Food & Drink

Michelle Retik of The Squirrel & The Bee: The First Lady of Healthy Eating in Short Hills

Credits: Jonathan Sym
Squirrel and the Bee Credits: Jonathan Sym
In the kitchen with Michelle Retik.  Making soup from scratch. Credits: Jonathan Sym
"The Bee" uses almond and cocout flour for many of their cakes and cookies.  She grinds everything in-house. Credits: Jonathan Sym
The kitchen, where the magic happens. Credits: Jonathan Sym
Prepping pies. Credits: Jonathan Sym
Squirrel and the Bee Credits: Jonathan Sym

SHORT HILLS, NJ – When The Squirrel and the Bee first opened its doors, many residents were quite excited about having a fresh bakeshop in town. Some were concerned that gluten free, dairy free, grain free and butter free would also mean flavor free as well.

Michelle Retik didn't disappoint. Her healthy food concepts have been well received even by the finickest of eaters. The lines at the small bakeshop seem to be getting longer but customers seen not to mind queuing up to taste her popular grain-less treats and savory soups.

TAP caught up Michelle for an interview, here are some excerpts:

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TAP:  Tell us about yourself (e.g. how long you’ve lived the township, family, where you grew up, etc.)

MR:  I am a transplant to the Millburn/Short Hills area but have lived here now for 17 years. I have 4 kids; my oldest is in college, one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. I grew up in Cherry Hill, went to University of Maryland and came back to NJ via Boston and then NYC.

TAP:  How did you come up with the name and why did you choose to locate in Short Hills?

MR:  The name Squirrel & The Bee is all about my baking: everything we make begins with nuts or nut flours and honey. I’ll tell you more about why later! I chose to locate here in Short Hills because this is where I got my start and all of the people who supported me and encouraged me are here. I wanted to be near the friends who helped me get my wings.

TAP:  What three things (lessons learned) would you tell someone who want to start their business.

MR:  Don’t be tied to a specific idea or plan! Be prepared to shift gears and follow the path as it unfolds. Feeling tied to a plan is limiting and puts blinders on you.

Be courageous, even when you feel anything but. Starting a business is scary. My husband told me that you can’t soar like an eagle and crap like a canary – and when I was done laughing, I thought about what that meant. Courage is as important as vision, because without it you cannot move forward.

Be authentic! Your customers will know if you are true to your mission and vision, and that matters, especially when you own a small business and have interactions every day.

TAP:  What is a typical day like for you, what’s your secret to managing life, career and family?

MR:  Ha! I wish I knew the secret! A typical day for me starts between 4:30-5:00am.  I am a morning person so I use the early morning to respond to emails and organize my thoughts, or head to yoga and dedicate some time to myself. From there it’s non-stop – often straight to work. I work at the bakery from 7am (or earlier) until about 6:00pm most days. After work I do typical mom stuff: dance carpool, field hockey, dinner, errands… I place my orders for the next morning with my suppliers at 10:00pm and then try to set the production schedule for the kitchen staff before I go to bed. My goal is 11:00pm but that doesn’t always happen. My husband and I talk about our day before we go to bed, though both he and my kids will tell you that I tend to fall asleep mid-sentence!

TAP:  Why is grain detrimental to our health?

MR:  Grains are inflammatory and that’s not good. Inflammation begins in the gut, but can affect our bodies in many ways. Migraines, asthma, eczema, hives, sinus pressure are all indications of inflammation in our system. And then there are the more well-known symptoms of inflammation such as Celiac, Crohns/Colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and the list goes on. Many people suffer from inflammation and don’t even know the root cause. Often times it is coming from the foods we are eating.

TAP:  What other foods would you avoid, what do you think we should be eating more of and why?

MR:  Definitely avoid refined sugar. Sugar is in so many foods that you aren’t aware of and it causes addiction and inflammation. Ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauces all have sugar! And I do not eat dairy – it is also inflammatory to our systems. I do suggest adding more nuts and healthy fats into your diet. Nuts have so many health benefits; that would be its own article! Healthy fats such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil and grass-fed butter are all great to add to your diet. And they taste great!

TAP:  What frozen, pre-packaged or canned foods options can we use to save time in the kitchen? (How can we integrate into something semi-homemade?)

MR:  You can buy frozen vegetables and fruits that are frozen so close to when they are picked. This is a great option for quick meals or for when fruits are out of season and very expensive. You can defrost and sauté frozen vegetables and quickly make an omelet or add chicken and have a healthy meal in no time.

TAP:  Farm to table restaurants are becoming more popular as a dining option.  In your opinion, is this a fad or something that is here to stay? What’s the next food trend?

MR:  Here to stay! And I see more and more of the younger generation getting back to farming. Thankfully, sustainable farming practices are being taught at colleges and universities now, as well as nutrition and health. These go hand in hand. As more and more people are being diagnosed with illness – mostly autoimmune – there is a growing awareness of the need to make changes in our diets. Hippocrates knew what he was talking about when he said Let Food Be Thy Medicine.

TAP:  Organic food costs more than non-organic. Why is the price difference so great and is there a good alternative to organic? Is it really worth the premium?

MR:  Is your health worth the premium? Yes! Non-organic foods are sprayed with pesticides or genetically modified and that is not good. Although I am not a farmer, I think the price difference is derived from the yields. Organic farming doesn’t produce the same yield as non-organic due to pests and other natural elements so they must charge more for their product. When you spray crops with chemicals that kill the pests, you get a larger yield but are ingesting the same chemicals that killed the bugs. Yuck!  I believe that there is a cost to our health and staying healthy. The question is, do you want to pay your doctor and pharmacist for drugs and medicines, or do you want to pay for delicious and healthy foods. I’d rather enjoy good food!

TAP:  As consumers, how do we know if our food is truly organic? Many food experts are concerned with USDA food labels as not necessarily being accurate. Can you offer any advice?

MR:  It’s hard to know. I find it frustrating that the Truth in Labeling laws are not enforced. And words like “all-natural” are used everywhere and have almost no meaning anymore. How can imitation anything be labeled all natural? Also, many fruits and vegetables that you buy from your local farm or farmers market aren’t labeled organic but likely are. The process to get certified is very expensive and many farms cannot afford the cost. Meet your farmer, ask questions and try local produce. My guess is it is as organic as you can get.

For more information about The Squirrel and the Bee, please visit the website.  LIKE on Facebook and support local, healthy eating.

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