Food Allergies Spark New Careers
Grappling with a food allergy can be life-changing. It may be inconvenient to prepare special meals, uncomfortable to try new foods and downright scary to consider the possible effects of accidentally ingesting foods that can make you or a family member ill.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of an allergy diagnosis, a nurse, a social worker and an investment banker let food allergies take their lives in happy new directions.
Here's how these budding entrepreneurs used a family food intolerance as catalysts to launch second careers.
Cynthia Backer, founder of Gemini Desserts
A pediatric nurse and mother of two, Cynthia Backer loves to bake desserts. Since the 1980s, she has gradually experimented with new ingredients to meet the changing dietary needs of her family and friends. She first altered her recipes when some family members were diagnosed with high cholesterol, again when one daughter discovered she had a gluten allergy and again when her other daughter became a vegan.
"I tried to outdo myself each time, seeing how good I could make the desserts taste and how spectacular I could make them look," Backer says. "My friends with allergies encouraged me to sell my desserts so other people who were gluten-free could enjoy my desserts as much as they did."
After months of research and meeting with small-business counselors, Backer launched Gemini Desserts in May 2011. She bakes in a dedicated, gluten-free commercial kitchen in Carlsbad, Calif., and sells her desserts in two coffee shops and directly to other businesses and individual customers. Her most popular products so far? Vegan cookies and mini chocolate cream cheese cupcakes, all gluten-free.
"As a holistic nurse, I believe food is medicine," Backer says. "What we eat contributes significantly to our health. My hope is that more people are able to enjoy dessert and celebrate, knowing what they put in their bodies is a good choice."
Bridget Reilly, owner of The Bite Market (shown above)
Reilly spent years driving to four or five different grocery stores each week to find the dairy-free, gluten-free foods she and her son required for medical reasons. Reilly got disgusted and then inspired. "I would waste precious time reading labels and spending money for products that did not always please my family," she says. "My husband and I decided to open a store where everything was gluten-free and dairy-free, but we would also make sure that we liked the product."
In 2010, Reilly quit her job as a child social worker and opened The Bite Market in Orange, Calif. In addition to gluten-free, dairy-free groceries, the market stocks local produce, eco-friendly home products and locally produced aprons, baby clothes, makeup, cards and baked goods.
"Gluten-free products are currently experiencing huge growth, but it is still difficult to find gluten-free and dairy-free products, which is what The Bite Market offers," Reilly says. "Many people who shop here and follow a gluten-free, dairy-free diet have told me that their symptoms have disappeared or have been greatly reduced."
Reilly says she experienced breathing problems, joint aches, extreme fatigue, nausea, migraines, and regular sinus and ear infections before switching to a gluten-free and dairy-free diet. "I wanted to make it easier for someone to find products they could enjoy without all the research that I had to do," she says. "I get so excited when someone comes into the store for the first time and they can't believe that they can pick up any item off the shelf and know that it won't make them sick."
Aleasa Word, owner of Allergy Words Consulting, LLC
Word's daughter was diagnosed with 10 life-threatening food allergies when she was 13 months old. A single mom working in investment banking, the Delaware woman felt overwhelmed and joined a support group for parents of children with food allergies. "Eventually I realized daycares desperately needed training to take care of children like my daughter, as well as schools and parents themselves," Word says.
In 2009, Word launched a consulting company that offers training programs for schools and daycare providers, as well as a support group, the Food Allergic Multicultural Society of Delaware. In addition to providing information for families dealing with food allergies, Word also pays attention to differences in cultural eating habits and tries to offer food alternatives for children and adults, "allowing them to remain included," she says.
Word says there is a growing need for the types of services she provides because dealing with food allergies "often leaves people feeling alone and unempowered."
"I am a regular mom who worked in investments for 15-plus years and then had a child with an illness that is ingestible," she says. "It changed my life. People need to know they are not alone and they can do it, too."
Read more: Chef Tackles Food Allergies
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