“Thanks to Trump, I’m a baker now,” Natalia (Talia) Tutak, the Polish founder of Sixteen Mill says, as the trace of a smirk crosses her face.
For the last few years, in fits and starts, Brooklyn-based Tutak has been making distinctly not-basic, actually delicious gluten-free baked goods that are vegan and without refined sugar, soy, or gums. They have included a fluffy buttery crumb of pound cake showing off flavor pairings like matcha and lemon, hojicha and chocolate, coffee and walnut; and the moistest of cake doughnuts made with hazelnuts and chia seeds, draped with chocolate ganache and garnished with a well of raspberry jam. They’re a gift to any local who loves a good pound cake, doughnut, cookie, or seeded sourdough bread.
Tutak moved to London in 2005 from Poland after university where she studied English as a second language and stayed on for eleven years, first managing a beauty salon, and then completing a Masters program for bilingual translation. Along the way, she met a British Filipino bartender named Miles Desi, her future partner in all things. Initially, she loved expressing one language in another. It was a short-lived affair; soon, she came to realize she was bored and couldn’t “just sit and translate,” she says.
Still, it’s what she relied on to move to America. Tutak and Desi arrived in New York City in 2016, which, you might recall, is the year The Donald was elected to office and, soon after, proceeded to hold up visas for business travelers and others, by implementing new security checks. So, although the couple both had visas, they “got so delayed that I couldn’t work, my partner couldn’t work,” she says.
This was when Tutak took up baking. Without any professional training, she read every cookbook on the subject she could get her hands on and cites Vanessa Kimbell’s science-based The Sourdough School as her talisman. Six months after she dug in, she had a loaf that satisfied her. After reading up on grains and looking into local sources, she began to adapt her recipe until she had a loaf she was proud to share.
Desi thought it was so good, he brought one to (now-closed) Toby’s pizzeria in Park Slope, where he’d found employment, to share with his co-workers. They asked if they could buy it, then told all their friends about it. Suddenly, Tutak was in business.
They named it Sixteen Mill as a nod to Desi’s love of film.
She branched out into sourdough challah. “Someone called me.... ‘Challah Queen,’” she says, for supplying residents of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens with it on Fridays, propelled by social media. There wasn’t much room for expansion when all she had to work with was her small home oven; she could only bake 10 loaves of challah a day. Next came cakes: after that, miniature desserts. Then, Lively, a coffee shop in Park Slope, saw her products on Instagram and asked if she’d bake something for them — something healthy, without gluten or refined sugar. “Why not?” Tutak figured.
Two years later, the enterprise was kaput; a mysterious gut illness that landed Tutak in and out of the hospital for a series of procedures starting in 2019 made production physically impossible. When she went in for her second emergency surgery, it was March 2020, and her entire ward was hit with COVID, which she then passed on to her family after being discharged.
Once she was better, she had to figure out what was next. Desi had begun driving delivery trucks for FreshDirect, but she no longer had any accounts and needed an income. What she did have was her kitchen (small oven and all), a few followers on Instagram, and her own dietary restrictions. After her surgery, she had been advised to steer clear of gluten and was eager to make more things that she could eat — gluten-free things made without refined sugar, that weren’t “overly sweetened and super dry,” she says. She posted a simple announcement notifying people that if they’d like any bread or baked goods (both with and without gluten), she would deliver it directly to their stoops.
“It was really crazy for a while because everyone was hungry and everyone wanted good-quality baked goods, something homemade,” she says. She couldn’t keep up, and there wasn’t enough room in her apartment to contain the merchandise. Pre-orders would line every inch of kitchen surface and spread out into the living room, crowding their couch. Desi announced he might leave her if things kept going that way. She had to find a commercial kitchen space (which she found in Industry City), and fast because she’d just been granted a spot at the Park Slope farmers market, where she eventually rolled out vegan baked goods, too.
Fast forward to 2021, she made Desi her official business partner, and soon after, nearly nine months pregnant with her first child, four weeks before her due date, Tutak signed the lease on a kitchen in East Williamsburg. They were determined to make it work. She took out a small loan, bought the necessary equipment, and within 30 days, her kitchen was up and running.
She had taught Desi to bake her recipes, so that he could keep the business operating while she gave birth. Two weeks after her C-section, she was back in the bakery. “I was probably crying 90 percent of the time,” Tutak remembers, “because one, I was in pain, and two, I wanted to be right next to my baby.”
She had no choice. “I had to go back, because we had to start making money to pay for the rent because there was no one to help us with this,” she says. “Our parents don’t live here. Our parents don’t have money. I don’t have maternity leave. So what do you do?”
They’ve already outgrown that kitchen. Sixteen Mill currently does two weekly farmers markets — Morningside Park on Saturdays, Park Slope on Sundays — and a few carefully selected wholesale partners like Electric Beets in Brooklyn, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and Goods Mart in Manhattan. In addition, she does Saturday delivery orders throughout the city and offers a monthly menu of cakes for order.
The next phase, if they can get there, would be a bigger space where Tutak can set up a small storefront and have a larger production area to expand their delivery business, launch national shipping, and consider taking on a few more wholesale accounts; it’d be nice to develop more bread recipes as well.
“I’m hoping it’s going to happen in 2023,” she says. She can’t afford to fail. America hasn’t made it easy for her; so far, Tutak has always found a way forward.