Three years ago, Mina Makram had surgery on both of his hands. Carpal tunnel, the doctor told him, the result of baking too much.
It didn't slow Makram down. He spends more time in his Palo Alto bakery than at his home, mixing his secret gluten-free flour blend late at night and experimenting with baked goods that most people assume could never truly taste any good without gluten: bagels, croissants, focaccia, donuts, pita bread. He's visibly energized by the challenge of accomplishing something that he's told is impossible.
That's the driving force behind Misfits Bakehouse on Middlefield Road in Midtown, whose gluten-free baguettes, bagels, cinnamon rolls and cookies have a seriously devoted following -- so much so that people donated more than $13,000 for Makram when his first bakery, Ducks and Dragons, fell apart and he had to rebuild. And they've been pre-ordering paleo baklava they've never even tried so that he can buy a dough sheeter to produce the baklava at scale. Customer support poured in again when COVID-19 hit. Makram, who's on a mission to prove that gluten-free goods can actually taste good and still be good for you, is in the rare position of doing better financially now than before the pandemic.
I talked with Makram for "At the table," my series of interviews with local chefs and restaurant owners, conducted over a meal. We had socially distanced takeout from his choice: Higuma Japanese Restaurant in Redwood City.
Over salmon nigiri and negihama rolls, Makram told me the unlikely success story of Misfits Bakehouse. Makram, an Egyptian refugee who graduated from high school at 16 years old, worked as an engineer at General Electric before becoming a self-taught baker determined to overcome the "stigma" of gluten-free bread. He's not celiac himself but was sorely disappointed by the gluten-free bread he could eat on a low-carb diet he started when he weighed over 400 pounds. Most of what he makes is also paleo, keto and dairy-free.
We talked about his baking triumphs and failures, the day he became a U.S. citizen, his unusual, transparent approach to social media and why he identifies with the concept of a misfit.
The name of the bakery was in part inspired by Apple's 1997 "think different" commercial narrated by Steve Jobs, who says: "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. ... The ones who see things differently … the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
"That resonated a lot with me," Makram said. "I'm not from the food world. I was actually pretty much rejected by everybody in the food world. I was called stupid. I got kicked out of restaurants. No one wanted to talk to me.
"I wanted to make these types of breads tasty," he said, "and that sounded like a tall order."
How did you get into baking?
I worked for GE at the time. I kind of hit the corporate glass ceiling because I didn't have a master's degree or a PhD. Even though I was doing that work anyways, they would not promote me. I got a job with a startup in Mountain View, also in the healthcare field … things didn't work out. I got fired. All of a sudden, going from a pretty decent income to zero in the middle of the Bay Area -- that was pretty bad. I couldn't find a job. All I kept hearing was 'overqualified, overqualified.' I started (baking) out of boredom -- I guess what people are doing now because of COVID. I had never baked, bread especially, at that point. I was like, OK, I know the bread that I like and how it's supposed to taste like and the texture and everything, and I know the ingredients I want to use -- almond flour, coconut flour, flaxseed, psyllium husk powder. How do I get from this to that? Initially, I had no intention of starting a business. It was just something to fill my time until I got a job.
I would look up (gluten free) recipes online ... they're terrible. A lot of them were just so dense and grainy. Nothing tasted good. It was not really bread. I was like, 'OK, toss everything out.' I'm just gonna play. I'm just gonna start throwing stuff together and see what sticks. That's how I came up with the first recipe for the bread. It had to be yeasted … most of the stuff that I came across, they didn't use yeast. They used baking powder, baking soda, which meant that they had to use apple cider vinegar ... that was one of the things that I really wanted to avoid because apple cider vinegar is fantastic -- it has all these health benefits, but it has no business in baked goods. Because if you pull something out of the oven, eat something within 30 minutes (when) it's still warm, you can't really taste it. But as soon as it cools down … you get that nasty aftertaste. I kept on playing around until I just found the right ratio of ingredients. I'm not sure why but I was fascinated with baguettes. That was the first thing I tried to do.
