Food Service & Agriculture, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Comfort food for everyone

Gluten-free bakery and café creates treats for those with digestive disorders.

January 15, 2016
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Live Gluten Free Bakery & Cafe
Sandi Hillis started creating gluten-free treats for friends and family before branching out to start a bakery and café. Photo by Rachel Weick

When Sandi Hillis was diagnosed with a gluten allergy more than 30 years ago, she learned how to make gluten-free foods for family functions.

Now that experience is paying off in the form of a new business.

Live Gluten Free Bakery & Café is a dedicated gluten-free facility with breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert options designed for customers who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or other allergies.

The family-owned business is located at 1062 E. Sternberg Road in Norton Shores, in the Pointes Shopping Center between U.S. 31 and the Muskegon County Airport.

The Hillis family officially opened the doors to the small business April 20, 2015, and word spread quickly through the grapevine.

“When we opened, we were just overwhelmed,” said Hillis. “I was in IT for 30 years; I had never owned a restaurant. I wasn’t in the restaurant business.”

Hillis, who was diagnosed with a gluten allergy in 1984, only to find out in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma that she had celiac disease, had spent years baking and cooking for family functions. It was only after receiving positive feedback at a number of craft shows that she and her husband, Scott, decided to start a café.

“My father-in-law for the last 10 years has been asking me, ‘When are you going to open up a restaurant?’ I would bake and cook to make sure it was safe; and I baked and cooked for a lot of the get-togethers,” said Hillis. “I have just been well-known for it, even though I had a career. I didn’t know I was ever going to do this — it wasn’t really a passion at the time.”

It is now.

The Live Gluten Free Bakery & Café team debuted their baked goods and food options during a Grand Haven craft show at White Pines Middle School and then at the 2015 Grand Rapids Bridal Expo last January. After customers left the craft show in search of an ATM to purchase more cupcakes, and then learning attendees of the bridal show had selected their cake as the “best-tasting,” Hillis said it made them think: “I guess we do have something here.”

“The one at White Pines in Grand Haven, it was from that craft show we had people knocking on our door,” said Hillis. “After the bridal show, I was turning 50 and we decided if we were ever going to do this, now would be the time.”

Leasing space in the Pointes Shopping Center, the husband and wife team completely renovated the interior, which previously housed another restaurant. The bakery and café is furnished with homemade wooden tables, a wall made out of a weathered-wood fence, and a brick fireplace to create an inviting atmosphere.

“I wanted something warm and cozy and inviting. This is just the look that makes me feel warm,” said Hillis. “It is a strip mall, so it is cold, generally, so I definitely wanted to warm it up.”

The initial investment to complete the renovations and launch the business was approximately $50,000, according to Hillis. She attributed some of the  cost-savings to bargain hunting, attending auctions, and sanding down mismatched table bases to create a uniform look.

“The walls were yellow, gaudy orange, and the carpet was purple in here. I made the tables from scratch, did the fireplace, and I put up all the steel,” said Hillis. “I needed weathered wood and it was easier to put a new fence up at home … so I sent my husband home for 50 sticks of lumber from our fence.”

After opening, they attended the Greater Grand Rapids Celiac Support Group’s Gluten Free Food Fair in May 2015 and another craft show in Lansing, which sparked a number of shipping orders.

“I have shipped all over, from Philadelphia, Florida, and we just had an inquiry via email from the United Kingdom,” said Hillis. “They came here to visit and they asked if we would be interested in checking into it.”

Packaged Facts, a publisher of market studies on consumer products, indicated sales of gluten-free foods in the retail sector reached nearly $973 million in 2014. The sales equaled a compound annual growth rate of about 34 percent during a five-year period ending in 2014, according to the U.S. fifth edition.

Based on consumer interest in gluten-free foods, an escalating prevalence of health problems associated with diet, and the 2013 U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling on the definition of gluten-free, the organization projects market sales will exceed $2 billion in 2019.

The Norton Shores-based bakery and cafe not only has increased sales since launching, but also has expanded its employee base from three members of the Hillis family to a total of seven employees.

“I had people knocking on my door Christmas Eve day saying (they) heard through the grapevine,” said HIllis. “I ended up selling out all the baked goods I had made for Christmas, and they came as far as from Lansing and Detroit.”

She indicated they will be adding another oven and expanding options on the bakery menu during the upcoming year.

The bakery currently offers gourmet cupcakes, wedding and specialty cakes, scones, pies, brownies and more than 12 types of breads. The café portion of the menu also offers breakfast staples such as pancakes, French toast and corned beef hash; traditional club and BLT sandwiches, gourmet grilled cheese and poppy seed chicken salad wraps; and pasta carbonara and old-fashioned macaroni and cheese.

“I suffered for years and years and would watch what I ate. Every place you went, you had to make sure you knew where the restrooms were and didn’t know if you were going to get sick,” said Hillis. “The (café’s) menu was comprised of everything that I wanted to eat going out but never could eat.”

Live Gluten Free Bakery & Café’s flour blends are mixed by Hillis using primarily factory-direct raw flour, and most products are dairy-free, non-GMO, organic and soy-free.

“I have a different formula for almost every recipe I have,” said Hillis in reference to the flour blends. “The other two distributors are Cisco and Gordon Food Service and then the (Muskegon) Farmers Market in the summer. We do farm-to-table as often as we can for any of our vegetables.”

Other than the peanuts used in the peanut butter cookies, the only other nuts used are pecans purchased from Ferris Nut & Co., since pecans are less likely to irritate those with sensitive digestive systems, according to Hillis.

While Hillis may not always have had a passion for a career in cooking and baking, she said she absolutely loves it, and customers have become like family.

“They call me the mad scientist because people will bring in a list of their allergies. They may have 12 allergies — 15 allergies — and I will create a cupcake. I’ll go back there and figure it out,” she said.

“I have had a grown man crying at the counter because his son was autistic and they needed a gluten-free, casein-free, sugar-free, dairy-free cake. He was turning 15 years old, and he had never had a birthday cake, and that is all he wanted. It still gives me goose bumps today.”

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