I pull into Something Sweet Without Wheat just as the sun is rising. Snow piles nearly reach the roof of the bakery’s Woburn, Massachusetts, location. The air outside the bakery smells like apples and cinnamon, coffee cake and freshly baked dough, and I am suddenly very, very regretful that I skipped breakfast this morning.
Inside, Something Sweet Without Wheat looks very much like any other bakery: The display case is packed with frosted cupcakes, oversized cookies and flaky pastries. Soft, fresh-baked loaves of bread and dinner rolls line the shelves. Decorators pipe frosting flowers onto cakes in one room, miniature coffee cakes bake in another, and the head baker rolls pizza dough in a third. Owners Christine Penney and Sandy Federico lead me through the bakery, putting crispy-chewy chocolate cookies in my hands, showing me ovens larger than my hall closet and feeding me pillowy, cinnamon-coated apple cider doughnuts that are the best I’ve ever had.
Something Sweet Without Wheat, with its bright pink walls and cheery cupcakes, may look like any other bakery, but everything baked within these walls is 100 percent gluten free.
You’d never know it, looking at the brightly frosted baked goods, fluffy muffins and assorted pastries. Indeed most gluten-free bakeries across the country offer the same products and services as bakeries fueled by wheat flour: artisan bread, custom wedding cakes, ready-made pizza dough and even locally roasted coffee. But gluten-free bakeries experience some very specific challenges— and, in turn, receive some very unique rewards.
A self-taught industry
Owners of gluten-free bakeries across the country range from the wildly successful Erin McKenna of BabyCakes, who has several cookbooks and locations under her belt, to Paula Dempsey of Dempsey Bakery, which is still finding its feet and its customer base in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Many bakery owners are self-taught or employ a self-taught baker. After all, if you want to be a baker, you go to pastry school; if you want to be a gluten-free baker, you get in the kitchen and start baking.
And you fail. Often.
Recognizing her own limitations, Dempsey, whose large family has multiple food allergies, said she’d gladly open a bakery “if God drops a baker out of the sky.” Dempsey did eventually find a willing gluten-free baker, but it took an entire year of recipe development before she felt confident enough to launch her bakery. It took six months before Dempsey even started offering the finished baked goods to willing tasters for feedback.
“The biggest challenge [to owning a gluten-free bakery] is that you don’t have gluten,” says Patti Crane of the popular Mariposa bakeries in the San Francisco Bay area. Gluten is what creates structure in standard baked goods, particularly in bread, so bakers need to get creative to maintain the structural integrity of their gluten-free baked goods. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge,” Crane says.
Most bakeries develop their own flour blends. Some use a one-size-fits-all mix, while others, like Something Sweet Without Wheat, change their blends with each baked good they create. Since the recipes take so long to develop, they’re often one of the most precious commodities a gluten-free bakery has. After undergoing such a steep learning curve, “I’m not gonna give my recipes to anyone,” laughs Dempsey.
Staffing and training
Given the lack of professional training for gluten-free bakers, staffing is a major concern for many gluten-free bakeries. Bakers are usually trained in-house by shadowing current employees or the bakery owners themselves.
That means losing a staff member is potentially devastating: If you own a smaller bakery that only employs one bread baker, what happens when she goes on vacation? Or gets sick? Or worse, what happens if she quits? Since you can’t hire another experienced gluten-free baker right off the street, a bakery could be without one of its most crucial products for weeks at a time.
Staff members also need to be trained to handle gluten-free ingredients and to recognize the importance of preventing cross-contamination. Bakers generally ban their employees from bringing any gluten-containing products into the bakery and take the time to fully explain the medical consequences when someone with celiac disease or a wheat allergy consumes gluten.
Once they understand the medical importance of a 100 percent gluten-free bakery and see the grateful reception from the gluten-free community, however, staff members often become very dedicated to their bakeries. One staff member at Something Sweet Without Wheat, nicknamed “Debbie-Does-It-All” for her willingness to pitch in on anything at the bakery from office work to cake decorating, spoke with pride about serving the people who come into the bakery each day, from her regular weekly customers to the visiting family who flew back to Israel with a box of Something Sweet Without Wheat pastries.
For both staff and owners, you get the sense that this isn’t just about fulfilling someone’s sweet tooth. This is about ensuring that everyone at the table can have their cake and eat it too, no matter their dietary restrictions.
Working the front lines
Training back-of-house staff is a challenge all its own, but front-of-house staff need to be trained in dealing with customers with food allergies, dietary restrictions or even questions about their conditions.
Inevitably when you have “gluten free” or “without wheat” in your name, as Mary Burgdorff does in her Wisconsin-based Molly’s Gluten-Free Bakery, you become a sort of beacon or gathering place for the gluten-free community, whether you intended to or not. “Everyone has a story,” Burgdorff says, and many have no one to talk to.
Burgdorff trains her staff never to give medical advice, but they do offer restaurant recommendations and share stories. The small bakery doesn’t even need to advertise: Word spreads among the gluten-free community by word of mouth.
