In her 22-year legal career—including stints at Moses & Singer, Reader's Digest, Audible, Bloomberg, and her own law firm—Helene Godin saw it all. Except, that is, the inside of a kitchen. But that didn’t stop her from leaving the law and founding By the Way Bakery: a gluten-free, dairy-free, kosher bakery with footprints in New York and Connecticut. We sat down with her at a diner on the Upper West Side to talk about her journey, her passions, and how she “bakes the world a better place.”
Vault: So tell me a little about the history of By the Way Bakery.
Helene: Well after Amazon absorbed Audible, where I was general counsel, I moved to an in-house position at Bloomberg. I was there for two years, and I was working so hard there, like really hard. And I said to myself, “You know what, I’m done. I have to try something else. I don’t know what it is, but I have to try something else.” And when I told the general counsel, he said, “Of course you want to quit. We gave you the work of two people—we didn’t think you’d really do it. So let’s dial it down—we want to keep you, so tell us which clients would you like to keep, what work would you like to do, etc.” They could not have been nicer about it, but I’d decided that I was done. Of course, I was retired for four days—including the weekend!
Vault: Four whole days?
Helene: We won’t even talk about my maternity leave. So I experimented with a few things. I said, “I’ll take a class!” So I took Vegan Baking Boot Camp at Natural Gourmet Institute, which is the only cooking class I’ve ever taken. And the instructor said that vegan is very hot right now, but even hotter is gluten-free. I actually had time, so I went to a supermarket, and I noticed that the gluten-free section was expanding. And I had this totally crazy idea that I was going to open a gluten-free bakery. And my family immediately said, “But you don’t know how to bake.” And they were right. But that didn’t matter because I said, “I’m going to teach myself.” In fact, there’s almost nowhere you can learn—it’s so new. And so I had to [teach myself].
Vault: That’s amazing, and you’re right—my sister went to pastry school last year, and they didn’t teach gluten-free baking in the mainstream education. It was something you could take if you wanted to, but almost nobody did.
Helene: But people talk about “thinking like a lawyer,” right? I knew how to research. So it wasn’t that I had innate skill in baking or food, but I knew how to research and dig. And I wasn’t afraid to fail. I was relentless. Our chocolate chip cookie took 52 tries. It was bake-bite-throw-out. It’s actually a motto for life—that you take a chance. If it doesn’t work, do it again, or do something different. Tweak it; change it. So I quit my job at Bloomberg in May 2010, and I opened the first By the Way in May of 2011—one year later, almost to the day. And I didn’t want to hire consultants—I didn’t want to buy a business. Even if it wasn’t buying a franchise, if you hire the chef, the decorator, and the packaging expert but you don’t really immerse yourself in it, it’s not really yours. So I taught myself how to bake, I made sure that the 25 recipes we had when we opened were mine. And it all evolved. I wanted every element to reflect my sensibility—to be mine.
Vault: So what initially drew you to law school?
Helene: Well what I say is: medical school is achievement—how did you do in Organic Chemistry? Law school is strictly aptitude. It’s not like there’s truly “pre-law.” When I was in college, if there was a class that had “law” in the name, I took it: “History and the Law,” “English and the Law,” “Shakespeare and the Law”—everything! I was very focused. I said I wanted to be a lawyer from an early age because I came from a family of lawyers. Also, I loved to research and write. When I was in the fifth grade, Harry Truman died. And what does any fifth grader do? She goes to the library and writes a report on Harry Truman and gives it to her teacher.
Vault: Unsolicited? You just wrote a report?
Helene: Totally! And I still remember; I took The New York Times and cut his picture out—we even had pinking shears so some of the borders were really creative. I have always loved to research and to write. And it’s funny—I only like a certain type of expository writing. I don’t do creative writing—like I’ll send my husband a Valentine: “Notwithstanding the foregoing, I love you with all my heart.”
Vault: So it was really passion that sent you there. You knew you wanted to go.
