Free Love Bakery shares the gluten free love with Portage retail operation

Julie Fox vividly remembers the Fourth of July weekend seven years ago. One day she was fine. The next day she was sick. When she woke up her joints were stiff, she couldn’t move her fingers. Her face was puffy. “Everything was swollen,” she says.

It was the beginning of three years of physical misery her doctors could not explain. They tested her for “all the big scary things” -- bone cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis -- without finding an answer. Her joint pain and fatigue persisted.

Before she became ill she had been employed as a bedside nurse in a fast-paced intensive care unit. Soon she could no longer keep up with the job she had loved.

She spent three years working with her physicians and a rheumatologist. In the end, their solution was to treat the symptoms. Fox took six medications to fight what doctors ultimately decided was fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, ADHD, and anxiety.

“No one would talk to me about food,” Fox says. “It didn’t come up.” 

She started researching fibromyalgia and found gluten sensitivity repeatedly cited as a trigger that made symptoms flare. In an attempt to feel better, she fasted, eating only fruits and vegetables. 

“And by the end of the first week about 90 percent of my symptoms were gone,” she says. She realized something she was eating was making her sick. “I was so frustrated with myself because I had never made that connection. Here I am a nurse, and in three years no one else in the medical community had ever thought of that either.”

Her experience is not unique. A 2015 report in the Journal of Biomedical Education says that of the nation’s 133 medical schools with a four-year curriculum, most fail to provide the recommended minimum of 25 hours of nutrition education. That means many U.S. medical schools do not prepare future physicians for everyday nutrition challenges in clinical practice. 

“Physicians in the U.S. are largely on their own when it comes to learning how to look for signs of nutrition problems, how to explain the significance of nutrition-related conditions and appropriate interventions, and how to refer patients to nutrition professionals,” the report says.

When a test for celiac came back negative, Fox says, her doctor recommended a colonoscopy. But it would have meant going back on foods with gluten for six weeks. “I said, ‘No thanks.’ I don't need to go back to eating it so I can take a test to tell me not to eat it.”

Food testing, which shows through blood testing how you react to certain foods, showed she should not eat dairy, soy, pineapple, cashews, garlic, tomatoes, and gluten.

She sorted out her physical condition at the same time she was finishing her Master’s degree to be a Clinical Nurse Specialist, a career she was pursuing to replace the intensive care nursing job she had to leave.

“I was relieved to have it all figured out and for about a year I just didn’t eat any of it,” she says. “I avoided the dairy, I didn't eat soy, and gluten was completely gone.”

Then she realized: “I’m hungry. I want pizza. I want a burger that’s not wrapped in lettuce. That’s when I started playing with all the food and my kitchen became a test site.”

She started converting recipes, trying to recreate the taste and texture of the hearty foods she missed, taking the steps that would first lead her to success at the Farmers Market and launch her into the retail space expected to open this month.

She has big plans for the little store, a 700-square-foot space in the Portage Plaza on South Westnedge. Such as a fresh bakery case, hot coffee, loose tea, dairy free hot cocoas and drinking chocolates. In the freezer case will be not only her renowned pizza dough and pie crust but take-and-bake dinners like macaroni and cheese. 

The store will feature local, pasture raised, non-GMO fed chicken, beef, pork and lamb raised with no hormones or antibiotics by farmer Norm Carlson.

And  she plans to offer a whole section of bulk and packaged baking materials. “A lot of the ingredients are hard to find,” Fox says. “You can go to Meijer and get a handful of ingredients, but they don't carry tapioca starch so you have to go somewhere else to get that. This will all be in one spot. We'll have coconut flour and almond meal and all the traditional gluten-free flours.”

Of course, her best sellers all will be available: bagels, angel food cake, cupcakes, carrot cake, lemon bars and brownies, and her vegan cinnamon rolls.

“I just started playing with things like bagel chips, to use them in a snack mix. And we’re doing ice cream sandwiches out of the cookies. It’s so fun. We can start playing around with everything. The storefront is kind of opening everything up.”

She also hopes the store can help people who are missing out on the gatherings based around food by bringing them back to the table. 

