If you are gluten intolerant, have a wheat, barley, or rye allergy, or even worse celiac disease, when was the last time you recall having a pastry so delightfully rich and satisfying, you wanted to burst into song? Well maybe not the song, but if one of these conditions applies to you, you know what I mean. Wait no longer, Gluten Free Gem specializes in providing gluten and allergy-free baked goods, desserts, and pastries. This article highlights the story behind this wonderful oasis in the midst of all the dry, flat, and tasteless gluten-free products on the market today. But, if you need a pastry fix now and want to jump ahead, visit the Gluten Free Gem booth at the Hollywood Farmers Market on Saturdays or stop by the retail location on the corner of NE Broadway and 2nd Avenue.
Anne Miller comes from a long line of adventurers. Anne is the 6th generation living in Oregon. Her great, great grandmother was the first non-native American baby to be born at Fort Vancouver. Anne calls her heritage ”Old School”. This might be where Anne got her frontiersman-like and entrepreneurial spirit.
As the owner of Gluten Free Gem, Anne did not create the bakery because she loved baking. In fact, her journey took a circuitous route before it came to fruition. No, not a baker at all, but rather through an academic background.
For several years, Anne was a teacher. However, her love of travel inspired her to become a travel agent, a career which lasted from 1997 to 2003. (While she was able to travel much of the globe, Fiji is still on her bucket list). Traveling soon stepped aside when her two beautiful girls came along. Little did she know that they would be the source of her inspiration for gluten-free baking.
After much trial and error, her three-year-old daughter, Greta, was diagnosed with “celiac” disease in December 2005. Celiac disease affects about 1% of the American population. It is caused by an allergy to gluten (Think wheat, barley, and rye) of which some form is commonly found in most commercial products. Significant improvements were noticeable within a short time of cutting out anything with gluten from Greta’s diet. Anne now felt she had to do something to help her daughter as well as anyone suffering from an allergy or sensitivity to gluten. Especially, after Anne removed anything with gluten in it from her own diet to see if it would help her one-year-old daughter, Emma. Emma had been fretful, agitated, and could not stop crying. Anne was breastfeeding at the time and within days of abstaining from wheat, Emma had improved significantly. While neither Anne or her youngest daughter have been diagnosed with celiac disease, they both are gluten intolerant.
Anne started baking at home for her family. But it wasn’t until Emma started kindergarten that Anne got into baking gluten-free pastries for sale. Her husband had opened a coffee shop called Coffee Plant in downtown Portland, giving Anne the perfect venue for trying out her gluten-free baked goods.
However, the gluten-free products were made alongside wheat baked goods, potentially contaminating them. By September 2006, the Coffee Plant was doing well enough that the couple expanded operations to John’s Landing, calling the new location Corbett Coffee Plant (CCP). Here, Anne and her husband sold only gluten-free products under the name CCP Gluten Free Bakery. CCP’s business grew organically through word of mouth and was soon serving New Seasons and a variety of small cafes, such as Fresh Pot Coffee.
Anne personally works with each wholesale account to ensure that they get the freshest ingredients as well as education on the stages of production and how the production cycles work. One of the most challenging areas for Anne has been educating the staff, customers, and vendors on what it takes to provide her 80 wholesalers – there are six cafes on the Nike campus alone – with the volume they need in a way that works for everyone. This has been extremely important to developing positive, ongoing relationships with her clients.
The bakery quickly outgrew the production space at the family coffee shop and moved its operations to a larger space in Northeast Portland. As a tribute to her daughters, Greta and Emma, the bakery was renamed Gluten Free GEM (Greta and Emma Miller). And the delicious pastries and baked goods are truly gems. Especially for those of us who thought we would never taste a really good chocolate brownie or decadent cinnamon roll, not to mention lemon curd cupcakes and other fine pastries.
If you have ever eaten most gluten-free baked goods, you often feel betrayed by the lack of flavor, texture, and variety. Which is what sets Gluten Free Gem apart, all with the help from Alleson Goldfinger.
Alleson joined the team at CCP in 2010 and made the move to GEM in 2011 with the idea of taking over the recipe research development, testing and baking. She turns the science of baking, time, temperature, ingredients into tasteful art. After leaving the bakery in 2012 for an internship at the American Test Kitchen, Alleson returned to Portland and GEM the following year, where she continues to be a leader and innovator.
Bakers need to constantly keep track of what to buy, when to buy, and the quantities, even down to the amount of oil used to spray the pans. Daily, the list of what to keep track of takes a special type of person to keep it all flowing. Everything is made and packaged in-house, even the coconut caramel sauce which takes a full 6 hours to make.
With her solid team, Anne now focuses on education and the business ─ using her teaching skills to help her people grow is a top priority. Anne’s staff is amazing to watch in action. There are 23 employees. In addition to the bakers, mix in overnight bakers, add a few mixers and preparers, flavor with a couple of office staff, blend with those who work in the retail store, top with dessert specialists, sprinkle in two delivery people to cover the number of wholesale accounts, a temperamental walk-in oven named Rosie, a couple of reliable ones, an efficiently run kitchen, and Gluten Free Gem has the right recipe for making the most delicious gluten-free baked goodies.
With the successful growth of the wholesale business, Anne turned her attention to creating a retail presence in Portland. Participating in farmers markets was a good way to test the dough. She tried a couple and found that Hollywood Farmers Market provided the perfect blend of community, seasonal produce, great market support, and proximity to her new retail space on NE Broadway.
Gluten Free Gem operations and retail store opened on the corner of NE Broadway and 2nd Avenue in February 2017. This new space allowed Anne to add additional products to the menu, such as cinnamon rolls, quiche, and other pastries with a short shelf life which are perfect for retail customers. As part of the drive to make the new retail space a destination, keep an eye out for the addition of espresso to the menu this September.
To provide an allergy-friendly bakery, dairy and egg free products are on the menu. In addition to basics, seasonal fruits and vegetables are essential to delivering high-quality products. About 3 dozen items are seasonally transformed every three months, with the most menu changes in the spring and fall. Lemony products in the spring such as delicious cupcakes filled with handmade lemon curd and buttercream frosting. In the fall look for items featuring warm spices such as cardamom, ginger, or fall harvested pumpkins.
Now 13 and 16, her daughters live a healthy life due to their mother’s creativity. For Anne, the favorite part about Gluten Free Gem is the people she gets to meet and offering great tasting baked goods for people who lost the ability to enjoy favorite treats and now, anyone will enjoy.