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Mom of 3 turns gluten-free baking into a business

LOCKPORT – When Lisa Jermyn and her husband, Tim, found out seven years ago that all three of their children had celiac disease, they did what doctors generally tell people to do in that situation: They switched the kids to a gluten-free diet.

But the family soon discovered that, shorn of the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and their derivatives, bread and other baked goods just aren’t very good.

“Usually it was dry and crumbly. When I made a sandwich, (the bread) would fall apart,” Jermyn recalled. “Things were very expensive, and you were very limited.”

She remembers paying $4, plus $8 shipping, to an Internet retailer for a single gluten-free cookie.

But Lisa Jermyn isn’t the type to take things like that lying down. She decided to start researching gluten-free baking and experimenting with ingredients.

She eventually struck on formulas for gluten-free baked goods that actually taste good. She liked the results so well that she decided to quit her job as a teacher and open a bakery devoted to gluten-free foods.

A Better Way, as the store is called, opened in December 2012 on West Avenue in the City of Lockport. In February, the bakery relocated to the Towne Square Plaza at Beattie Avenue and Dysinger Road in the Town of Lockport.

Tuesday, the shop expanded its hours of business, and plans are afoot to open a cafe in the unused dining area of the space, which used to be a pizza shop.

Jermyn said her store’s sweet products are priced similarly to those in a traditional bakery, but the breads and pizza crusts are more expensive than typical products.

Her products also are available in Niagara County Produce’s Lockport location; at the Bakehouse Market in Father Sam’s in Cheektowaga; and at Wilson’s Pizza Shop in Newfane, which orders gluten-free crust from A Better Way.

Its baked goods turn up occasionally at catered affairs at the Lockport Town and Country Club, the Chocolate Box Teahouse in Lockport’s Old City Hall or the Tuscarora Inn in Lockport.

“When I first started, I didn’t think we’d have so many retail customers,” she said. She thought she’d be selling wholesale, but she laughed, “I couldn’t keep the people out.”

Tim Jermyn, who was educated as a professional chef, works in the bakery on Saturdays and on Wednesday and Friday mornings. At least for now, he is hanging onto his home remodeling business he started because of the long hours of restaurant work.

“We’re trying to wean him off that because we’re planning to open a cafe,” his wife said.

Their son Keegan, who is about to turn 18, was the first of the children diagnosed with celiac disease. Now he is planning to enroll in the culinary program at the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services this fall and hopes to join the family business.

Son Liam is enrolled in Geneseo State College’s psychology program. Daughter Morrin, 14, rounds out the family.

Celiac disease is basically the incomplete digestion of food caused by inability to process gluten. “My children were really, really thin,” Lisa Jermyn recalled. “It’s because they didn’t retain their nutrients.”

Digestive tract problems ranging from constipation to diarrhea, and a “gluten rash” on the skin, are among the symptoms the children have suffered. Keegan was misdiagnosed with acid reflux and appendicitis before the right answer was found.

“He said his stomach was burning,” his mother remembered. “He didn’t have the vocabulary to say what it was.”

“The treatment is really just avoidance,” said Dr. Rosalind Sulaiman, an internist who practices at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

She said about 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease. She said that figure seems to be increasing, but she attributed that to better diagnosis.

“It’s actually an allergic reaction to the protein. You get damage to the interior of your intestine, and that’s why you get the malabsorbtion,” Sulaiman said.

The disease is diagnosed through a blood test for antibodies, followed by a biopsy conducted through an upper endoscopy, the Grand Island internal medicine doctor said.

“Some people don’t actually have celiac disease, but they’re still intolerant of gluten,” Sulaiman said. That means they have all the symptoms – diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain and flatulence – but not the failure to absorb nutrients.

“They also improve with a gluten-free diet,” the doctor said.

When Lisa Jermyn quit her job at St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Wheatfield in 2011 to get the business ready, “There were a lot of naysayers.”

But today, the business returns enough money for the Jermyns to make at least a small dent in the debt they incurred to start it.

Celiac disease is hereditary. “We’re all been tested. My husband is the gene carrier,” she said.

However, Tim Jermyn doesn’t have the disease, although in retrospect he believes his late father may have, since he had some of the same complaints his grandchildren later had, although he was never diagnosed.

Gluten “crops up in the least likely places, like soy sauce. Why would there be wheat in soy sauce?” Lisa Jermyn asked. ”If you’re looking for a canned pie filling, you’ve got to be really careful.”

Her baking took a long time to become a success. “The key to all gluten-free baking is a mix of flours,” she said, along with a sprinkling of patience and persistence. She has about seven different flours shipped in from a Pennsylvania distributor, although most of the flour comes from Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon.

“I have one bread that’s fantastic, a multigrain bread or a rye bread, and that was a happy accident,” she recalled. “Fortunately I could remember in what order I made the mistake.”

To avoid the crumbly bread that inspired her to try to do something better, she uses xanthan gum. “It makes things stick together.”

But it also costs $60 for a five-pound bag. “I go through a five-pound bag in a week,” she said. The store also pays $10 a pound for almond flour.

Another challenge is getting some type of protein into the recipes. “Some companies use cottage cheese,” she said.

Lisa Jermyn uses eggs. However, she often bakes to order because celiac disease often is accompanied by food allergies.

“You should stand here for a couple of days and hear the stories people tell,” she told a reporter. “So far my greatest challenge has been creating a gluten-free vegan bread,” she said. She’s accomplished it in rolls, but not in sliced bread.

“The gluten-free diet craze will probably wane, but if you have celiac disease, that’s not going away. The only way to treat it is diet,” she said.