To cap off her internship at Eater Boston, Lilienne Sexton has completed a special project examining the options available around town for diners who omit nuts, gluten, or dairy from their diets due to allergies or other reasons. Each day this week, we're running a map or interview on the topic.
[Photo: Leesteffy Jenkins/Lilienne Sexton]
"If it tastes gluten-free, we normally don't sell it!" says Leesteffy Jenkins, owner of Violette Bakers, a gluten-free bakery in Cambridge. "Anyone can enjoy our food. The reason I started this business is because I know how it feels to have your own lousy little meal while everyone else is enjoying a joint eating experience. So we aim for something that everyone can enjoy, gluten-free or not."
Jenkins is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund the bakery's move to a new location; there's a little bit more than a week left in the campaign and still a lot of funds to raise. Rent suddenly more than tripled at the current location, necessitating the move.
Here, Jenkins talks with Eater about the challenges of gluten-free baking, from high costs to dough that doesn't stretch; her crowdfunding campaign; and more.
What made you decide to open a gluten-free bakery?
I have celiac; I was diagnosed in 2005.
Do you ever find it challenging to make a food that typically has wheat in it gluten-free?
Well, it depends on the food; some are extremely hard to convert. For instance, croissants are almost impossible because you need to stretch the dough with butter, and there's no stretch in gluten-free dough. In general, there are five or six or more ingredients to equal the one cup of wheat, and if you don't measure everything really precisely, the recipe can fail.
Do you find that your higher price point ever turns away customers?
I think most customers realize that one cup of wheat flour equals many ingredients. On our wall, we have eight different products that have to be milled. For instance, I was visiting a bakery recently, and on their wall, they said that their 50-pound bag of wheat flour costs $14. Our 50-pound bag of whole-grain rice costs $88, and that's not including all the ingredients we have to mix with it or the fact that we have to mill it into flour. So our costs are exponentially more expensive, and we also try to use a lot of organic ingredients and local ingredients, which I don't think other bakeries are doing, so those costs are more expensive as well.
Do you find that having a gluten-free bakery ever turns away customers that aren't gluten-free?
Every once in a while, particularly at the markets, you'll find somebody who will react negatively. I would say that a huge percentage of our customer base, particularly at the farmers markets, aren't gluten-free; they just buy our stuff and love it. And part of that is also because we make everything from scratch.
Because you were diagnosed with celiac later on in your life, do you find a noticeable difference between gluten-free food and not?
I've been gluten-free since 2005, so it's hard for me to know, but a local baker did a taste-testing of cupcakes in the area, and they said that ours were by far the best. They placed two giant orders of our cupcakes for the public because nobody would know they were gluten-free, and they were better than ones that had gluten in them.
Are there ever any worries of cross-contamination?
Never here because we are a dedicated gluten-free facility. We don't even let employees who aren't gluten-free bring in a Dominos pizza for lunch or anything; we are very strict.
Do you also have customers with other food allergies, like nut allergies?
Yes, all the time.
How do you cater to those?
Particularly if they have children that are anaphylactic, or even if they are adults that are anaphylactic — which is not as common with nuts — we recommend them to go to Something Sweet Without Wheat [in Arlington], because we use a lot of nuts in our facility. If they are only allergic to walnuts, and as long as they know we use walnuts in the facility, then we will sell to them.
How does your business in the store compare to your business at farmers markets?
The summer farmers markets are really very robust for us, so I would say that the farmers markets are still our biggest draw. It's partly because of our location; we are in a basement, and we are in sort of a dead zone of Cambridge, but we are going to be moving in a couple of weeks, so hopefully we will be in a better location.
Tell me a little bit about your crowdfunding campaign. Why are you moving? What are you hoping for in a new space?
We are moving because we have been paying $2500 a month for rent, and the landlord raised the rent to $8000 a month. That's what happens when Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks or any kind of box store comes in. We didn't have the capital to build a new kitchen, because when we came into this kitchen, we thought we could just take our equipment and plug it in and it start working, and in fact we had to spend a lot of money getting this kitchen in shape so that we could use it.
We still have problems — like when Dunkin' Donuts was doing its construction, they blew out our freezers, the compressors, so we spent $10,000 on new freezers. Then, a month later, the landlord gave us our notice. And just in the past week we blew out another refrigerator because electrics in this building are not very good. In fact this used to be the Orson Welles Cinema, and it stopped being a theatre because there was a giant electrical fire here.
Do you have a new place lined up?
We just put a letter of intent in on a place, and we are waiting to hear back from the landlord.
Is it in Cambridge still?
It is in Cambridge. But we've looked in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Arlington, Boston... part of the problem is real estate in general has gone up, and there are very few places that will allow you to have food. Every place that we can afford that will allow food, we have to build a whole new kitchen ourselves, and that's why we had to do the Indiegogo campaign.
How is the fundraising going so far?
Indiegogo has been kind of slow; we have only met about 14% of our goal, but we've had a couple of people call us up and say, "If you find a place, let us know. We might be able to help." A couple of people have approached me about being equidity funders.
Are you looking for the same vibe in a different area?
Yes. We like the whole kind of concept of something really casual because Boston is the only major city in the United States that doesn't have a dedicated gluten-free restaurant, or a place where people can go, sit down, and have coffee and whatever, so we've been trying to make it a place where people feel really comfortable.
Do you find it's hard to dine at non-gluten-free restaurants safely?
Yes. So the statistics are, from surveys that hospitals have taken, that people who have been diagnosed with either celiac or gluten intolerance go out to eat about 90% less than they did prior to diagnosis. Based on my own personal experience, I'd say that that's true. And it's going to get harder now because the federal gluten-free labeling laws are now in effect, so technically restaurants and places shouldn't be labeling anything on their menu gluten-free unless they can guarantee that it meets the federal guidelines. Also, flour is an airborne contaminant, so it gets in everything, making cross-contamination a real problem.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
Just that I hope that they will continue to have gluten-free resources, because Boston, for whatever reason, is sort of behind the times on this issue. You can have any number of restaurants with menus that are pretty much naturally gluten-free, and they could become wholly gluten-free. I think that would increase their business quite a bit, because there is no place like that where people know that they can go in and know for sure and not get cross-contaminated. That's why people come here, and that's why we've started selling more savories, because people want lunch and sometimes they want things to take home for dinner.
— Lilienne Sexton