world, I haven’t left the country since I was 10. Writing and reading became a place to escape to the places I missed and from the things I wished away.
I had always been a poet first and foremost, but over the years I lost touch with the outdated Victorian-era language I’d fallen for and started experimenting with stream of consciousness theory and modern styles.
I’ve always been outspoken about injustice, whether in my own life or in the world around me, and I find that my love of writing helps me make sense of the evils of the world.
When I’m not tackling society's injustices, I dream of becoming a learned cartoon historian and making a name of myself as a TV critic.
I find that dreaming of dozens of paths for myself helps me come to terms with how fickle humanity can be.
Six years ago I never imagined I’d be living in Maine as a pastry chef with a relatively quiet life, who knows where six years from now will bring me? I think it’s good to recognize that your life isn’t made by your career.
Why did you choose to sell cookies (and dog biscuits)? Are other pastries shippable?
To be completely transparent—because a girl’s gotta eat!
When lockdown began looming overhead, I remember worrying how I’d possibly survive. We didn’t yet know about the stimulus checks or extra weekly $600 on unemployment, and all I knew was there was definitely no safety net for the culinary industry.
I was scared.
I’ve always been the ‘make a buck’ type, as long as it came out of my own honest work, so I started thinking of what I could possibly ship, what shared well on social media, and what people still wanted at home.
Everyone always wants cookies, they’re endlessly customizable, shelf-stable (with an expiration), and indelicate.
The dog biscuits were an added bonus.
My two sweet furbabies needed something tasty for belly rub time and I thought, why not spread the love? Every single ingredient in my wheat and gluten-free dog biscuits is not only pet-safe but also beneficial to their diet.
Every batch is made to order, size customizable, and small-batch oven-dried so they last for months on your counter.
Your pup might be a little surprised at first sniff because they might not have smelled anything like it before—there’s no added fillers or flavors to make it extra good smelling.
After the first bite though, every dog tester I’ve had begs for more!
What are your top five most favorite pastries?
Okay, I could write a thesis on each pastry so I have to just name drop or I’ll be here all day:
- Baklava (shouts to my Greek (and Arabic & Middle Eastern) peeps)
- Girl Scout Cookie Samoas (and I have no shame)
- Yorkshire Pudding (fun fact: I’m half adopted by my British father!)
- Treacle Pudding (because British)
- Profiteroles (bougie classic)
Is cookie-making a competitive space? What sets you apart from other cookie makers?
It’s so competitive! It’s wild, I’ve been so amazed to learn about the community as I’ve gotten into this business.
There are pages and pages of amazing and talented cookie artists and pastry chefs churning out gorgeous cookies and it’s so motivational to see!
What I’ve found in the community, despite this giant sea of talent, is nothing but support.
Everyone is willing to trade tips and advice and what colors they used for certain shades and where they get their cookie cutters, it’s so nice!
I think what makes me different is that I’m a taste perfectionist more so than an artist.
The beautifully decorated icing is a totally new medium to me, and though I’m loving finding an art style that I can speak through, my first love will always be that perfect taste.
I spend weeks when I first develop a recipe literally staring at the dough mix, squishing it between my fingers, tasting it raw, changing baking temps by 5 degrees or thickness of the cookie or minimally changing a ratio of an ingredient, I obsess over that perfect first bite.
Even through my year working as a pastry chef at a fine dining restaurant in 2019, of course, I want food to look good, but does it blow my taste buds away? That’s what’s most important to me.
How do you get your name out there to capture customers? Any small biz marketing advice to dispense?
Endless and equally matched humility and confidence. I’m constantly networking with anyone and everyone I interact with.
Sometimes people aren’t into it though and I’ve learned it’s important to know when to walk away or when you need more skill before tackling something.
Patience and willingness to grow. Sometimes it can be frightening to put yourself out there.
In January, when I decided to start my site and really do what I wanted to do, I had no idea how much time I could devote to it while also working, I had no idea if I’d be any good on my own or if anyone would even care.
What worked for me was just diving in anyway. I’ve made mistakes along the way and I’m no perfect businesswoman, but I’m so grateful for every opportunity and lesson that’s come my way the past six months.