“When you can't eat so many different foods you miss out on so many things. You go to a birthday party and you can't share a birthday cake with your kid. There are so many different social interactions that you can't participate in. That's kind of the whole point, food that everyone can eat together. That's what I'm trying to accomplish. And now with this storefront opening, I'm hoping that it really takes off. I want to sell products that taste good enough that people who don't have food allergies still want to eat it.”

Before they go to market, her products have to pass the taste test of her daughter who cannot eat gluten and the children of her significant other and business partner Shannon Brown, who have no allergies. “If they give me the thumbs up that's a good sign.”

It takes a lot of experimenting. She’s found that wheat flour is never replaced with just one flour. She says she often blends three and at times as many as six flours to get the taste and texture she wants. Sorghum mixed with other starches is one she likes. But there’s no “all-purpose” blend for Fox.

Fox’s transition from nurse to baker has been a quick one, made easier by her sense that her new business and her nursing background complement one another well. Once she had a number of baked goods she was happy with, Fox applied to the Farmers Market on Bank Street for a booth. “I wanted to see if there was anyone out there like me. There are a lot of us!”

That was two years ago. Her business got its next boost in October 2014 when she entered the food incubator at the Can-Do Kitchen, in downtown Kalamazoo. “They met with me weekly. They taught me how to do marketing. They helped me make connections and introduced me to the people I needed to talk to in grocery stores. I was able to get two commercial products into stores by November of that year -- sandwich buns and pizza crust by November of that year.”

Meanwhile, she was still driving to Grand Rapids where she was working as a clinical nurse specialist. “It got to be a long commute. I went through a divorce so I had young teenagers at home. Between the drive and the hours at work I was gone 60 hours a week and I just needed to be closer to my kids. So I left that job. Cashed in my retirement funds and took the leap.”

In April of 2015, she moved from the incubator to a shared kitchen space on Portage Road so that she could keep up with the growing demand.

Now, others are showing the same faith in her that she had when committed to Free to Love Bakery. She did well in the West Michigan Plan and Pitch competition, which landed her in the first West Michigan Entrepreneur-You competition organized by the Michigan Women’s Foundation. She came home with $5,000, the money she has used to open her storefront in Portage.

Though she loves what she is doing now, there was a time when she really didn’t like baking. “I love to play in the kitchen and experiment with flavors. I like the kind of cooking where you don't have to measure and you can make it up as you go along, and baking is definitely not like that. It's like a science experiment.”

She’s learned how to convert a recipe by cutting it into quarters so she can test four changes all at once. “To change only one thing in a recipe and then bake it and see how it turns out, I don’t have the patience for that. I want to change five things all at once.” 

She’s looking forward to the opportunities for creativity that are emerging with the opening of the new storefront. “ I think it will be more fun -- I thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing -- but it will be more fun to get into the take-and-bake meals, salads and stuff where I can play a little bit more.”

Classes on how to convert your grandma’s favorite recipe will be offered in the new store. It’s another resource she wants to offer for those seeking the same kinds of answers she sought for so many years.

“When I convert a recipe I try to get as many allergens out as I possibly can,” Fox says. “All my recipes start out allergen free. If I can’t get the right textures I start adding things back in. So some of my products are just gluten free, but I also have a cookie that's gluten, dairy, egg, soy and tree nut free. 

“The most rewarding thing of this whole business has been the people who come up to me to the booth at the Farmers Market. I've had customers cry. I've had customers hug me. They are so relieved to find this food they can eat.”

Today, she feels like she is helping more people than she did when she was a nurse. Helping people get the food they need can be healing.

Yet, going from nursing to her own start-up business has not always been easy.

“ A start-up is no joke.There have been some rough spots. There have been some really scary spots, but this is the most comfortable I've ever been in my own skin. Everything is making sense.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Second Wave Southwest Michigan. She is a freelance writer and editor
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When it opens, the new storefront will be at 7620 S. Westnedge Ave in the Portage Plaza between Old Anchor and Colonial Kitchen, in the same shopping center as Jac's and Chocolatea.
Free to Love Bakery products also are found at:

Natural Health Center??
Sawall Health Foods?
Earth Fare
Beer and Skittles
Harding's on Woodbridge 
Old Dog Tav?ern?
The Garden Griddle?
London Grill