Money was getting very tight ... pretty much almost to zero. I was like, OK, I'll see how I can get into the farmers market. I checked out the College of San Mateo farmers market. They had a couple of bakeries but they didn't have any gluten free (ones). At the time, every penny I had, I went out and got all the permits. I had a nice road bike; I sold that. I had a nice SLR camera; I sold that as well. Everything went into getting the first round of ingredients, the permits for the market, paying for the commercial kitchen. I forget the saying ... 'The only way is forward.' I got the approval for the market and I got all the permits. I was like, 'Either it works or it's a bust.' The first two markets did pretty well. I was able to pay rent. I started building on that.
My first delivery to a grocery store was at Berkeley Bowl. I got there and I give the guy the invoice. I go to the guy purchasing, (asking), 'How do I get paid?' He's like, 'What are you talking about? It's net 30.' Net 30 means if I give you a product today, we're not paying you for 30 days. I literally went back to the car and cried. I didn't have anything. Everything that we were making (covered) a little bit of rent and everything (else went) back into the bakery.
I would think as a new food business, getting into a store like Berkeley Bowl would feel like you've kind of made it.
Right. But the thing is, gluten free has a stigma. It was already a struggle to get into the stores. It's automatic: It's gluten free, you think it's gonna taste like sawdust or cardboard. So when you go to these buyers and you tell them, 'I have gluten-free bread,' they're like, 'No, we don't want it. We don't want to try it.' For Berkeley Bowl, I tried to get a meeting with him (the buyer) so many times and nothing. I heard he came in at 6 a.m. I got to the parking lot at 5:30 a.m., slept in my car, and I waited until I saw him in the parking lot and I pounced on him. I'm like, 'Please try it.' Any place that we got to, it was because I pestered the hell out of them. It was rough getting into all these stores and even harder to get into restaurants. It got me jaded at that point. When you hear restaurants (say), 'We source everything locally; we care about high end ingredients,' -- but not when it comes to gluten free.
So at some point did the farmers market take off? I feel like I knew about you from your market following versus seeing your products at grocery stores.
100%, the farmers markets are what carried me. The way I looked at (the grocery stores) was to get my name out there. But really what got my name out there, even though I got laughed at a lot by anybody that I spoke with in the food industry, was social media. A lot of people say, 'we're all about building a community' but they don't really know their community. I didn't say it but that was my aim. I wanted a strong community around the bakery. I think part of it is I grew up in the tech world. I brought that mentality into the bakery, where I always recognized that any brand in the tech world that blew up, even if it had bumps in the road and came back even stronger, had this passion from their customers. Customers were not really customers. They were fans.
Social media was everything. I couldn't pay for anything. While I'm waiting for bread to come out of the oven, I'm going through Instagram and looking at everybody who posts about anything that's gluten free, paleo. What hashtags are they using? When I post(ed) something, I would use the hashtags and try to get my stuff out there. I think for the first almost year, it was almost like I'm talking to myself. Finally, it started picking up. I know a lot of people get obsessed with, we have a few thousand followers, and I'm like, that doesn't matter if you're not really connecting with them, right? I focused on keeping people involved and engaged. Anybody who would comment on anything, I would respond. Every time I direct message, that's me.
That's why when things fell apart with Ducks and Dragons and I decided to go with a GoFundMe campaign, the responses were ridiculous -- just the amount of overwhelming love and support. ... it paid off, that sense of community. And then when COVID hit ... I just literally went on (social media and posted), 'We're here, pickups only; we do deliveries; we're increasing Good Eggs; we're doing shipping.' I even reduced the price of shipping. I didn't say, 'help help help.' I was like, 'We're here for you.' Business shot up -- the first three, four weeks, by almost 100%. Ninety-five percent of our shipping was outside of the Bay Area. We started getting more customers from states that I've never interacted with before, in the Midwest and the south, East Coast, all over Southern California, Oregon, Washington. ...It plateaued down, but we're still doing better than pre-COVID. On average it's about 150% better than pre-COVID. In a way I feel guilty because I know how hard it is. But I'm grateful.