I’ve worked with some amazing businesses in this time that I never dreamed would be possible before this, like Sendle!
If you want to do it, if you dream of doing it, do it, even if it’s just one small piece of the puzzle at first.
What are some of your favorite small businesses out there? Local, national, whatever.
Endearing Sweets. This woman means the absolute world to me and she is so talented! An exceptionally talented pastry chef I met in college, preCOVID she was working in the Hilton in Disney World, which among the pastry chef community is an amazing accomplishment.
Many Disney restaurants are world-renowned for their dishes. On top of killing it at Hilton, she runs a gluten-free bakery from her home specializing in flavor pairings of teas and herbs.
She makes monthly baked goods boxes that she ships nationwide and also takes custom orders for gluten-free and gluten-filled ;) goods as well. Not only is she a woman in the culinary industry (we’re a male-dominated industry), but she’s also a Black woman in the pastry community, a traditionally white space. Shop Black, small, and GF with her!
Coco & Seed. Since lockdown began I’ve turned my workaholic mind to my backyard and built a wonderful permaculture garden to spend my days in. Coco & Seed is also Black-owned and operated by a one-woman powerhouse business queen that I’m constantly inspired by.
Though she’s an indoor gardener primarily, her online friendship and kind support has been motivational to keep learning.
Her site includes absolutely gorgeous and IG-aesthetic-on-point hydroponic indoor gardening packs complete with seeds, growing medium, container, and food. Her propagation vessels are gorgeous and a must buy.
She’s currently sold out on some items following an exciting Today Show feature but you won’t regret following along for her restock! She also ships with compostable packaging purchased through Elevate Packaging (she’s who recommended them to me)!
They do come in a lot of plastic, which isn’t great, but, y’know, I can’t be a perfect consumer. They also don’t forsake sodium just because people are afraid of salt, which I greatly appreciate. Sodium (and sugar!) is an important electrolyte and needed for your body to digest water properly.
If I run out of Hydrants, I’ve learned (thanks to these guys!) to sprinkle a little salt and sugar into my homemade electrolyte replacement drink (usually cucumbers mint and lemon), it absolutely changes the game on hydration!
Bove’s Restaurant. These guys make hands down the best & affordably priced sauce on the market. Like, maybe I’m not supposed to say that but WOW, is it good.
They’re a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont that sells their sauces wholesale as well.
When small restaurants go big like that sometimes quality drops (hello, Regina’s Pizza North End! Your other locations just can’t compare, I miss you!), I’ve never been to their restaurant but I can’t imagine the sauce being tastier fresh out of their kitchen because it’s just that good. Only sauce I buy for pasta and also for my weekly homemade pizzas.
What do you most love listening to while working? Podcasts, playlists, the news, old sitcoms you’ve seen a million times playing in the background?
As I mentioned above, I watch sooooo much TV!
When I need to focus on what I’m doing I’ll usually put on something I’ve seen a million times like Jane the Virgin, Schitt’s Creek, Man Like Mo Been, She-Ra, Star Butterfly & the Forces of Evil, or Steven Universe.
When I have time to stop every now and then for a big scene I catch up on new shows or new seasons of my favorite shows like Ramy, Kipo, and the Age of the Wonderbeasts, The Great, or What We Do in the Shadows.
I watch everything but horror. Well, the odd one catches me, but it has to be pretty PG still, I adore the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
I like to listen to the Cherry Bombe, an all females-in-the-food-industry podcast while I garden, too. If I’m at work, pre-COVID (and hopefully post!), I listen to music.
Depending on if the kitchen is open to customers and my mood, I listen to hip-hop like Noname, Saba, and Tyler, The Creator; or Jazz, Rock, & Funk.
Stacey Kent, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Sly & The Family Stone, Peggy Lee, Bootsy Collins, Little Richard, Gladys Knight & The Pips.
All of my work playlists are public and it’s not uncommon for coworkers to ask where to find them, I’m quite proud of them!
What is your favorite meal you make for yourself? What if someone else was making you a meal?
My weekly pizza 10/10 times. And still, if someone else was making me a meal. Pizza isn’t my favorite food, but it’s my favorite comforting home food.
