Made in MKE: The Pink Bakery

By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller

As a child, native Milwaukeean Nubian Simmons was frequently ill. Plagued with stomach ailments, she spent a lot of time inside the doctor’s office, but no one could determine what was making her sick.

Her mother, a nurse, began to experiment with her diet when conventional medicine could not identify what was wrong with the girl.

It was quickly discovered that Simmons was allergic to dairy and a host of other foods.

The family continued to eat their standard diet and Simmons was given her allergen-free meals. This solution eased her physical ailments but made her feel left out of the bonding experience that occurs over a shared meal. Particularly on special occasions.

She didn’t know it then, but the sadness she felt when her family sliced into a birthday cake she could not eat, or decorated holiday cookies that would make her sick if she gave into temptation, would guide her professional life.

Nubian Simmons is the founder of The Pink Bakery, a company that manufactures allergen-free dessert mixes in their Miller Valley location. The company, founded in 2014, started as a bakery in Memphis that specialized in allergen-free baked goods for special events, like weddings. Before long, Simmons scaled her business by selling allergen-free, pre-packaged dessert mixes so people could make her much sought-after bakery in their own homes. 

The mixes, which are easy to ship and have a long shelf life, allowed her to reach a global audience, something that was not possible with her freshly baked treats. To scale her business, she decided to return to Milwaukee, where her family still lives.

Simmons had plans to become a graphic designer when she graduated from Tennessee State University, not a baker. She hadn’t taken any culinary arts courses, yet she began experimenting with allergen-free baking in hopes of creating something so delicious that even those without food allergies would choose her desserts over a standard option.

“It took five years to learn how to bake without milk, wheat, eggs, soy, you know, some of the top eight allergens,” she said. “People have asked me, ‘You’re not even allergic to eggs. Why did you learn how to bake that way?’  I think (I did it) because I knew how it felt to be excluded. I wanted to include as many people as possible.”

Over the years, the self-taught baker became a master at creating delicious, safe desserts that are enjoyed by everyone, not just those with food allergies.

Simmons mixes have always been free of those top eight allergens, which are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. They are now also top fourteen free. She only uses gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, Fair Trade, and vegan ingredients as well.

The same siblings that once taunted Simmons with forbidden treats were her initial taste-testers.

“I tested them on my siblings first because again, they’re brutal and I knew they’d be completely honest with me. And if I could survive anything my sibling said to me, I could survive anything anyone out in the marketplace would say to me,” Simmons said.

Simmons took a scientific approach to create a product that had the same mouthfeel and appearance as a standard dessert. “We found that a lot of people that didn’t have allergies enjoyed the taste because we used pure ingredients,” she said.

Premium ingredients are an essential component of The Pink Bakery’s success. In the early days, Simmons experimented with standard ingredients and found they fell flat when used in her recipes.

“Cocoa, for instance. (We tried) cocoa that was Dutch-processed or less expensive cocoa. It tasted real basic, and by basic, I mean bland,” Simmons said. “It was not good, and it was not anything that I’d want to put my name on. (It tasted) like nothing that I want to be associated with. I wanted excellence because the bar is so low for allergen-free products.”

She continued, “I’m sure you’ve tasted some allergen-free stuff and it’s just disgusting. I wanted it to be where you tasted our stuff and we kind of help change the status quo. Just because it’s allergen-free, it doesn’t have to be nasty. … I wanted our desserts to be able to stand up against any other type of dessert. And so that came with a cost. Our ingredients cost way more than (what is found in standard mixes), but you can taste that. And I’m so proud of that.”

Taste is paramount to The Pink Bakery, but nothing is more important than safety. The mixes are certified to be both gluten-free and top 8 allergen-free and created in a dedicated and certified top allergen-free facility.

“The thing about allergen-free anything is if I were to go into a second-generation kitchen, I would have to wonder if it was cleaned enough so that there aren’t any proteins left in here that could not only affect me, but my customers,” Simmons said.

“I had people saying, ‘Oh well, just clean a location it. It’ll be fine.’ I knew I couldn’t do that because I respond (to allergens) myself. I understand cross-contact. I respond very negatively to that. So, we had to get a whole new place.

“We took an office space and we had to completely convert it into what I would need. Even though it cost me so much more (than using an existing kitchen), I had the peace of mind knowing that it was a completely brand-new space, and I didn’t have to worry about any proteins being on light fixtures or on the walls.”

The Pink Bakery is getting national attention. It was recently chosen as a vendor for clothing retailer H&M’s Buy from a Black Woman Inspire Tour and will had its desserts featured at the Association for Enterprise Opportunity’s (AEO) 30th Anniversary Gala at The National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C.

The company is in growth mode and is in talks with several companies interested in serving the desserts at their facilities. The Pink Bakery’s first institutional client is Marquette University.

To connect with the rapidly rising company, click here.

Founder and CEO of The Pink Bakery, Nubian Simmons

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