A Place Where Everything is Gluten-Free




November marks the first year anniversary of the Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/ Bistro, in Tucson. It all began with a serendipitous meeting between foodie Susan Fulton and professional baker Mary Gibson at a business event, Fulton recalls, “I liked what Mary was doing with her catering business and started helping out. Things just snowballed after that.”

Gibson adds, “I was catering small events; tea, hors d’oeuvres and tapas parties. When Susan joined me, it all went into a domino effect.”

Two events opened the women’s eyes to an untapped market. A guest at Gibson’s Sonoran Bed and Breakfast business requested gluten-free foods. Soon after, a business client asked for a gluten-free catered event. With-off-the-shelf ingredients, they satisfied their clients, but not themselves.

Gibson is a culinary pastry chef. Trained at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, with a resume of high-end resort kitchens from Sedona to Alaska, she knows pastry. Fulton owned Desert Penguin Custom Framing with a partner at the time she met Gibson. Deciding to leave her interest in the framing business, she was now free to focus her full attention on the Gourmet Girls.

As they set out to make tasty, gluten-free baked goods, the challenges were myriad. Every chemical reaction common to baking with wheat, rye, barley and other grains seemed not to work with coconut flour or other substitutes. But the sages say that tenacity is its own reward, and Gibson and Fulton proved that. After numerous attempts, a combination of brown and white rice, potato starch and tapioca reacted in a way a culinary chef could work with. Their first success was banana bread, and more pastry items followed.

Smart businesswomen from the beginning, Fulton and Gibson tested the waters for their newly created products at local farmers’ markets. Their following grew and demand increased. After two years of building market share, a restaurant space on North Oracle was acquired and the Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro became a brick and mortar reality. Restaurants are risky ventures, so the Gourmet Girls conducted cost/benefit analyses and wrote a business plan. Everything from location to pricing was researched and determined. The result of their conscientious effort was that people were waiting at the doors on opening day.

Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro thrives by serving people that love food and are health conscious, and the owners are embracing the diet for health benefits. In the food as medicine movement, attention on gluten-free products has grown as research and proselytizing have combined to expand awareness. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, some oats, many cosmetics and most processed foods. It is a staple of the American processed food diet. As a result, gluten intolerance and celiac disease affects one in 133 people in the U.S., according to Celiac.com. 

This autoimmune disorder of the small intestine occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages, from infancy onward. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea and fatigue. In the 1960s, the first biopsies were conducted and by 1995, improved medical screening and diagnoses of digestive disorders identified gluten intolerance as an enabler of celiac disease.

Gastroenterologists like New Zealand’s Rodney Ford, M.D., contend that the full range of affected population is unknown. “Gluten will do several things,” Ford explains. “In people with the appropriate genetics, it will stimulate celiac disease. It will also act as a neurotoxin in various ways.” In a recent appearance sponsored by the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group, the self-described “doctor gluten” spoke about the effects of gluten and advocated a gluten-free zone approach to diet and nutrition. “If you suspect gluten sensitivity or celiac, go to gluten zero—no gluten at all,” he states.“

Creating tasty gluten-free recipes is our passion.” Gibson and Fulton agree. More than a decade ago, Gibson bought a three-tier Garland commercial baking oven. It sat in storage, waiting to be fired up. Now it’s the production oven. If ever there was a third partner, it is the Garland, a precision appliance operated by the culinary chef and a foodie.

The bakery and bistro is gaining new fans all the time. “People want to be a part of this,” Gibson says. “They like the products and the community.” She notes that the staff of eight began to click about six months after the restaurant opened and really came into their own at about nine months.

Fulton adds, “We are constantly improving. Even though it sometimes hurts, we want feedback and criticism so we know where to put our attention. We learned a lot in the early months. People were very vocal; they supported us to improve.”

“Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro is Tucson’s first no cross-contamination, gluten-free zone.” Gibson says, “We are becoming the safe community center for like-minded people who recognize food as medicine, for the spirit and the soul.”

In the coming months, wholesale orders for restaurants, prepared meals to take home and online shipping of quick breads, cookies and ingredients will be the next dominos to fall in their strategy, and a recipe book is in the works. A year ago, the Gourmet Girls baked more than 200 pies for the holidays. This year, with improved pie dough, they’re excited, because the Garland is sure to be busy.

Location: 5845 North Oracle Rd. For more information, call 520-408-9000 or visit GourmetGirlsGlutenFree.com

Dale Bruder, a freelance writer based in Tucson, is a graduate of Coach University, student of the I Ching and serial entrepreneur. Connect at Info@dalebruder.com.

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