Sisters form company to sell gluten-free baking mixes

(Published in The Indiana Gazette on May 2)

Nancy Bowser never would have thought that by breaking her hip at age 40, she would save her own life and start a business.
But in the aftermath of her fall and subsequent diagnosis of celiac disease – an autoimmune disorder in which a toxic reaction to gluten damages the small intestines – the Sharon resident and her three Indiana-area sisters have started a business selling gluten-free baking mixes.
“We’re trying to make good (gluten-free) bread for our families,” said Patty Merlow, of Indiana, one of the sisters.
Besides causing indigestion or other gastrointestinal problems, celiac disease means gluten damages the villi – small, hair-like projections on the wall of the small intestine that absorb nutrients, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. With the villi damaged, the sufferer is unable to absorb enough nutrients, causing problems such as anemia or osteoporosis.

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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.

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5 responses to “Sisters form company to sell gluten-free baking mixes

  1. some of the health foods that i always eat are those gluten free foods*.~

  2. health foods that are organice and have natural source should be the stuff that we should take “.’

  3. V

    Love this article. 🙂 I’m also looking to make my own company of selling allergy-free mixes. Although I won’t be able to farm out my mixes to another company, so I guess I’ll keep looking.

  4. Good luck V! Seems to be a need for that.

  5. Hi, I am presently exploring the idea of marketing my mixes but not sure what all would be involved with that and even where to start to find out. I found out I had Celiacs over a year ago and my little boy to. Due to the nature of the food I was forced to take on the tedias task of making my own recipe’s and perfecting them as time moves on. I too have found a mirracle in two of the ingredients you mentioned in your bread! Can not stand the bean flour’s so have stayed away from them. I have sold recipe’s fairly succesfully on Ebay for almost a year now, but need to move forward with more. Any advice or help you could offer me would be Fabulous and totally appreciated. Also it ask’s below for my website. I am currently building it so it will hopefully be up and running in a few days maybe. Thank you so much!

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