Helene: It was, and I worked really hard in college. When I got to law school, I hated it. I did! And what I didn’t like was the competitive nature. Because I felt like, we’re all here. We all made it. But it was so competitive, and I didn’t quite get my head around the intellectual nature of any of it. It was there if you looked hard enough. But I didn’t, and that was my mistake. But as soon as I got to my first job, my first memo, I thrived. I remember a friend of mine from law school—she was totally intimidated by the hierarchy. And I, for whatever reason, was like, “You know what, [my firm] hired me for a reason. I’m going to do my very best work, and if I don’t believe in what you’re saying, I’m going to tell you how I would approach it.” It was great. And I was truly fortunate, because the projects were always interesting.
Vault: Was there a specific catalyst that prompted you to leave the law?
Helene: Not really. Mostly, I was just done. Because I had learned so much all the way through. I was general counsel of a publicly traded corporation—that was pretty cool! And more importantly, I was so proud of the work I had done all along. And so Bloomberg was sort of icing on the cake. Oh my God, the building is gorgeous. It’s very prestigious, but it wasn’t for me.
Vault: It’s good you had the sense to realize that. So many people are more concerned with prestige than fit, it seems.
Helene: Right, I think there’s tremendous pressure. There are happy lawyers. But if it’s not bringing you joy at some level, it’s not worth it. But it also doesn’t mean you have to quit cold turkey.
Vault: So what does your day-to-day look like now?
Helene: There’s not a standard day, and that’s one of the things I love. So, most days I plan on going to our commissary [a 7,200 square foot kitchen, opened with the expertise of head baker Kathy Dumas—who was also one of the creators of Fudgie the Whale]. I’ll be answering customer emails [and] working with the kitchen. But today? I’m sitting with you. And I had to come to the Upper West Side anyway because, as glamorous as my life is, I had to deliver birthday candles because the store was running low. My goal for 2019 is to expand our kosher outreach. So yesterday, I drove to Brooklyn to an organic, kosher market that’s now carrying our products. Would I have guessed the week before that I would be doing that? No. But that’s how I spent my day. Today, it’s you and birthday candles. And so it’s always different, and I love that.
Vault: Is there anything you miss about the law?
Helene: I remember one of By the Way’s first wholesale accounts was a local supermarket, and they asked me to give a demo on Super Bowl Sunday. They set me up at a little bridge table with my back to the refrigerator. And I thought: “Okay, a year and a half ago, I was wearing designer suits and going to important meetings in conference rooms 45 floors up with a view of the Hudson or 360 views. And you know what? I’m freezing, but I wouldn’t trade this.” I don’t look back so, no, I can’t say there’s something that I miss. Because the things that I like to do, I’ve done my best to incorporate into what I do now. For example, I love mentoring clients. At Audible I used to mentor a client for a libel vet, and now I mentor Mrs. Schwartz on her grandson’s bar mitzvah cake. And it’s the same satisfaction.
Vault: Do you have any advice for students or attorneys who might be thinking, “Gee, I don’t know if the law is for me”? Who may not, for one reason or another, be totally convinced of the fit?
Helene: I think you have to give it your all for a period of time. You have to really thrust yourself into it and look for the avenues that are interesting. There could be things you don’t realize bring you joy. And then, if it’s not right, don’t say, “And I have to do this for the rest of my life.” Because you don’t. You’ll find other ways to pay your loans that will make you happy. Seize the moment. Maybe you’re working at big firm and the answer is a small firm. Don’t get caught up in the prestige. For some people, prestige brings them joy. But you may find that opening your own little matrimonial practice is really a great way to use your law degree.
Vault: Okay, last question. And it’s a very important question. What’s the tastiest treat at By the Way Bakery?
Helene: My go-to tends to be the coconut cloud cake. We take a vanilla cake base, add coconut extract to it, and we fill and frost it with vegan cream cheese frosting. But just this week we introduced the S’mores Mini Cake—and where else are you going to find a gluten-free, dairy-free, kosher pareve individual-size cake with chocolate chunks and marshmallows but By the Way Bakery? I’m pretty proud of that.
Helene Godin is the founder of By the Way Bakery: a gluten-free, dairy-free, kosher bakery with locations in Greenwich, CT; NYC's Upper East Side and Upper West Side; and Westchester, NY. After receiving her J.D. from NYU Law School, Helene forged a successful career in media law, working at such entities as Audible, Bloomberg, Moses & Singer, and Reader's Digest. After 22 years in the legal industry, Helene decided to pursue a nonlegal career path and opened By the Way Bakery.
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