Nathan Raffel and his wife, Hannah Ellaham-Raffel, opened the gluten-free and
Young entrepreneurs are turning their kitchen skills into business success.
By Elizabeth Rose
Young entrepreneurs have emerged in the baking business in Lafayette, establishing their own small businesses to fill market voids and using nontraditional methods to stake their place in the bakery community.
In February former UL Lafayette business management student Ryan Thibodeaux opened ThiboDoughs, a bakery specializing in fresh breads and bagels, located at 1519 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, near the intersection of Ambassador and Eraste Landry Road.
“Being a business major, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says Thibodeaux. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to do as far as owning my own business. It just fell into my lap.”
Nathan Raffel, 23, and Hannah Ellaham-Raffel, 24, owners of BiBi’s Patisserie and Teahouse and former UL students, echoed the sentiment, saying they had “no choice” when deciding to open their own gluten-free, sugar-free bakery in July after baking out of their home for three years.
“It was necessity,” says Hannah, who, along with Nathan, opened BiBi’s in July. “We started having such an influx of new customers, we didn’t really have a choice. It was either expand the business or close it. We had to do something with it.”
After discovering their love of bagels on a trip to New York City, Thibodeaux says his wife convinced him to try making bagels. He had a background in baking, having sold his bread to fellow library workers to supplement his income while at UL. He learned how to bake from his father, who baked as a hobby.
“Baking allows me to be creative because everything is hand-made and it’s more of an art to me,” says Thibodeaux, 32, who left school in order to open ThiboDoughs. “On the other side, I get to use my entrepreneur side and make money with it. It took on a life of its own and I had to take advantage of the opportunity when I could.”
After confessing to breaking three KitchenAid mixers with the stiff bagel dough, Thibodeaux began selling his bread and bagels at the Lafayette Hub City Farmer’s Market almost two years ago and then at the Charlestown Farmers’ Market in Lake Charles this fall.
“[The farmer’s market] gave me another outlet in order to reach more customers. Also, I thought of it more like a test market. I didn’t know if bagels would be received well in Lafayette and it allowed me to test the market without much risk or investment,” says Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux says the money he earned from selling at farmers’ markets allowed him to buy new equipment, including three ovens and a 30-quart KitchenAid mixer for his home. After establishing two days a week strictly for baking and then selling his breads and bagels on the weekends, Thibodeaux says he had enough capital to open his own business in February.
ThiboDoughs also makes loaf breads and hamburger buns. For lunch, Thibodeaux serves deli sandwiches on his bagels and fresh hamburgers. Thibodeaux’s brother makes candies, including pralines and fudge, that are also sold in the store.
The Raffels began experimenting with allergen-free baking as a way to help their parents enjoy sweets. Hannah’s mother has a parasite called rickettsia that feeds off sugar and Nathan’s father has diabetes. Hannah also has hypoglycemia. Sugar-free baking soon became gluten-free baking and then expanded into specializing for all kinds of allergies.
“We want to sell to everyone who has a [dietary] complication,” says Nathan. “The whole mission is to bake for the people that everyone else forgot about. We didn’t realize how much it impacted people. Talking to people and learning about how much those problems affect our customers, it’s mind-boggling.”
Nathan says not many people have diabetes, gluten intolerance, lactose or soy intolerance or other food allergies, “but when you put all of the niches we can cover together, we create an allergen-friendly environment [that] is enormous.”
BiBi’s, located at 1321 W. Pinhook Road (across from the CVS at Pinhook and Bendel), touts sugar-free, gluten-free and all natural ingredients as a part of its business philosophy. Most products are also vegan, and the Raffels say they can cater to clients with almost any food allergy. Hannah says the bakers must take extra care in the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination of allergens. They also must make many of their own ingredients in order to mimic the textures of conventional baking fodder.
Like Thibodeaux, the Raffels say they simply wanted to work for themselves and the opportunity grabbed them.
“We didn’t want to work for anybody else!” exclaims Nathan. “We’ve just always had an aversion to working for other people. It’s not what we want to do.”
Dr. Mark Smith, department head of business management at UL, says starting a small business is tough, but Lafayette is well equipped to sustain young entrepreneurs.
“I think that the area has a tradition and culture that supports small business,” says Smith. “The option of going to work in a big factory and working there 9 to 5 for a lifetime has never been an option here. Acadiana has always been an area of independent farmers and small businessmen and women. It helps that the local economy is doing well. Louisiana is doing better than most states in the nation and Lafayette is doing better than most cities in Louisiana.”
The Raffels say their largest hurdle was securing funding to open their small business but eventually opened a line of credit through a local bank, thanks to an “angel investor” who believed in their business.
“We’re so young, and so no matter how much work we did, youth discrimination definitely played a big part in it,” says Hannah. She says they also tried to be as frugal as possible, traveling to larger cities to find deals on the equipment they needed.
Smith says the likelihood of any small business succeeding is slim, even though conditions in Lafayette are “more favorable” for sustaining small businesses than other parts of the country, despite the current economic climate.
“Those are just the facts,” says Smith. “The best will make it, and the others will not.”
“Any time you open a business, it’s a risk,” says Hannah, “and there’s such a need here for our business that the risk was not overcome by the positive. If the reward outweighs the risk, which in our case, it really did.”
“We had located and cornered a niche within this area,” Nathan adds. “There was absolutely zero competition, and the demand was very high and those conditions are absolutely ripe for opening a small business.”
But what about the sagging economy? “There’s no time like the present, says Thibodeaux, whose bagels are now also sold on Jefferson Street downtown at Carpe Diem. “I didn’t want to look back and regret not opening a business. I had an opportunity to take it and I had to take it at that time.
“If I would have waited, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it.”