Chef J.R. Renusson channels passion into vegan cookie company.
As promised, J.R. Renusson, the proprietor of Bit Baking Company, is at his business on Ridgemoor Drive, just north of 28th street in Kentwood, at 8:30 a.m. He is a lean, friendly 34-year-old, wearing jeans, an MXTP T-shirt, a Bit Baking Company ball cap and a dramatic upper-right-arm tattoo. ¶ About that shirt. Renusson has several what might be called alternative interests. From 2008 to 2012, he and his then-fiancée, Jess, were seriously into hosting pop/rock/metal music concerts featuring bands such as New Found Glory and Sleeping With Sirens. They ran their own venue in Grand Rapids, first called Mixtape Café & Music Venue, then simply MXTP. A photo from that era shows a young-looking Renusson with long, stringy hair and a perhaps tired expression. ¶ The focus back then was music. Now it’s vegan cookies.
In June 2015, Renusson left his job at Savory Foods to focus on building Bit Baking Company, with Bit standing for “believe in this.” He told Jess, by now his wife, “You’ve got to believe in this.” She was concerned about him quitting his job and the family losing income. He said, “It makes me sick to go to work and feed the machine with eggs and milk. We are vegan, but I don’t feel I am supporting my cause.”
Starting at age 13, Renusson worked as an apprentice at pastry shops around the world. That experience laid the foundation for Bit Baking Company. “My plan originally,” he says, “was just to make a vegan cookie.”
At first, Bit Baking Company was based in Hudsonville where B.C. Pizza allowed Renusson to borrow its kitchen after hours. The original three-month agreement turned into seven months, at which point Renusson felt he had worn out his welcome. In February 2016, he left Hudsonville and moved his business to a new location. The facility is about 100 feet long and 30 feet wide, with most of its baking equipment at the northern end. His equipment includes a convection oven, freezers, stainless steel work tables, a professional mixing bowl with a large steel paddle, a scale for weighing ingredients and a machine to seal individual cookies. The opposite end has tables and chairs for meetings. Renusson says he is happy to allow vegan groups to use the meeting space at no charge.
It quickly becomes apparent that Renusson has a strong commitment to his morals and does not want to bake cookies in a windowless factory. His facility, by the way, has numerous windows looking out onto the street. Renusson has always had an aversion to being a conventional cook working on a line in a fast-paced restaurant where wait staff put up tickets left and right. He definitely likes his independence and peace of mind.
So, what is he ultimately trying to do? “Get people to take a chance and see that vegan food tastes wonderful,” he says. Renusson became vegetarian when he was 19 after seeing a video showing a pig being slaughtered. After that, he vowed he would never eat meat again. He became vegan in 2010. Jess and the couple’s two children, London, 3, and Jude, 1, are also vegan.
Renusson, who usually works alone in the bakery aside from occasional help from friends or his mom, bakes anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 cookies per week. Originally he had six kinds of cookies, but his father-in-law recommended he reduce the number to four. The remaining cookie flavors are Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk and Cocoa Chocolate Chunk.
Renusson’s cookie recipes involve a variety of substitutions: organic palm oil instead of butter; dates in place of eggs; and white rice and tapioca flours rather than wheat flour with gluten. He also uses Michigan beet sugar for sweetening and cocoa butter chocolate without milk. Renusson is always on the lookout for the best prices on cookie ingredients. A challenge right now is finding organic corn syrup in sufficiently large containers.
Currently, Renusson sells cookies to about 30 stores and 20 coffee shops. The stores include D&W Fresh Market, Harvest Health, Sawall Health Foods, Health Hutt and Natural Health Center. Cookie prices are determined by the store and tend to range from about $2 to $3 per cookie. Renusson’s vision is that by July 2017, his cookies will be available in more than 1,000 locations throughout Michigan and the Midwest. A vegan food broker in Detroit is helping him plan his expansion.
“They’re really well received,” says Ryan Atsma, a buyer at the Hudsonville Harvest Health Foods location. “People like that they’re local, and they’re pretty addicting once you try them.” He says Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk — which he hasn’t tried due to a nut allergy — and Cocoa Chocolate Chunk, his favorite, are the store’s best-selling flavors.
Atsma, who served Bit Baking Company cookies at his wedding, says the cookies sell to both vegans and non-vegans. “I know there are people who are vegan who appreciate they are vegan, but a lot of people don’t even realize it,” he says. “We have a sign saying they’re vegan, but I think they taste so good people don’t care whether they are or not.”
Renusson also sells cookies at various expos, including Grand Rapids VegFest, where he will return this year as a vendor. He said he’s been to many veg expos, but the Grand Rapids one tops his list; it’s right in his backyard, and last year his product was well-received. “It’s run by an amazing group of volunteers all coming together for the purpose of compassion toward animals,” he says. “Last year we sold out about two hours before VegFest ended, so this year we will be better prepared.”
It was at the inaugural VegFest where Ellie Haun first tried Renusson’s cookies. “They were the best cookies I’ve ever eaten,” says Haun, a 17-year-old graduate of East Grand Rapids High School who plans to study food science this fall at Michigan State University. “I generally don’t like gluten-free products, but I loved these cookies.” Haun, who runs a food blog called Peanut Butter and Ellie, later welcomed Renusson as a speaker at the veggie club she started at her school.
Renusson has come a long way from the gluten-free cookie dough he was asked to come up with at Savory Foods, where he was director of both quality control and gluten-free research from 2012 to 2015. He was also asked to make gluten-free pizza doughs, which he says are now popular everywhere. Renusson took over the gluten-free cookie dough assignment from his dad, the talented pastry chef Gilles Renusson, who teaches at Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education. Gilles is from Château-du-Loir in France, about 150 miles southwest of Paris. Although Renusson, whose initials stand for Jean-René, does not speak French, he visits France every three years for family reunions.
Both Renusson’s father and father-in-law are strong supporters of his business. Renusson says his father told him, “If the band thing fails, you will always have work in the kitchen. He made me finish my culinary education. What he didn’t expect is that I would become vegan.”
In addition to his cookie line, Renusson recently developed a line of frozen, microwaveable vegan foods for Muskegon-based Cole’s Quality Foods, maker of frozen garlic bread. Renusson, who consulted for Cole’s while starting up Bit Baking Company, came up with macaroni and cheese, lasagna, enchilada and pot pie. The line will be available in late October.
Within five years, Renusson hopes he’s creating vegan fare for his own projects, including a chain of fast food places. Jess says the restaurants will be “like McDonald’s, but with a vegan menu.” He and his wife also have plans for what they call The Plantation, a fancy, sit-down restaurant located in a yet-to-be-determined rural setting.
In the meantime, eating out is not a problem for Renusson and Jess. “We can go to any restaurant and have a great meal,” he says. “You just have to be creative with the garnish.”