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Cole’s Fine Foods delivers flavor without gluten

After she was diagnosed with celiac disease, Jeanine Smith spent “a small fortune” on gluten-free products – only to be disappointed.

“It was horrible,” she said. “It was like sandpaper or cardboard. I sampled everything, and it all went into the trash. It was a lot of money, and it was gross.”

So Smith revisited old family favorites and began experimenting. So far, she has adapted about 50 recipes, some of which she features at her new gluten-free grocery and bake shop in north Spokane.

Cole’s Fine Foods specializes in gluten-free pastries, cookies, cakes, pizza crusts and dinner rolls. It also offers packaged mixes for home cooks who want to do gluten-free baking without the trial-and-error Smith experienced.

“I started mixing stuff together until it tasted good,” she said. “My kitchen looked like a chemistry lab.”

She’s still working on adapting recipes while expanding her business. Cole’s opened last August after about a year of market research. Before that, Smith – who was born and raised in Spokane – worked as a health care administrator and consultant. Opening the shop was a drastic career change.

But Smith saw a need. She also had personal experience.

Smith, 50, has been living with celiac disease for about five years now.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “I didn’t have the typical celiac symptoms, but I had a lot of inflammation – that is typical – and joint pain and skin problems.”

After the diagnosis, she gave up gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

“Within a month, my skin changed,” she said. “My thinking became clear. My hair became thicker. I started feeling better.”

People who have celiac disease can’t eat gluten, which damages the villi of their small intestines and prevents absorption of nutrients from food. A gluten-free diet is the only treatment for the disease. Some people who don’t have the disease are gluten intolerant and feel better when they maintain a gluten-free diet.

Smith went off gluten “cold turkey.” The change involved reading lots of labels.

“It was really hard because gluten is in everything,” she said. “It is in barbecue sauce and ketchup and mustard. It is in soup and shampoo. It’s in some cheese.”

Her shop is 100 percent gluten free. Decorated in shades of kiwi, tangerine and dusty blue, it’s next door to the take-and-bake Lasagna’s-On-Ya business in a strip mall. The wainscoting and wooden shelves are reminiscent of an old-fashioned general store. But the feeling is light, bright, airy and modern.

Packages of housemade, gluten-free croutons, crackers, granola and breadcrumbs greet customers, along with mixes for scones, gravy, pizza crust and pastries. Smith creates the blends out of brown and white rice, millet, sorghum, teff, buckwheat, potato, tapioca and quinoa flours.

“I get the raw ingredients and I mix up the magic right here,” she said.

The shop has been open for seven months. But Smith isn’t a novice in the kitchen.

“I’m an old bread baker,” she said. “My family is a family of cooks and bakers, not professionally, but we’ve always been very passionate about food.”

In fact, “My sister and I thought about doing a coffee shop years ago … when we were in our 20s. And we didn’t have the courage to do it.”

In a way, her diagnosis gave her the fearlessness she needed to move forward. Today, pizza and scones are top sellers. So are cinnamon rolls, which are only available on Saturdays.

Business has been growing steadily, mostly through word of mouth.

“I have several customers who can’t go into any (non-gluten-free) bakeries because the protein in flour is in the air,” Smith said. “It’s a serious illness. I hear stories all day long from people about how gluten or wheat affects them and how much better they feel” when they don’t eat it.

That kind of response makes the work even more rewarding.

“I want to do this for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “I love this: the stories, the little kids whose eyes light up when they see all of the things they can have. They come through the door, and they’ll ask, ‘What can I eat here?’ and they can have everything,” Smith said.

And, sometimes, after they’ve sampled baked goods, “They’ll say, ‘My tummy didn’t hurt,’ and give me a thumbs up.”

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