There are days when Joe and Nancy Mangano still find it hard to believe the impact they can have on customers, but they’ve heard the same stories hundreds of times since Vin-Chet bakery in Amherst went gluten-free.
Joint pain and anxiety? Eased. Skin irritations and migraines? Gone. Belly pain? Relieved.
“We’ve heard everything,” Nancy Mangano said. “Some people, when they eliminate wheat from their diet, they feel so much better.”
Joe and Nancy met in the 1970s when his family owned Mangano’s Bakery at South Park Avenue and Ridge Road in South Buffalo. Joe got degrees from Oklahoma State University and the American Institute of Baking, then left the family business a short time later to direct the Tops Markets bakeries. The couple bought Vin-Chet Pastry Shop in 1998 from Polish-American and Italian-American owners Vince Spampata and Chet Matuszak.
The former Nancy Kujawski, 62, who grew up in Lackawanna, and Joe, 66, from North Buffalo, live in Hamburg. Their adult children, Anthony, Leann Berti and Michele Hoff, live nearby. Anthony is general manager at Vin-Chet, which went completely gluten-free three years ago.
Q. What went into the decision to become a gluten-free bakery?
Nancy Mangano: We owned another shop in Orchard Park from 2006 to about 2010. About eight years ago, I was working out at a gym, Wolf Fitness. Dave Wolf, the owner, was diagnosed with celiac disease and he knew I owned a bakery. So he asked me, “Why don’t you start making gluten-free?” I looked at him and said, “I cannot do that, I won’t do that and I hear it tastes bad.” He said, “I know, it is bad, and I want something good, and you should be able to figure out how to make it. You’re a baker.”
Joe Mangano: At that time, we had customers that were well into their 60s and 70s that had been shopping here in Amherst since they were children, and bringing their families here since their kids were children. All of a sudden, there must have been 10 or 12 of them in a couple-week period and they were saying, “You’ve got to help me. I’ve got this horrible disease and I can’t eat much of anything. Everything I can eat, I don’t like.”
GALLERY: Baking gluten-free at Vin-Chet
Nancy Mangano: We started at home in our kitchen with a couple of breads and they weren’t good. Then we kept trying and trying and then we developed a bread that was not so bad. We are not celiac ourselves but we like to eat, and we know what tastes good, and we are bakers, so we kept working, and Dave was our gunea pig. Then we made a bread that was actually very good. Then we made brownies, then banana bread. And chocolate chip cookies, which sometimes were really flat. It was a lot of experimenting. But our customers were so thankful, they were buying them, even if they didn’t look good. They didn’t look so good in the beginning but they tasted good. They were thrilled.
Joe Mangano: We used to make flour blend in a cottage cheese container that would last two weeks. Now we mix a couple hundred pounds of flour blend a week and we’re making more than 100 items (which range in price from about $2 for muffins to $10.95 for fruit rings, to $18.95 for 1-pound boxes of holiday cookies).
Nancy Mangano: we have a lot of celiac customers in the Southtowns. A new restaurant opened up in Hamburg, Juicy Burger Bar. They order two dozen rolls a week from us just for the gluten-free customers they get. And Cappelli Pizzeria in Orchard Park orders cases of crust from us.
Q. What was the initial reaction?
Nancy Mangano: We’d give samples, and all of our customers couldn’t believe it was gluten-free. Some said, “We’ve waiting so long. I’ve been celiac for five years and couldn’t find anything good.” Bread was the main thing they missed. When they found out when we were doing breads, they’d ask, “Can you do pizza? Can you do muffins?” That’s how we grew our business. Everytime someone would come in and wanted something, you didn’t want to disappoint them. They hadn’t had a doughnut in five years. I don’t think people realize that when someone is celiac, they truly cannot digest the wheat. The only (help) is to stay away from wheat. Then we educated ourselves to what celiac disease is and realized how important cross-contamination is. Some people are so sensitive, they get a little bit of flour and can get really sick. It’s a disease. So we then took all our product to get certified by the CSA (Celiac Support Association). We certified ourselves to the most sensitive celiac out there.
Q. What are your top sellers year round and during the holidays?
Nancy Mangano: Year round, our breads and rolls and pizza – and all of our rings, fruits and coffee cakes.
Joe Mangano: We do a lot of holiday pies at Thanksgiving and cookies for Christmas. Cakes and cupcakes for Easter.
Q. Any products in the works?
Joe Mangano: We’re working on a low-glycemic bread made from whole ancient grains. We’ve been doing the test batches and hope to roll it out by March or April.
Q. On your website, vinchet.com, which opens to glutenfreebakedgoods.com, you have links to gluten-free support groups and other information. What has the website allowed Vin-Chet to do?
Anthony Mangano: It’s allowed us to reach out to potential customers, promote our products and tasting events. Once or twice a year, we like to have big sample days. We have a customer appreciation day over the summer and grill hot dogs and make sandwiches using our gluten-free breads and rolls.
Social media also allows us to reach customers we would never have had otherwise: Long Island, Carolinas, Florida. On our wholesale end, we just shipped an order to Minnesota two weeks ago and she just ordered a second order of muffins.
Q. When did you start selling your items outside the bakery and where can you get them?
Nancy Mangano: We started selling out to pizzerias four years ago: Cappelli’s in Orchard Park and Bob and John’s on Hertel. Within the last year, we were very lucky to get in to 49 Tops supermarkets from here to Syracuse. You can buy almost everything that we make.
Q. Gluten-free doesn’t always mean healthy. Can you talk about that?
Nancy Mangano: Some people think, “I’m going to go on a gluten-free diet because Joe Smith feels good on it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to feel good on it. You will not lose much weight. You’ll lose weight if you eliminate your carbs, but there are many carbs in gluten-free products, and our desserts are the same.
Joe Mangano: The reason it’s a little healthier is that carbs in gluten-free, we digest a lot easier, where a regular carb diet is more difficult for all of our bodies to digest (and causes blood sugar levels to spike). A guy I used to work with stopped in the other day and said, “I just stopped eating wheat and I feel so much better.” He’s not celiac. You lose your energy when you’re eating regular carbs, so people feel run down.
Nancy Mangano: It’s a slower digestive process with gluten-free. You are so satisfied eating just one roll because you’re filled on it. You don’t need to eat three sandwiches because one fills you. We’ve noticed you’re not going to eat the whole box of cookies or whole bag of chips. I think all of us need to rethink how we eat.
Q. What are the healthiest, most nutritious items you bake?
Joe Mangano: The gluten-free, dairy-free line.
Nancy Mangano: There’s a lot of fiber and protein in our cottage bread. That’s the bread with 4-percent cottage cheese in the dough. And carrot cake has carrots and walnuts in it.
Q. What are the keys to running a successful business over the long-term in WNY?
Nancy Mangano: You have to stay at it. If you want to succeed, you can’t give up.
Joe Mangano: We have to set your very high quality standards and maintain them, regardless of cost.
Nancy Mangano: Customer service is important; trust and honesty.
Anthony Mangano: And have the right people who work for you to follow your mission.