Former Uber driver finds new direction in baking gluten-free cookies


Kristine M. Kierzek, Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 7:00 a.m. CT July 23, 2020

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When John Griffin makes a cookie, he thinks about every ingredient. His own health depends on it. Still, if he’s going to indulge in a cookie, it had better taste delicious. 

That’s the inspiration for his cookie business, Baking Against the Grain. Working with nut flours and maple syrup, he found his perfect recipe. Starting in January, he used Wisconsin’s cottage laws and began selling his MaCookies to customers he’d drive during shifts with Uber and Lyft.

When that work slowed down, he found a commercial kitchen, got his license and got serious about his business. 

Now, his gluten-free, grain-free, vegan cookies are available through Shopify (at baking-against-the-grain.myshopify.com), where he fulfills all orders himself. Delivery is available within a six-mile radius of downtown. Additionally, his maple lemon and peanut butter chocolate maple cookies are available at Slow Pokes Local Food, a specialty grocery in Grafton, and through Freshchef Meal Prep (freshchefmke.com). 

Going gluten-free 

I choose gluten-free baking because I personally have a hard time eating gluten-containing foods. I have a digestive problem. Throughout my life, I’ve had Crohn’s disease. The cookies came about because I wanted to have something I could eat. Then I realized there are a lot of people that have this problem. I am in the business of solving problems, and the cookies are a start. 

Finding his fit 

I started the business earlier this year, in January. I was an Uber and Lyft driver. I had the idea that I’m an independent contractor, and there are cottage food laws in Wisconsin. Hey, I can legally produce these baked goods in my home. I designed the packaging. Then I would organically bring up in conversation that I was selling cookies. People really responded, and they liked the cookies. They’d go on my social media and leave reviews. Then COVID hit. Now what am I going to do? I reached out to a commercial kitchen and got my license, and now operate out of a kitchen in Riverwest. 

Beerline Cafe was the first restaurant to carry my cookies, but the issue I’m running into right now is it is hard getting in places when they’re not open right now or doing limited service. 

Becoming a baker 

I’m an artist. I didn’t go to school to be a baker. I’m into the idea that my negative things, like my Crohn’s, ultimately force me to think outside the box. I try to be a problem-solver.

You are what you eat 

I want my cookies to actually do something for you when you eat them, so I try to use ingredients that are good for you and taste good. Coconut flour is really absorbent; it works well to add bulk without having to add a lot of almond or other flour. I use a little bit of coconut flour, and it does enough to make things happy without overdoing it on the taste of coconut. If you overdo it, you can’t get things to balance and you get a chalky cookie. Almond flour is gluten-free and easy to work with, and I love how versatile the flavor of an almond is, kind of neutral. It lends itself to being manipulated into other flavor profiles. 

Creating his cookies 

It was a lot of trial and error. I must have gone through $300 or more worth of ingredients before I was like, OK, this is the recipe. There were a lot of failed cookies before I got the core recipe figured out. The biggest problem was what the sweetener would be. Originally, I thought coconut sugar, but I didn’t have a good liquid to bind the dough. Maple syrup is natural and pure, so I started experimenting. The MaCookie stems from maple, and all my cookies will have some maple syrup. It is a natural sweetener, easier on your body. People with Crohn’s can generally tolerate it, and it is vegan. 

Lesson learned 

When I introduced these, I’d say like 50% of the people were a little apprehensive about the fact that it was a vegan cookie, but it didn’t stop people from wanting to try them. There were some preconceived ideas that, “I’m not a vegan, so this doesn’t apply to me.” It is still a really good cookie. 

First flavor 

The first flavor I made was a peanut butter cookie, which I don’t even sell right now. I added cocoa powder and I realized I liked it better, so that is the one I sell. But that basic cookie is the blueprint for how I make all the other cookies. 

Flavor fun 

I’ve created a Maple Lemon cookie, kind of a lighter, lemon-forward maple cookie. You can taste the hints of maple, but the sweetness is subtle, not overwhelming. It is a soft baked cookie, not crispy or hard like a biscotti. It is, to me, what a cookie should be. Then there is peanut butter chocolate maple, which is pretty classic — peanut butter and chocolate, also soft baked. 

When I started driving with Uber and Lyft, the consensus from everyone was that they prefer soft baked cookies, so that influenced me. Consumer input is huge. 

Looking ahead 

Ideally I want to push this farther and create cookies that are lower in sugar. I’m experimenting with different ingredients like monk fruit. We are such a society that craves sugar, so I want to make something that can still be good yet easier on your body. You are what you eat, right? I want to be part of the change. 

Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.

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