The Illawarrra’s only coeliac baker believes no one should miss out on the happiness that comes from indulging in a regular club sandwich or a simple birthday cake without falling sick.
Shellharbour’s Sans Gluten owner Sheri Smith has been baking since she was a child with her grandmother, but started having health issues about age seven.
It led to the discovery of Sheri having coeliac disease, an autoimmune disease where the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, damaging the small intestine, preventing proper absorption of nutrients and causing inflammation.
“I had a grandmother that was a chef and having all these allergies from a very young age … we learned to cook at home because obviously in the ’90s there were no products anywhere except rice cakes,” she said.
“We just learned to adapt and change our recipes.
“Over time I had this commercial cookery and started to become a baker, but then I couldn’t get a job, because, well, I’m an anaphylactic to heaps of things as well as being coeliac.
“So it was really hard to work.
“I did work in a pastry kitchen for a while, but I got very sick.”
Sheri had to leave the industry, but continued cooking at home and doing a business degree, which led to her being inspired to start a business.
“I’ve been studying different scientific techniques and coming up with really great recipes and basically it’s just snowballed from there,” she said.
She started 12 years ago doing gluten and non-gluten artisan products, being careful to avoid cross contamination.
“It got to a point where I was like, no, I want to be 100 per cent gluten free. It’s easier for me, I wasn’t getting sick, and there’s no risk of cross contamination,” she said.
Making the shift in 2014, Sheri had anticipated only catering to a few.
“I didn’t think there would be many people like me, but it turns out there’s a lot of people like me,” she said.
“It’s not a choice for us to be gluten free and to have allergies, it’s something we have to live with, but we shouldn’t have to eat crappy food.”
Sheri’s daughter also has coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease and multiple allergies.
“Kids’ food is just awful and so I was always making dairy-free muffins, cupcakes, and chocolate chip cookies,” she said.
“I would source ingredients from all over the world so she could have one or two.”
Sheri then realised other kids were missing out on birthday cakes.
She said the business was a real passion for her.
“One of my main ingredients is love in my cooking,” she said.
“I always wanted to help people, and I just want people to be happy.
“Eating is one of the things that makes people happy.”
She said about 95 per cent of her customers were coeliac or had an autoimmune disease, but admitted there were also grey areas.
“There’s a whole range of health issues that, if you cut out gluten, you feel better and that’s what a lot of people have realised,” she said.
“Some people will have something as simple as rheumatoid arthritis and when they cut out gluten it helps, because the wheat protein gluten is really inflammatory.”
She said customers found their symptoms dissipated and for some it meant eliminating medication.
When Sheri shares a list of her latest available baked goods to her more than 5000 social media followers, she’s inundated with orders.
She then manages the orders, bakes, and does deliveries herself from the commercial kitchen inside her garage.
And she has four kids.
Business growth has come through word of mouth or people trying her goods at local restaurants and cafes like Shell Cove’s Georgia Rose or Albion Park’s Three Flamingos.
“The feedback that I get from the owners of the shops is that people send their food back thinking they’ve been given a gluten roll and they freak out when they’re told that it’s actually gluten free and they are just over the moon,” she said.
“I’m providing this great quality product that’s touching the lives of so many people and it’s making them feel included, when they’re excluded usually socially because of their food allergies, which is what makes it all worthwhile for me.”
Sheri feels it’s been “baby steps” with educating the food industry.
“It’s come a long way in the past 20 years, because there used to be nothing and now there are more options,” she said.
However, better education in eateries was now needed.
“They think they do but they don’t understand cross contamination and that’s probably the biggest issue when dealing with coeliac disease,” she said.
“I’m a qualified trainer and assessor, like a TAFE teacher, and I would really love to write a module on food safety and allergies that actually goes into every qualification when you do Certificate III in Commercial Cookery.
“I really want there to be a module solely on allergies so people understand how important it is, because there’s a lot of bakeries that are baking gluten-free items in a gluten bakery.
“The flour particles, they’re microscopic and they go everywhere, so it’s not safe.
“I’d love to teach people how to actually do it safely so that people like me can go and eat out with confidence.”
Once her youngest is in school, she will open a retail/cafe shop, plus become a wholesaler with a team to answer the demand already growing for her products nationally.
“That’s what my hope is, to get the bread in all of the good restaurants so that people can enjoy having a normal club sandwich or normal burger – all of the stuff that we deserve to have.”
In the meantime, Sans Gluten will continue to bake gluten-free and allergen-free soft loaves, sourdoughs, panini rolls and continental breads, along with birthday and wedding cakes.