If you look at our social media, it's very different than any other business. It's a discussion. I don't only post about the pretty food. I had someone say, 'You should get all your food professionally photographed.' I was like, 'No.' I'm not saying my photography is great by any means, but … it's what I want. We're a real brand. We're not some big corporate brand. I want to have that homemade feeling no matter how big we get. I don't want pretty pictures. We're not trying to be fancy. There is nothing fancy about me. I mean, it's in the name.
I was pretty open about (the fact that) I was over 500 pounds and went down to 199 and then I gained 130 pounds back and very publicly lost 100 pounds. That was fully documented on our social media. People can relate to that versus Mr. six pack or Miss model. We're all in this together, whatever reason you're eating this way.
Was food or baked goods in particular a big thing for you growing up? What role has food played in your life?
Definitely. One of my favorite memories is super early in the morning back in Egypt -- in Egypt we don't call it a bakery. We call them ovens. We would walk through the oven before I went to school and get fresh bread. Later on in life we would go to Safeway … my parents and I would get a baguette and share it while they're doing the grocery shopping. I just really enjoy food in general. I never really had the patience to be in the kitchen growing up. Since we got this space, I started doing more Egyptian cooking and would share that with the customers. (I make a) okra stew with lamb and beef (called bamyiah). Traditionally in Egypt it's served over rice. Technically, rice is not paleo … but I made rice and had an option to either get over rice or over pita bread that we make here. The other one I made was a bone broth (called kawara'a). It's a pretty famous dish in Egypt. It's actually made from cow's feet. It takes about 12 hours (to make). In Egypt, it's usually served over rice with toasted bread and a special garlic sauce made with ghee. Here I served it as just the broth with the pita bread next to it and garlic sauce already mixed in.
What's one item you've created you're really proud of and one that's been difficult to make gluten-free?
The OG (original) -- the bagel, and the bread. That's what we started with. Literally i went to the farmers market with four flavors of bagels and two baguettes. I'm always proud of those. … (Most recently), filo dough. There's no gluten-free filo dough on the market, let alone grain free or low carb. I was able to make it, by hand, which was painful … very time consuming, especially to make it at scale.
The thing that I'm (most) proud of is my flour because that's the source of everything. That's what makes us unique. My stuff, I wanted it to look like bread, taste like bread and behave like bread.
It would poof up and get blistery like regular tortillas. You could drench it with all kinds of sauces and it would not fall apart.
I thought at some point you were trying to make a gluten-free croissant. Did I make that up?
I have two unicorns that I'm chasing: panettone and croissant. I think I'm closer to the croissant than the panettone. It's funny how things work. If I did not make the tortillas the way I'm making them right now I would not have been able to make the filo dough. Now that I know I can make the filo dough, it's actually not that far of a stretch away from a croissant. The only hang-up with the filo dough right now ... I cannot find a way to be able to produce as much (as I want). The only way is to get a dough sheeter. If I get a dough sheeter, croissants are the next stop.
Why did you and your family leave Egypt?
We're refugees. I was 16. The plan at the time was: escape from Egypt, go to Canada. We left Egypt and got to Canada in November. It was minus 55 celsius with windchill. We were in a subway station and jokingly -- we had never ever played the lottery before. (We said), we'll buy one ticket and if it hits, we'll stay. If it doesn't, we'll move to the U.S. So we're here.
I went to DeVry University. I could barely speak any English, had a very heavy accent. At the time the plan was to finish DeVry and try to get into grad school. My dad had a construction company ... that fell apart. My dad took that pretty hard because we had to leave everything in Egypt and start from scratch here. You come to the U.S., you have no credit, it was hard to rent, it was hard to do anything. We got an apartment and that was three quarters of the money (we had). We were practically illegal immigrants. To get legal status as a refugee, it's pretty much free fall. You go in or nothing at all. As a refugee you can't be in your own country and apply ... so you're here and your tourist visa expires and you just wish and hope that immigration doesn't show up. At the time an immigration lawyer said you should apply through California; processing times are better there. We came to LA for a couple months to get all the paperwork done, all the interviews -- and again, wait. Hurry up and wait. You just never know until you get that letter in the mail saying you got accepted. (It was) stressful. You try not to think about it. I was in school so I made sure to keep myself busy.
