By John Chambless
Christine Ruggio was sitting on a sofa in the new Sweet Christine's Bakery and Cafe on Thursday afternoon when a woman passing by did a double-take and put down her two full shopping bags.
“Are you the owner?” the woman asked her. She explained that she was stocking up for a trip to Louisiana, where her family – all of Cajun descent – struggles with gluten allergies. There's nothing like Christine's in their area. Christine listened attentively, thanking the woman for being a loyal customer and talking to her about her family.
This kind of thing happens a lot since Sweet Christine's opened in the former Orchard Restaurant, tucked away just off Route 1 in Kennett Square. People who recognize Christine – she looks exactly like the caricacutre on every Christine's package – feel free to share their stories.
During an interview, as her cell phone buzzed with incoming messages every couple of minutes, Christine talked about how, since 2008, her recipes have gone from home kitchen experiments to a national business.
As a child, she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. “I could tell that certain foods made me feel bad, but couldn't pinpoint it,” she said. “They just gave me medicines. When I got smarter, I thought maybe I should figure out why I was taking all this medication. I was nauseous all the time, so I just ate toast. Then in college, all I ate was a bagel, all day long. Basically, I was killing myself. I was just eating wheat – that was it.”
Her family has a long history of allergies to gluten – a wheat-derived substance that is in just about every food you can imagine. “My grandmother died of colon cancer and she had stomach problems her whole life,” Christine said. “It's hereditary. Taking gluten out, over time, can heal your body. If you continue putting gluten in your body, what it does is deplete every vitamin and mineral. In the '90s, I went over to Italy and realized that half my relatives over there had celiac disease and had never heard of it.”
Christine's long run of misdiagnoses included multiple sclerosis, lupus and Lyme disease. “The symptoms can mimic so many other autoimmune diseases,” she said.
In 2005, discovering that celiac disease was at the root of her lifelong problem, Christine eliminated gluten from her diet and began to get better. During the years when she and her family were struggling with their symptoms (one of her daughters also has a walnut allergy), Christine started experimenting with making chocolate chip cookies that they could all enjoy.
The commercial gluten-free products available at the time were limited and did not taste good. Christine recalled, laughing, how she used to try to toast gluten-free bread, only to have it crumble into dust when she tried to spread peanut butter on it for one of her children.
Through trial and error, her home recipes found success, and people started noticing. Friends and neighbors and the wider community of people dealing with celiac started asking for her baked goods. She sold products to local health-food stores, but the demand kept growing.
Last month, she opened Sweet Christine's Bakery and Cafe. The beautifully decorated cafe serves breakfast and lunch, as well as takeout baked goods, and the building houses the company's offices upstairs. The factory that produces Christine's products is on Birch Street in Kennett Square. From there, they are distributed nationwide to high-end businesses like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Orlando, the University of Delaware, Sofitel Luxury Hotels, Shop Rite markets, and the Aramark network. Basically, Christine's is a company that could go very large, very easily.
For now, though, Christine is holding the line on expanding the company's product line while the cafe gets on its feet. “We used to have co-packers in New York and Chicago do all our baking. Now we're doing it all in Kennett,” she said, explaining that bringing the company back home has made her life much easier.
Without prior experience in running a company, “I just fell into this,” Christine said. “I had a degree in human resources and PR work. Then this came into my life. I was working with children as well, and I wanted to be able to help them deal with the disease that I had. I figured, 'Well, I guess this is my calling.' I started doing it to help the community, help the schools. Then word got out.”
The business model is simple, and there are only 19 employees in the company. Christine has tinkered with finding the right balance of ingredients in her test kitchen, then offers the finished products frozen (there are no preservatives of any kind), or directly to the public through the cafe. Local businesses are serviced by distributors, and the products are also available online.
The charm of the bakery – there's a suggestion jar, an album of family photos, a couch for people to lounge on, and a chalkboard wall where young visitors can happily scribble – is the kind of thing that could be franchised. Christine smiled and said that could be a goal down the line, but for now, she's holding back expansion to make sure things are done correctly.
“Right now, our focus is on wholesale,” she said. “That's the reason we've opened the cafe and bakery. This is kind of a model. It's been my dream to be able to interact with the consumer and to have someone feel comfortable when they walk through the doors. You can eat anything you want here, and feel safe. This is a community.”
That kind of freedom is liberating for people who must deal with the intrusion of preservatives in virtually every processed food in the supermarket. The cross-harvesting of oats and wheat means, for instance, that most oats are tainted with gluten.
The Christine's product line includes doughnuts, muffins and bagels, rolls, pizza, cookies, brownies and ice-cream cakes that are gluten-free, nut-free and devoid of additives. The hardest thing to get right, she said, was the flour.
“We're so used to all-purpose flour,” she said. “You need to get the right texture, so it's not gritty. That's one of the big complaints about gluten-free food -- that it's gritty and very dry, because we take the gluten out. So it's a matter of playing around with a bunch of different flours. I use about six different flours, blended, to go into most of my products.”
Celiac and allergies are nothing new, Christine said. It's just that, in past decades, people didn't recognize the cause of their symptoms. Doctors were not trained to detect gluten allergies, so people suffered under incorrect diagnoses. “When we ate from the fields, we didn't have these problems,” she said. “Now, every processed food has gluten in it. It's an inflammatory. I used to have six sinus infections a year. But I have not had one since I went gluten-free.”
Whether or not genetic modification of crops plays a role in the explosion of gluten allergies is a subject of debate, but Christine did say that people don't have to be allergic to anything to enjoy her products.
“So many people have a misconception of gluten-free,” she said. “People think it's a diet, it's a burden. I'm not going to tell you not to eat a brownie or a muffin, but I'd much rather you eat one of mine, because it's not filled with all those things that we can't pronounce. These are all natural. There's nothing added to them. That's really very important to me.”
Sweet Christine's Bakery is at 503 Orchard Avenue in Kennett Square. It's open Tuesday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 610-444-5542, or visit www.sweetchristinesglutenfree.com.