In response to a demand from the gluten-free community in the United States, Jean-Charles Essame founded Josephine GF in Bethesda, Maryland. Learn more about this French small business owner and what motivated him to start a bakery.
What brought you to the United States to start a business?
Like many others, our adventure began with my wife, Valentine, and our love of the United States; its culture, traditions, and its long relationship with France. Having served 15 years as a Close Protection Officer to the French Secret Service (SPHP), I was in charge of protecting American officials on visits to France, such as former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush, as well as French government members. When my wife was promoted to Police Attaché to the French Embassy in 2017, I decided to put my career on hold to follow her.
The U.S. afforded me the right to work legally within this country. I began my journey as a store manager in a bakery in Bethesda. I also owned a small business for three years, specializing in traditional upholstery using century-old techniques for antique furniture repair, which I learned many years ago in France. Finally, I developed and founded Josephine GF bakery. The challenge was to offer a new concept for carry-out foods to the gluten-free community in the Virginia, Maryland, and DC area, including my signature gluten-free savory and sweet waffles, breads, pastries, and coffee to-go, all served within a certified gluten-free premises.
The concept was born out of three ideas: my wife’s gluten intolerance, my long-time wish to open a retail bakery, and our daughter’s name, Josephine, which is easy for U.S citizens to pronounce.
Did you have mentors or someone you looked up to in the baking industry?
In terms of pastry mentors, I obviously think of Chef Cédric Grolet, whom I admire greatly; Pascal Rigo, for his courage and his entrepreneurial mindset in developing a bakery empire in San Francisco; Chef Gilles Isola from the reputable French Training Center called Emc2, who trained me to be a Master Chef crepe maker in 2019; and of course, my old friend Guillaume Gomez, former Chef to several French Presidents, current French Ambassador of Gastronomy, who is devoted to the culinary world. I have also been inspired by others sharing and innovating gluten-free techniques and recipes on social media, like Instagram, which helped me to hone my skills over the years.
What have you learned about the baked goods and gluten-free industry and market in the United States?
The gluten-free industry demand is important in the U.S. People pay more attention to what they eat compared to twenty years ago. Before, gluten-free was a punishment, now it is an option!
The increase in societal messages in recent years has undoubtedly greatly impacted the population in general, particularly Michelle Obama’s ‘’Let’s Move,’’ for example, among others.
Nowadays, it is generally accepted that 1 in 133 individuals has Celiacs Disease, a genetic condition resulting in intestinal damage whenever they ingest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Six to seven percent of the U.S. population may be gluten-sensitive, meaning some 20 million people in the United States alone could have the condition. However, researchers only recently have identified non-celiac gluten sensitivity as a separate, distinct condition. Some in the medical field await confirmation of those still-new research findings before accepting gluten sensitivity as a possible diagnosis.
Is there a market for gluten-free food in France?
There is a gluten-free market in France, but less developed than its neighbors Italy, Germany, and England. Some Michelin-starred Chefs, such as Clementine Olivier or Nadia Sammut, try to implement the fundamental quality of a gluten-free lifestyle in a country rooted in its traditions. In general, people don’t like to change their habits, and that is the case for the old continent and France, which remain attached to their ancient culinary savoir-faire.
Certainly it comes from my mom, who lived for many years in the U.S. in the 1960s. She planted in me the seed of the American dream. My grandfather also inspired me. For years, he led the French subsidiary of the Diversey group, a 100-year-old American company.
What have been your greatest challenges?
I have tried to create a straightforward business, something ready to reproduce. One day, I hope to open multiple Josephine GF shops to meet the growing demand for quality gluten-free baked goods, but the road is long. However, thanks to the Miami-based equipment manufacturer, Pavailler, we plan to produce a range of gluten-free breads using a high-performance convection oven. As a long-term goal, I’d like to franchise the business, if the economic climate allows me. For those who have been inspired by this story and want to start their own business as well but funding is the only thing that’s been holding them back, a service like merchant cash advance could be the solution.