The Sweet Result of Years of Suffering from Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity
The gluten-free world is filled with stories of people who took lemons and turned them into lemonade. I’m privileged to have met two women who have turned their diagnoses of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity into a thriving bakery called Sweet Christine’s that brings smiles to so many gluten-free faces!
I first met one of these women, Laura Hahn, two summers ago when she took over the kitchen for a week at Camp Celiac in North Scituate, Rhode Island. My son has attended and I’ve volunteered at this camp for the past four summers. Laura applied her knowledge of how to best prepare gluten-free items, which, as we all know, can sometimes be tricky. But Laura hadn’t always been a gluten-free cooking expert, and her journey up to this point certainly hadn’t been an easy one.
Laura had suffered for years with digestive issues. It all came to a head when she was deployed to Iraq with the Red Cross from 2009 to 2010. It was there that she ended up losing 20 pounds within six months. Once back in the United States, her digestive issues persisted. She felt run-down, depressed, and couldn’t stay awake at work. She was still losing weight and had become severely jaundiced. It wasn’t until she began researching her symptoms online that a light bulb went off regarding gluten. Fortunately, Laura ended up in the care of a great doctor who truly listened to her concerns. She was ultimately diagnosed with gluten sensitivity.
Once her health rebounded, Laura threw herself into the world of gluten-free cooking and baking. After being encouraged to enter a cooking contest for a reality show on NBC, she found herself beating the four other contestants! This led to a brief run on another cooking show followed by a serendipitous visit to Sweet Christine’s Bakery, where she met owner Christine Ruggio. Christine’s story was similar to her own – and so many others in the gluten-free community who have gone years before getting a correct diagnosis.
From the time she was in grade school, Christine was plagued with stomach problems and eventually was diagnosed with “IBS.” She was put on all sorts of medications and was even told that her symptoms were a result of stress and anxiety. But Christine knew that the doctors were missing something. Unfortunately, it took years of going from doctor to doctor until she was able to piece it all together. Her suspicion that she might have celiac disease came on a trip to Italy to visit relatives, many of whom she learned had the disease. But when she arrived home, her doctor was dismissive. He wouldn’t test her, despite the fact that she was trying to raise three kids and oftentimes had a hard time just getting out of bed. Later, after learning that her body was completely depleted of B vitamins, she demanded a celiac test.
While Christine wasn’t surprised by the positive results of the test, she was furious that she could have been helped sooner if her doctor had been more aware and more open-minded. It was now 2005, and she had endured 25 years of unnecessary suffering. Along this frustrating journey, Christine had also been misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis due to findings on an MRI. As it turns out, her neurological issues (and abnormal MRI findings) resolved themselves after a little over a year following her diagnosis of celiac disease and adoption of a strict gluten-free diet.
Several years later, Christine’s middle child was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. Dissatisfied with the taste and quality of existing gluten-free baked goods, Christine began making cookies in her home and testing them on her kids and their neighborhood friends. When her gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe was perfected, word spread and locals began asking for the product.
Motivated to go “back to work” after being a stay-at-home mom, Christine had a commercial kitchen built onto her house. But once she started making products for a local natural foods store and the celiac unit of a local children’s hospital, she found she needed more space and a storefront to properly sell her products. In 2008, she established Sweet Christine’s bakery in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and has continued to grow her product line ever since.
Christine’s goal is to offer “gourmet gluten-free” products that taste good, have a superior texture and consistency, and are made with wholesome ingredients. The bakery’s products are all-natural and organic, even using their own proprietary flour blends created in-house. Sweet Christine’s is a dedicated gluten-free facility, certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group, and is also nut-free.
Christine and Laura work hand-in-hand to grow the bakery’s business, all while keeping tight control of quality standards. After doing a variety of odd jobs at the bakery, Laura is now in charge of building up the bakery’s wholesale business. They distribute nationwide to both wholesale and retail locations including many universities, hospitals, and stadiums.
For gluten-free folks who can’t find Sweet Christine’s products and don’t live within driving distance of the bakery, many of their popular products like their pizza crusts, sandwich bread, rolls, burger and hot dog buns, baguettes, and muffins can be ordered online at www.onlinebakery.co. I recently had the good fortune to attend their grand opening celebration at their new location on Route 1 in Kennett Square, just about a mile from where they were previously located. The new location gives them more space, visibility along a major thoroughfare, and ample parking.
The bakery was abuzz with elated customers, including one who declared, “I haven’t had a bagel in years!” And real bagels they are. The plain and cinnamon raisin varieties look and taste like the “regular” bagels you might remember. Christine even makes handmade gluten-free donuts that are as pretty as they are delicious. So too, are her cupcakes. My personal favorite was the Blueberry Cream Cheese Coffee Cake, which, along with her many varieties of muffins, is a best seller. I believe Christine when she says that their products literally bring many customers to tears. For customers who want a healthier option, Sweet Christine’s also offers an oatmeal bar with choices of toppings, egg sandwiches (on their bagels), and made-to-order smoothies.
Sweet Christine’s is open Tuesday through Saturday. Now that they have more space, they also serve lunch each day. There’s enough comfortable seating to accommodate customers stopping in for thin-crust pizza, customized grilled cheese sandwiches (more like gluten-free paninis), soup, and salad combos. Special occasion cakes are available to order at any time, and Christine has been known to donate gluten-free cakes to groups supporting children with disabilities. Christine has always had a soft spot for kids who have to eat differently. She donates items to Camp Celiac, where my own son and almost 150 other campers look forward to some of the best gluten-free, kid-tested products available. Christine says she’s so thankful to have such an amazing staff that cares so much about the gluten-free community. From what I’ve witnessed, their hard work is not lost on their customers both near and far.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.