Like a typical Jewish mother, Pattie Lerner always wanted to make sure her three children got enough to eat.
So when one of her daughters became severely gluten intolerant about three years ago, the 55-year-old Churchville nurse tasted and studied every available product. Not finding anything good enough, she decided to try her hand at cooking healthy gluten-free meals.
What started as a labor of love for her child has now turned into a full-time gourmet bakery business.
With the rising prevalence of food allergies in the United States, perhaps it’s no surprise that Lerner isn’t the only entrepreneur in the region selling alternatives for those who can’t eat soy, dairy, nuts, gluten, wheat or eggs.
Barbara Sharon, a 58-year-old from the Jersey shore, also recently started her own online business offering certified kosher, gluten-free cookies, which are packaged with an original poem.
Both bakers also happen to have backgrounds in nursing, which came in handy when developing wholesome recipes for their desserts.
Long before her daughter became gluten-intolerant, Lerner had been tapping into her knowledge of nutrition to cook healthy food for her husband, who was diagnosed with the beginnings of heart disease at age 30. Desserts represented the biggest challenge in her quest to find gluten-free foods for her daughter, Cara, now 28. She likened herself to a chemist, playing with ingredients to create just the right texture, consistency and taste.
Buoyed by the reaction from mah-jongg friends who got the job of taste-tasting her baking experiments, Lerner decided to see if she could market her product.
“None of my friends are bakers or cooks,” she said. “They were my motivation, but I needed to see for myself if my product would actually sell.”
For her first test market, she brought her desserts to Bunn’s Natural Foods in Southampton, Pa., where she was a regular customer.
Impressed by Lerner’s enthusiasm, owner Rhonda Penecale suggested that the aspiring baker come back after adding dairy-free frosting and updating her packaging.
Over the next six months, Lerner worked on her recipes and redesigned her label, naming her company Sweet Megan (glutenfreesweetmegan.com ) after a niece who was diagnosed with cancer at age 18. Even though Megan became blind in one eye and lost the use of her right leg and arm, Lerner said, she managed to smile through excruciating pain and never complained throughout her losing battle with cancer.
“We could think of no better way to honor Megan’s memory and to have her spirit continue to live on than to name our company after her,” Lerner said.
In November 2012, she officially launched her business at a Bunn’s demonstration.
“The response was overwhelming,” Penecale recalled. “She sold out of her entire inventory of 75 cupcakes after two hours.”
In addition to tasting good, Penecale said, she appreciated that Lerner’s goodies used high-quality ingredients. “For us, it is not only about gluten-free, it also needs to be healthy.”
Lerner recently signed a lease on a property in Holland where she will produce her birthday cakes, cupcakes, muffins and cookies. In addition to gluten-free, some of her products are also void of nuts, soy and dairy.
Lerner said she also plans to donate some of her baked goods to raise money for the Dream Foundation, which fulfilled her niece’s last wish of meeting comedic actress Ellen DeGeneres in December 2007. She’s already helped raise $350 for the foundation by donating desserts for an auction in April.
Like Lerner, Barbara Sharon always loved baking for family and friends. Cookies were her specialty. She made so many batches when her three children were young that she became known as the “cookie lady.”
For Thanksgiving, “I had to bring them. For a community party, I had to bring them,” said Sharon of Long Branch, N.J. “When someone got married and they had a reception, I had to bring them.”
With this history of demand for her cookies, Sharon said she’d always dreamed of opening a gourmet cookie business. Now that her children have all grown up and moved out, she decided to stop teaching nursing to focus on her new endeavor. She officially launched Mouthfull Cookies (mouthfullcookies.com ) in July.
From the start, Sharon said, she decided to focus on gluten-free cookies since she’s somewhat sensitive herself and discovered statistics pointing to a growing market.
An estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education website. A study released this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that food allergies in children increased about 50 percent from 1997 to 2011, but there’s no clear explanation why.
Various sources estimate that roughly 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, the condition in which the immune system overreacts to gluten, leading to inflamed intestines and other chronic gastrointestinal symptoms. An unknown number of people may not have full-blown celiac but still struggle with gluten sensitivities.
“Gluten-free is really popular lately,” Sharon said. Plus, she continued, “I feel better when I eat it, so why don’t I just perfect these cookies for now and we’ll have mass market appeal with them?”
Sharon said she uses the motto “yummy for all,” because “you cannot tell the difference between our cookies and regular cookies.” Hers are kosher and lactose-free, as well.
To give customers an extra reason to smile, she decided to include poems with her goodies. She’d been writing rhymes for her granddaughter’s birthday card each year, she said, so she sat down to write poems themed to holidays or special occasions.
Customers select the poem they want when they order online. Sharon currently prepares the orders at a kosher facility in Bensalem. While her products are
only available by ordering online right now, Sharon said, she hopes to one day offer them at local stores.
“It is a feel good company,” she said. People “are going to eat the cookie, have a smile on their face, then read the poem and be happy.”
With Chanukah just ending, we’ll give you a taste of her rhyme for the Festival of Lights. For the treats, well, you’ll have to order your own taste of that:
Eat latkes or donuts or anything fried
Decorate with blue and white and play dreidel with pride
Celebrate as we commemorate the miraculous day
A festival of joy in every way! l