I exclusively eat pizza with Bove’s sauce, pineapple, habanero, parmesan, and prosciutto. There is no greater pizza. Yes, I believe in the brilliance of the Hawaiian pizza.
As a completely blasphemous act upon all bakers everywhere, I’m too lazy to make my own dough, I just can’t be held to that standard during a workweek when I’m making pizza for both my boyfriend and me.
We use Portland Pie dough I buy at Hannafords, which are both local! But they’re always fresh out of the oven right off the pizza stone and it’s the best night of the week.
How did you find Sendle? How’s it working out so far?
I found Sendle after deciding to both start a business and go minimal waste at the same time. That’s how I’ve always been. I always have to do more than one thing at a time.
I scoured sites and cross-referenced shipping prices and sustainability info and Sendle truly goes above and beyond. I’ve loved my experience with you guys.
The interface is super user friendly and easy, no learning curve at all, which I was worried there might be as a small shop getting started.
Aside from easy carbon neutral shipping, the prices are equatable to other low cost non-sustainable options making it an easy choice.
I love that it easily syncs with my Shopify shop, and if I receive anything through Sendle it’s all organized in the same loadout screen, which was an unexpected bonus when I had a package on the way.
What does sustainability mean to you? How does that play out in your business?
I’ve always cared about the environment but somewhere along the living on my own track, my brain went into survival mode and all I thought about was saving money.
I was poor, and it can be overwhelming. I’m still... not not-poor, but recently it just clicked that if that underpaid worker was standing in front of me, if I watched that plastic get thrown on a landfill, it’d make me angry.
Why did the distance between me and the unsustainable or unethical action make me care about it less? So I started to think about it in everything I did.
I thought about the clothes I bought. Why did I feel the need to buy a new wardrobe every year, and like I wasn’t a functioning person if I didn’t?
I have a sweater I’ve had for 14 years and I still wear it. That’s how clothes should be.
When you start to think like that, paying $100 for an ethically made and sustainably sourced garment doesn’t bother you as much, as long as you have the means to do it.
I recognize some can’t escape some aspects of unethical sourcing & unsustainable production, but instead of villainizing those that still need to use those products, I try to think about how I can further change my own lifestyle to maybe balance it a little more.
So, with little knowledge about it going in, I started learning how best to do this. I was sent to Elevate Packaging for compostable packaging goods by Coco and Seed. I covet after noissue ‘s fully customizable line of largely compostable shipping goods.
I have a large compost bin filled with red wigglers from Nature’s Good Guys that take care of all my food scraps.
I’m phasing bleach out of our house (we already have a bottle and it doesn’t do any more good to dump it down the drain than it does to use it), and will soon be replacing those fun little blue water tabs and ajax for your toilet with small Etsy-made food-safe toilet cleaning tabs.
My shop's textile goods are produced through Threadless which operates sustainably and ethically.
Are you hoping to keep growing your company or keep it about the same size?
My eventual goal is to open a restaurant and farm on location at my future home, and I have a plot of land I’ve been eyeing for down the road.
I hope to be able to source as much produce as possible from our farm and keep what we can’t as local as possible, including flour and other dry goods.
I am restructuring my original business plan (Lotus) to fit this, and hope to use @chefjennydorsey and Studio ATAO as motivation and guidelines for creating a sustaining non-profit restaurant.
When I first heard this idea I thought, well that doesn’t make sense. But the more I think about it the more I realize that there’s food as art, and there’s food as a basic human right, and the idea that exclusively profiting off of someone’s need to feed themselves suddenly seemed so outlandish and strange.
Beyond that, it suddenly didn’t feel so outlandish to imagine waitresses not needing to work for tips, and chefs not watching those waitresses make six times their salary some nights.
There’s a way for it all to make sense, and I truly think that’s in a shift of the culinary industry into nonprofit.
I also look to Dave’s Killer Bread when I think about how welcoming the food community can be. I aim to employ both homeless and felons.
This will come after further research on the best way to do this safely for both staff and customers, but I know there’s a way, and running as a non-profit helps get it there.
I’m only 24 so I’m hoping to achieve this within 15 years.
Photos courtesy: Fat x Flour