LONG VALLEY, NJ – Lisa Rutigliano is not afraid to take risks. But the Bergen County native may not have taken the leap to open her healthy bakery without the rather unanticipated intervention of COVID-19.

“I had to make an extremely hard decision if I was going to go back to the restaurant or try to create something of my own,” Rutigliano told Patch. “I thought about it every day during the early stages of quarantine and had many concerns as far as not having a stable income, relying on an economy during a pandemic, and leaving a restaurant I worked so hard for.”

COVID-19 shut down restaurants in March, when Governor Phil Murphy closed restaurants to indoor dining. Rutigliano was working at James on Main in Hackettstown when the news came down.

“My last day at James on Main was March 15, the day all restaurants had to close its doors due to the widely spreading virus,” Rutigliano said. “During this quarantine time, I resorted back to self care and focusing on my health. I started posting healthier food pictures and recipes on social media, one of them being a super unique raw/vegan cake made of elderberry and orange blossom.”

But that spark of creativity soon grew into a small fire as people started asking Rutigliano about her creation.

“People started inquiring if I sold any of my creations, so I got to work once again. I was thrilled that I had a purpose again, even if it was on a smaller scale,” she said. “I was creating healthy options for people and providing a contactless delivery service. They were thrilled to be receiving something healthy while still being able to indulge during their quarantine.”

And that is when the “muling” began.

“I would meet up with my sister who lives down in Monmouth County to ‘make the cake drop’ so she can bring it back her way to her friends,” Rutigliano said. “I started joking about the idea that she was my cake mule.”

Rutigliano said it was then that it hit her: Cake Mule is actually a super fun name and has a great story how it all started.

“I would “mule” my cakes all over Northern New Jersey and even down to areas surrounding Monmouth County,” she said. “Perhaps, the surprise cake box by their doorstep gave them something nice to look forward to during these strange times.”

Each week her creations got more and more popular and she got more and more busy.

“I decided to make this idea legit and turn it into an actual company. I had to make a decision if I was going to go back to the restaurant once it opened up, or take the chance and start something of my own,” Rutigliano said. “Here I am a couple of months later, constantly pushing through obstacles of starting a business during a pandemic but I haven’t looked back.”

“Midlife” Crisis—At 22

But not looking back is a recurring theme in Rutigliano’s life. Where she grew up in Bergen County was a highly populated area where family and food was an important part of her upbringing.

“My small town of Wood-Ridge was mostly surrounded by those ‘Italian American’ restaurants paying no attention to seasonality and local produce,” she said. “I went the usual route in which adolescents are taught to go through in our society; school, college, now go find a career.”

Rutigliano said it was during my time working for a chiropractor that she was introduced to the “health and wellness” world and just how important the relation to “food and our bodies is.”

“I basically went through this midlife crisis at the age of 22,” she said.

Not content with her job, searching for something more fulfilling, Rutigliano came across a culinary school built on a wellness foundation, teaching alternative ingredient cooking, focusing on health, seasonality, and cooking for disease prevention.

“Bye Bye Jersey, I’m off to California without a single hesitation,” Rutigliano said as she was off to Bauman College in Berkeley. Calif.

During her time in the Bay Area, Rutigliano reaped as much as the benefits she could while struggling to pay the “outrageous” rent as a beginner culinary student.

“That area is magical when it comes to the local harvest and supporting the farmers who grow it, an ideology I knew I wanted to bring back home,” she said.

Rutigliano worked for a high-end catering company, a health driven food preparation company, a local bakery focusing on unrefined, unprocessed ingredients with many other small jobs in between.

After about three years living in Oakland, Rutigliano moved back home to get serious in the restaurant world.

“And boy, what a world that has been,” she said. “I wanted to focus on seasonal, new American fine dining as well as the ever-changing dietary needs that arise.”

Rutigliano worked as a pastry chef at Pure Food and Wine in NYC which was strictly a raw/vegan and gluten free restaurant, a sous chef at Cafe Matisse in Rutherford and most recently, a sous chef at James on Main in Hackettstown.

And now her winding path has taken her delivering her confections around the Garden State, for free. And her creations are not like any others.

“I’d say Cake Mule is different than other bakeries because it truly focuses on your health. I want to provide a dessert in which people can indulge and not feel guilty about,” Rutigliano said. “I strictly do not work with bleached flour, refined sugars, or artificial ingredients. I try to source my ingredients as locally as possible with Valley Shepherd Creamery being one of the farms where I get my grass fed butter.”

Rutigliano said she currently offers vegan, dairy free, and gluten free options and will work with allergy concerns and create a custom cake if need be.

“I don’t want people to feel like they are being an inconvenience anymore when they go out to eat and have health restrictions,” she said. “Cake Mule will gladly work with you on that.”

Future Plans

Rutigliano said the dream was always to open a health minded cafe offering organic smoothies, light breakfast options, and creative lunches created by trained chefs where detail was just important during these meals as it would be during a dinner service. Now that Cake Mule has unexpectedly taken off, this could be the start for a cafe offering both savory and sweet options.

“Once indoor dining is allowed at 100 percent capacity, it will make more sense to land a store front,” she said. ” Until then, I am constantly on the lookout for something local to the Long Valley area and will continue to offer my cakes for your next special occasion or simple night of indulgence at home.”

Until then, Rutigliano said she will rent commercial kitchens and…mule…her equipment and product back and forth.

“Anything, to make this work,” she said.

The work at this unexpected venture has also brought Rutigliano something else: gratitude.

“I am incredibly grateful for the support I’ve been getting and motivated from the desire to bring something healthy, local, and delicious to the area,” she said.

Those interested in learning more can reach out through the business website and Facebook page.

Patch would love to tell your story of survival and rebirth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drop us a line at russ.crespolini@patch.com

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Pushed By Pandemic: Long Valley Chef Launches Cake Mule Business

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