Bakeries can also serve as an introduction to the gluten-free diet at hospitals and celiac disease centers by selling baked goods there. Something Sweet Without Wheat supplies many of the local hospitals with gluten-free baked goods. Once patients try the products in the cafeteria, they often head straight to the bakery upon release. Some parents bring in their children immediately after they’ve been diagnosed. It’s a way to turn a potential negative into a positive: “You can have anything you want in this bakery, and it won’t make you sick.”
Gluten-free bakeries may serve the same products as their gluten-containing counterparts, but emotions run much higher at gluten-free bakeries.
“People are so connected to food. They get so emotional,” says Crane.
Julie Moreno, of Jewel’s Bakery and Café in Phoenix, Arizona, agrees. “At least once or twice a week someone cries…[When people come in for the first time] they either curse—a good kind of curse—or they weep,” she says.
Not just gluten free
Gluten isn’t the only ingredient these bakeries have to avoid. They frequently receive requests for dairy-free, corn-free, soy-free or vegan baked goods as well. McKenna’s BabyCakes bakeries are both gluten free and vegan, and Something Sweet Without Wheat is about 80 percent dairy free. Special requests are also common. Moreno estimates that about 20 percent of all her orders require further customization. “I think you need to appeal to everyone,” she says. “Everyone—no matter what they eat— should be able to find something on your menu.”
Dempsey Bakery especially goes out of its way to accommodate food restrictions. The bakery is 100 percent gluten, soy and nut free, with many dairy-free, egg-free and sugar-free options. Dempsey’s family has numerous food allergies, so she’s no stranger to accommodating special requests. Her bakery once made a wedding cake with one gluten-free layer, one sugar-free layer and one egg/dairy-free layer. In fact, Dempsey’s signature “Everyone’s Bread” is so named because everyone at her family table can eat it. The bread is free of gluten, dairy, egg, soy, rice, corn and tapioca.
Finding a price point
One of the biggest challenges gluten-free bakery owners face is the cost and sourcing of their specialty ingredients. While many bakers can order giant, budget-friendly sacks of flour at wholesale suppliers, gluten-free ingredients like tapioca flour or arrowroot starch are much harder—and more expensive—to come by.
Some bakery owners, like Burgdorff from Molly’s Gluten-Free Bakery, say this is a major problem. She constantly searches for ways to keep prices reasonable while dealing with high-cost, premium ingredients.
Others, like Moreno from Jewel’s Bakery and Café, say their prices are comparable with other high-end, from-scratch bakeries in town. All agree that their main customer base—those with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or other dietary needs—are generally used to paying a higher price for gluten-free baked goods.
Some of these customers will drive across state lines to load up the cars with bakery products. Others will gladly pay premium shipping costs in order to stock their home freezers with gluten-free muffins, breads and pizza dough. Several bakery owners say customers have begged them to start shipping their products, not only for their own personal use but also for care packages for gluten-free college students or faraway relatives.
‘Just as good, if not better’
Many owners stress the need for their products to be just as good as—if not better than—gluten-containing ones. If you order a gluten-free wedding or birthday cake, no one wants their cake to be called out as “weird” or “special.” It should look and taste just as good as any other cake on the market. The same applies to bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a child’s lunchbox or a box of cookies served at a party. While a large percentage of customers do need to be gluten free for health reasons, bakery owners want them to be able to come in with non-gluten-free friends and have the same experience as any other bakery in the city.
Some bakeries even go toe-to-toe with the gluten-containing bakeries in town. Moreno entered her gluten-free cupcake in a charity cupcake competition as a favor for a friend. She ended up winning two categories, including best overall—beating every other gluten-containing big-name chef in town. Being able to compete with the gluten-containing bakeries is important for business, says Moreno. “Only about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease. If you just appeal to that 1 percent, I’m not sure you’re going to make it,” she notes.
Commitment to the cause
The No. 1 thing you need to succeed as a gluten-free bakery? Commitment, owners agree.
“Food is a really fun business, but it’s a really tough one. You need to feel committed [to the gluten-free diet],” says Crane.
Bakers are often gluten-free or have a child who is. They get it. They’ve lived this. They’ve fought the same battles their customers have, and they know what it’s like to be told they can no longer have pizza, bread, croissants or cookies.
Many started out in their home kitchens, baking for friends and family who ultimately persuaded them to open up a shop. Many have spent long hours in the kitchen crafting flour blends, reconfiguring xanthan gum amounts or crunching the costs of brown rice flour. But for these owners, it’s more than a business. It’s a passion, a commitment and a service to the community.
Bakery treats that look and taste like gluten-containing versions is just one part of the business. Gluten-free bakeries have something more: a cause. A heart. A reason to open their doors each morning that goes beyond serving brownies, cupcakes and macaroons. And though they may have a steeper hill to climb than regular bakeries, each owner says that the long journey was worth it—and that they’d do it all over again.
Gluten-free bakeries are popping up around the country. Check out our list of gluten-free bakeries in Portland, Maine, Atlanta, and the Twin Cities.
Nicki Porter is the associate editor of Gluten-Free Living and The Writer. She enjoyed this assignment for obvious reasons.