In July, you posted on the Misfits Bakehouse Instagram about when you became a U.S. citizen. Can you tell me about that day and how it felt?
It's hard to put into words. There was a lot of nervousness going into that. They tell you, the green card, you have to surrender it. That made me very nervous. I looked around … and everybody is like 'Nah, man, we're not giving up our green card.' It's how we show that we're OK to be here. It was emotional, but it was exciting. The first thing I did after being sworn in -- I walked out and I got a registration to vote. Coming from a country where it doesn't matter how many times you vote, it doesn't count, literally, to somewhere where it actually matters -- it's pretty cool. You feel like you can actually make a difference, which is huge. Your voice can be heard.
Why do you identify with the concept of a misfit?
I literally never felt like I fit in anywhere. I liked different music growing up. At GE, I was the youngest by a long shot. I was 20 when I started. I got kicked out of a hospital because they thought I was 14. I saw things differently than most people, even developing recipes. It also happened a lot with my engineering career. (People would say,) 'This can't be done.' I would be able to do it. I always felt like I never fit in with the typical definition of whoever I'm usually working with. The famous Steve Jobs quote -- that resonated a lot with me. People who are crazy enough to want to change the world that are the ones that do. I'm not from the food world. I was actually pretty much rejected by everybody in the food world. I was called stupid. I got kicked out of restaurants. I wanted to make these types of breads tasty and that sounded like a tall order.
What has been most challenging for you as a small food business owner during the pandemic?
Being able to meet expectations. Part of being heavy on the community side of things is the expectations are, I don't want to say higher, but they're different. The challenge is to keep people engaged and happy and meet their expectations. We've had a few missteps where we promised a delivery and didn't make it because we got overwhelmed and weren't ready for it. I'm very open with my customers. I'd go on our social media (accounts) and say, 'I screwed up. We'll make it up (to you).'
What's your long-term vision for Misfits Bakehouse?
Literally, I want to be across the country. I never had the idea of being in the Bay Area only, especially since the market segment we're in is completely underserved. There's nobody doing it at the scale that I want to do it at at the quality we're doing it (at). I don't want to franchise, but I want to have locations across the country and to be able to deliver fresh bread and that experience wherever we are, wherever we go.
Tell me about the ooey gooey chocolate chip cookies.
I came across a YouTube video -- I'm self taught, grad school of YouTube. This guy was recreating Levain Bakery cookies (from the New York City bakery). They looked amazing. I wanted to see if I could make them with my flour. I adjusted it to work with my flour and it worked. You warm them up and break them and it just melts. You get that same experience. A lot of the recipes i come up with … something catches my eye and I'm like, 'How do I make this?' I like to challenge myself. I look at how it is with regular flour and see if I can translate that to my flour.
What's in your flour mix?
Almond flour, coconut flour, psyllium husk, flax seed, tapioca, arrowroot and coconut sugar. I'm the only one that knows the recipe. It's like the Coca Cola recipe.
Why did you choose Higuma for our meal?
The reason I chose Higuma is I knew the owners had a bit of a rough patch even pre-COVID. The husband got into a bad accident and they shut down for a couple of months during his recovery, and then they had to deal with COVID shortly after firing back up. I don't know the owners personally besides the fact that they always had a big smile and greeted everyone with pure joy. And that's something I rarely see nowadays.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I feel fortunate. I don't want to say I'm lucky because it discounts the journey but I feel very fortunate because I wouldn't be here without yes, hard work, but my customers believing in the bakery and supporting it. Even when we screw up, they come back. I feel a sense of actual community. It feels great.