Our Towns

Allergic or Not, Customers Like Gluten-Free Bakeries

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Patty Rudibaugh recalls when a boy entered her bakery and tried a doughnut for the first time. “He was so ecstatic he had tears in his eyes because he’s never had a doughnut before,” she says. “To them, it’s everything to finally have the option of eating something they didn’t have before.”

“Them” are the customers at Patty’s Cookies & More in Salem. Most have severe allergies to foods they’ve been denied lest eating them trigger a reaction.

Rudibaugh started baking allergy-friendly foods after a friend who has celiac disease – an immune disease that causes a severe reaction from eating gluten, asked if Rudibaugh could make a gluten-free pizza crust. (Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye flours.)

Her friend was so satisfied that she asked Rudibaugh whether she could bake gluten-free cookies as well.

Once word got out that she could make these specialty foods, people began asking if she could make every-thing from pizzas and hamburger buns to cinnamon rolls and birthday cakes.

“There hasn’t been one thing I haven’t been able to make,” she says with a laugh.

Patty Rudibaugh opened Patty’s Cookies & More in 2015.

Since Patty’s Cookies opened in June 2015, it has moved three times: from a 36-square-foot cubby hole to a 200-square-foot space. This month Rudibaugh is opening again in a 3,200-square-foot storefront, 435 E. State St., to keep pace with demand.

Meanwhile, people travel as far as from West Virginia to try a gluten-free cupcake at The Bake Shoppe & Cafe at 80 E. State St. in Sharon, Pa., says co-owner Nancy Tusinac. “They like the taste of my products. I am gluten-free and I don’t like things that are flat and tasteless,” she says. “I have a sweet tooth and I want food to taste like something that you or someone else would eat that’s not gluten-free.”

Tusinac has had a wheat allergy all her life, she says, which stopped her from eating baked goods made from wheat flour that contains gluten. Four years ago, she bought The Bake Shoppe and began experimenting with recipes so she could sell gluten-free cakes. “There were no places around here that sold gluten-free things,” she says. “The things you buy commercially don’t always taste as good as something that’s homemade or baked from scratch.”

Similarly, Pepe Parish, co-owner of Orange Avocado in Boardman, has been gluten-free eight years because of health-related issues. He started baking gluten-free cookies for himself, eventually selling them to determine the extent of such a market. In August 2016, he opened Orange Avocado, where everything made is also vegan, raw and organic.

Corey Foster, a worker at Orange Avocado, says he sees people’s eyes glaze over when they hear an item is gluten-free. “When we first started selling cheesecake, we had samples and I would say, ‘Just try it.’ When people did, they were blown away that there was literally no cream cheese or gluten at all,” he says.

According to findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2009 to 2014, the number of people in the U.S. diagnosed with celiac disease has barely budged: from 0.7% in 2009 and 2010, to 0.8% in 2011 and 2012, and back to 0.7% in 2013 and 2014. In that same period, people without celiac disease who stayed away from gluten rose from 0.5% in 2009 and 2010 to 1.0% in 2011 and 2012 and 1.7% in 2013 and 2014.

These statistics reflect a trend of people adhering to a gluten-free diet even if they aren’t diagnosed with an allergy or disease forcing them to avoid it. According to Statista, the market for gluten-free foods is growing and projected at $7.594 billion by 2020.

Some people choose gluten-free diets, even if they don’t suffer from a food allergy because they think it’s part of a healthful lifestyle.

“People are becoming more aware of what they’re putting in their bodies,” Foster says. Many of his customers are workout and fitness enthusiasts and people who are conscious about their diets.

Corey Foster has worked at Orange Avocado since it opened in 2016.

At Orange Avocado, the crust of its popular pumpkin cheesecake is made of dates and pecans and the cheesecake body of pureed pumpkin, coconut nectar and oil and cashews. “It’s still definitely considered a treat, but comes out to roughly 600 calories while a regular, non-vegan-cheesecake is around 1,000,” Foster says. “It tastes just like any cheesecake.”

The gluten-free recipes require more work and cost more to produce, Tusinac of the Bake Shoppe points out. “Gluten-free dough is hard to work with because it’s very flaky,” she says, noting it lacks the gluten protein that helps make the dough stick together.

“It takes a lot of tweaking with flours,” she says. Most gluten-free dough is mixed with a variety of flours made from rice, sorghum, potato, garbanzo beans or millet, all usually priced higher than wheat flour.

The Bake Shoppe sells its gluten-free wares on Fridays and Saturdays and by special order. Tusinac’s most popular items are her cupcakes and cakes that come in more than 200 flavors and can all contain gluten, be gluten-free, or be customized for other allergy-friendly recipes on request.

Both gluten and gluten-free desserts are sold at Patty’s Cookies, although most items are gluten-free. Rudibaugh will sell gluten desserts only if requested by someone who wants both for a party, she says.

Whoopie pies, clothespin cookies, cinnamon rolls, turtle brownies and blueberry muffins are few of the many sweets she sells. “My menu expands by the need,” she adds.

Space in her new bakery includes a case that displays products made fresh that day for anyone who wants to enjoy them immediately. And it has a wholesale and freezer-section for anyone who wants to buy in bulk to take home for their freezers.

“I want this referred to as ‘heaven one bite at a time,’ ” Rudibaugh says. “Because people can come in and enjoy what they typically can’t have and be able to enjoy it one bite at a time instead of rushing to eat it because they think they’ll never have it again.”

Pictured, top: Nancy Tusinac is co-owner of The Bake Shoppe & Cafe in Sharon, Pa.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.