When Bowser broke her hip, she was so depleted of nutrients that Merlow said she almost died.
After her diagnosis, other family members were tested for both celiac disease and a gluten intolerance gene, since the disease is hereditary.
“The damage is just being done before there are symptoms,” Merlow said.But what everyone missed the most was bread. Gluten-free breads tend to be heavy and dry, more like a brick, explained Julie Anne Spencer, of Indiana, who married into the family. And it crumbles easily.
So the four sisters, also including Dana Steele, of Smicksburg, kept playing with recipes, trying to find one that worked.
Then one winter night in 2007, Merlow created a light loaf with slices that were so soft they could even be wrapped around a hot dog. She was so excited, she immediately took it to another sister’s house despite it being “a late and nasty night.”
Sisters Three, Gluten Free was born from that night. The women spent days trying to re-create the mistake and finesse the recipe, then create a baking mix to sell.
“We discovered it was something that doesn’t exist in the gluten-free world,” said Spencer, who said she has been unable to find any other bread that is both gluten-free and good.
Bowser said the taste of the fresh bread “is something that brings tears to your eyes when you’re celiac.
“I had just given up on bread,” she said. “Our bread is so easy to make. I tell people, if I can make it, anyone can make it.”
The mix is fairly simple, containing tapioca starch, rice flour, sugar, xanthan gum, salt and yeast. The baker adds water, vinegar, shortening and eggs (or an egg replacement).
The women say the mix can be used for pizza crusts, rolls and cinnamon rolls. In Indiana, Spaghetti Benders uses the company’s mix for gluten-free croutons and bread, and Valeski’s offers the mix off their shelves, they say. In Punxsutawney, both the County Market and Yoder’s offer their mix.
All four of the women were stay-at-home moms before they incorporated in 2008, and they split the jobs among themselves. They work with a manufacturer in New York to produce and package the mix and handle shipping and receiving from an office space in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s small business incubator. A friend guided them through the startup, and a family member provides legal advice.
Now, Sisters Three is just a couple weeks away from taking orders on their website. They’ve even received some calls from the United Kingdom, they said, and have friends in support groups eagerly waiting for the official launch.
“We know that it’s going to take off,” Merlow said. “We’re just trying to prepare for when it does that.”
The women say they are more than just a business; they’re also helping others who are coming behind them in the gluten-free world. All four have sworn to health improvements since they’ve gone off gluten. They say their children are healthier and have longer attention spans, and they’re eager to encourage others.
“If there’s a new person who has questions, we’d like to take their hand,” Spencer said.
Steele, who also teaches a cooking class, has made shopping lists pages long, full of gluten-free food in regular grocery stores (health food stores can be too expensive, they say).
Bowser still remembers how she’d come home from visiting her sisters, sick from all the gluten-filled food she’d been eating, long before she knew she actually had the disease. Other family members had similar issues that they didn’t really understand.
“My husband would say, `you’re always sick when you come home,”’ Bowser said.
When she was diagnosed, “I saved everybody’s life and didn’t even know it,” she said.