WHOS Gluten Free Bakery: West Side’s Hidden Gem
Here at Everything Jersey City, we’ve got a secret. On “Whos Corner” of Jersey City’s west side sits a spacious but cozy bakery. Home to delicious, sweet and savory treats, community events, made to order breakfast and lunch menus, and a quiet retreat from the daily hustle and bustle, WHOS Bakery is Jersey City’s best kept secret. Well, the cat’s out of the bag…or should we say the owl’s out of the nest, because we’ve got everything you need to know about this awesome JC spot!
Glass Ceilings, Allergies, and Airports
Steph Wong always had dreams of going to school for culinary arts. However, it wasn’t necessarily a straight shot to her destiny. Conceding to her family’s wishes for her to go to school, Wong followed the path of higher ed, landing in a corporate job in marketing and communications. Although she worked her way up, she quickly fell victim to the glass ceiling women in business often face.
“No matter what I did, or how hard I worked, I could never get ahead or get the credit or title I deserved,” Wong recollects.
As Wong became increasingly bored with her corporate job she sat and wondered what else she could do with her life that would be more satisfying than her status quo situation. The idea came to her to start her own bakery.
“I had found out years ago that I had a gluten allergy called celiac disease. I was traveling through a bunch of airports for work about ten years ago and there was nothing for me to eat. It was all crap. If you found something that was gluten free, it was a bag of potato chips.”
Out of necessity, Steph started making her own food to take with her during her business trips such as granola and other easy snacks. She would also make more than she needed and would share it with her coworkers and friends who all loved it. Wong got the idea to try to sell her creations at the Farmer’s Market in Hamilton Park. Quickly she discovered there were many people in Jersey City interested in gluten free products. Despite the fact that she only made $100.00 at her first farmer’s market, she was excited about the interest and feedback she had received.
What’s In a Name?
“Who’s gluten free?” the chef would ask, approaching the dinner table. Steph had heard this phrase over and over again throughout her journey with her food allergy each time she visited a restaurant. When it came time to decide on what to call her brand, this question that she had heard on repeat just stuck out to her.
But the name is more than just a phrase which was thrown at her often. It also is a clever and purposeful acronym. Wanting to always leave her stamp on her bakery, she keenly realized that Who’s could be W.H.O.S which stood for “Wong’s House of Snacks”! The addition of the owl mascot, an animal she had always loved, made for a beautiful play on words and it was at that moment her brand fell into place.
The West Side is the Best Side
After a successful farmers market run, Steph invested in a co-op space in The Heights with “Do You Tea.” She soon realized, however, that she needed to open up shop closer to home as she struggled to balance working in New York City, baking in the Heights, and living on the other side of Jersey City.
She loved the West Side/Lincoln Park neighborhood and wanted to find her own storefront in the vicinity of where she was living. More than that, for the bakery, it was also about giving back to her corner of Jersey City. After trials and tribulations with her previous landlord and a loss of $60,000, Wong was finally able to give the community a space she knew they deserved.
“There are a lot of families here so we also wanted a place for the kids to hang out. If you drive down West Side and Mallory Avenues, there’s nowhere to hang out. We’re trying to get more kids and middle school and high schoolers a place to come after school,” Wong says with passion.
Wong used her space to host events for her neighbors and community members such as donation based yoga, pumpkin decorating, paint and sips, and open mic nights. Wong also joined up with the West Side Community Alliance and the local neighborhood watch association to make sure she is an active member of her community. She saw that the neighborhood was slowly starting to build up and wanted to be an active part of its growth.
Call to the Community
Steph was still working full-time while also running her bakery on her own. She realized she quickly needed to build her team if she was going to be able to sustain her pace. Steph channeled her energy into the community and talked with fellow business owners. Michelle Berckes from Busy Bee Organics and Colleen Christi from Bread and Spoon stepped up to the plate and sent over cooks and bakers they knew were looking for more work. It was a true instance of women helping other women succeed and Steph was extremely thankful to her fellow Jersey City women in business.
Additionally, Wong reached out to the culinary school at Hudson Community College for a collaboration with their students. With her bakery, Wong could offer the students and interns an experience in which they would learn to cook for specific allergies such as celiac and auto-immune disease. She loves that the students can come in and get the unique experience at WHOS and then move on to their own culinary careers. Steph has also hired other members from the local community including high schoolers interested in providing general help in the kitchen or front counter and other kids who helped design her signs and boards.
Sticking With Her Mission
Despite the fact that building a bakery from scratch wasn’t always easy, Steph kept at her goal.
“Why not quit? I hated my job. This was the only thing where I felt like I had some control in my life. I gave myself a limit of five years. If I couldn’t do it in five years or I lost $100,000, that was it.”
At the end of 2017, Wong opened her bakery to full-capacity and finally left the corporate world in 2018. She continued to expand her menu by offering breakfast, brunch, and lunch options in addition to her baked goods. Now the cozy corner bakery is home to her famous gluten free bagels, waffles, pizza, wraps, salads and of course, her delicious brownies, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.
Today, WHOS Gluten Free Bakery is delivering to 30 businesses as well as creating custom cakes and cupcakes for their customers. The bakery continues to offer events for Jersey City residents such as their upcoming “Pumpkin Carving Party” and poetry nights with Rescue Poetix. As always, the bakery offers made to order food items and has the expertise needed to craft each item according to any dietary restrictions for patrons who visit the store in person. Steph recently released her fall menu which includes tasty options such as an amazing curry chicken salad wrap and beet and goat cheese salad.
Despite continued challenges, Steph Wong keeps her original vision and mission close to her heart.
“I guess what keeps me going is that I get to meet a lot of people and change their lives. Even if it’s just for an hour. There’s no place in Jersey City or Bergen county that’s a dedicated gluten free place and we have a whole menu for people who need it.”