Natural Foods Merchandiser

Simply Gluten Free

2955 E. Hillcrest Dr., Ste. 124, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362

Owners: Debbie Sipos and Jean Gordon

Size: 1,200 square feet; 65 percent retail space
Opened: Jan. 31
Employees: Owners Sipos and Gordon; Gordon's husband Steve; and Sipos' 18- and 15-year-old sons
SKUs: Approximately 800 to 1,000
Categories: Primarily food, with some vitamins and potentially personal care
Bestsellers: Just Diagnosed gift baskets, The Sensitive Baker sliced rice loaf, Celiac Specialties donuts, S'Better Farms corn dogs and chicken fingers

Six years ago, most people didn't have a clue what gluten was, let alone that their morning bagel might be causing symptoms ranging from extreme abdominal pains to iron-deficiency anemia. In 2003, an article published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that roughly one in 133 Americans has celiac disease, an intolerance to the gliadin fraction of wheat protein and related alcohol-soluble proteins found in rye and barley. The condition leads to inflammation and atrophy of the intestinal villi, which prevents those with the disease from fully absorbing vitamins and minerals.

Elementary school principal Jean Gordon says her experience was better than most."A lot of people are diagnosed with many different disorders before they actually find out they have celiac disease. There is a lot of suffering," she says."I was very anemic, so they did a couple of tests. My doctor called me and said, ‘Great news. You have celiac disease. All you have to do is never eat gluten again and change your lifestyle and it's all good. Have a happy life.' "

When Gordon told her friend Debbie Sipos about the diagnosis, Sipos searched the Internet for an appropriate gift basket, but didn't find anything. A former gift basket company owner, Sipos decided to put a basket together herself, but found the hunt for gluten-free products difficult.

“The frustrating thing for me was the idea that it's easy to completely and totally change your eating habits," Gordon says."Debbie was trying to help me and we were going to this store for one thing, and that store for another thing, Trader Joe's for this, Whole Foods for that. And much of what we were picking up didn't taste good."

The two friends knew if they were having this much trouble, it was likely that others were too. They set out to find the best gluten-free products on the market, a quest that led them to last year's Natural Products Expo West, where they hit the jackpot. They quickly got a distributor and began making"Just Diagnosed" gift baskets, containing The Gluten-Free Bible (Holt Paperbacks, 2005), a copy of Gluten-Free Living magazine, and gluten-free almond crackers, pretzels, brownie mix, pancake mix, protein bars, cake mix, soup and cookies.

The response was overwhelming. Customers often asked to visit the retail store. The only problem was that there wasn't one."The calls became more and more frequent," Sipos says."We finally decided to put it all under one roof. We were a little leery in this economy, but people have to eat regardless of what the economy looks like, especially when they have such strict dietary limitations."

When the retail store opened Jan. 31, Sipos and Gordon expected a modest turnout."We had 350 people in here," Sipos says."We did a tasting, and the line wrapped from the cash register around the back of the store and out the door. Our biggest problem right now is keeping stock on our shelves."

Some customers drive two or three hours with ice chests to pick up foods they can't find anywhere else."People have gone years without having something as simple as toast," Sipos says."One lady hadn't had a donut in nine years. She took a six-pack of Celiac Specialties donuts, went to Starbucks and called us in tears. It meant so much to her to have a donut with her coffee."

Gordon and Sipos taste every product before putting it on their shelves. They have overcome sourcing challenges to find items such as gluten-free oats, matzo, gravy and ravioli, but they struggle to find some products."We're still looking for a few funky things, like cream of mushroom or cream of chicken soup," Gordon says."People come in with their family casserole recipe and they really want to make it, but the cream soup has gluten in it."

They have to watch out for hidden gluten as well—especially in condiments such as mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. If it doesn't say"gluten-free" on the label, Gordon and Sipos call the manufacturer.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Sipos, who is not gluten intolerant, is that eating these foods just might be better for everyone."We have so refined the foods we eat; white flour has hardly any nutritional value left in it anymore," she says."Being gluten-free, you're not eating all that processed white or wheat flour. A lot of gluten-free products don't have any preservatives. They're MSG-free; they don't have sodium nitrates or nitrites. No fillers, no additives, hormones, antibiotics. These foods have a short shelf life, but they're probably healthier for you."

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