Student adapts to allergy by founding gluten-free baking business

muffin2One fall morning of her freshman year, sophomore Sarah Silvestri awoke to the worst in a series of stomach pains, pain so intense it brought her to the emergency room.

After six weeks of testing, doctors concluded that she had celiac disease and would no longer be able to eat gluten, let alone cook with it. For a budding baker, this was devastating news.

Silvestri has begun baking again, but now all of her recipes are gluten-free. By spring 2012, she began filling orders for various cafes, including KooKoo Cafe and 4A Coffee.

The high school cafeteria sells Silvestri’s muffins. Silvestri initially met with Food Services Director Alden Cadwell in the end of October and began making deliveries to the school in the beginning of November. According to Food Services Manager Teresa Vidette, Cadwell, who worked on the television show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, is new to the high school. His experience made him aware of food intolerances, so he readily agreed to selling Silvestri’s gluten-free muffins.

Vidette said that the muffins’ popularity spiked after the first three weeks. Although the muffins arrive before school twice a week, they often sell out quickly.

“You would never know they were gluten-free. People are very skeptical sometimes when they hear ‘fat free,’ ‘low fat,’ ‘gluten-free,’ they don’t understand. But they’re extremely tasty,” Vidette said.

Silvestri began baking when she was in first grade. Whenever her mother, a doctor, was on call during the weekend, she would bake with her father.

“I would bake a cake with my dad to surprise her when she got home from work,” Silvestri said. “It got kind of repetitive though, so it probably wasn’t a surprise. But that’s how it started.”

Silvestri filled her first cake order in 3rd grade.

Despite her previous success, Silvestri said she initially planned to stop baking after her diagnosis. Creating gluten-free recipes felt like an experiment, rather than a relaxing activity.

“I had mixed feelings about starting up again, because if you are cooking, you are making brownies that are made of wheat, you scoop in some wheat flour and then you’re done,” Silvestri said. “There isn’t a flour that is just one ingredient that can substitute for all-purpose flour, so I have to add way more ingredients to make my own flours.”

A friend of Silvestri’s, sophomore Maya Chan, said that Silvestri’s return to baking was gradual, but once she started, she quickly began adapting her recipes. Her family provided support, as did Silvestri’s genuine love for baking. Silvestri began filling gluten-free orders in the spring of 2012.

Silvestri said that organization is a necessary skill in order to balance her bakery with sports and homework. She cooks three or four nights each week, and makes most of the deliveries herself.

“A lot of people’s passions are hobbies or sports or something that they already do everyday, but this kind of adds another whole activity. Activity is putting it lightly because it is very time consuming,” Silvestri said. “I really need to budget my time and stay organized and keep my invoices lined up and make sure I’m up to date in answering my email all the time.”

Chan said that Silvestri is one of the most organized people she knows. According to Chan, the time and effort Silvestri puts into her business sets her apart from other bakers.

“She honestly tries lots of new recipes, and she’s really creative,” Chan said. “Also, not many people her age are that accomplished as a sophomore in high school, so I think that  really separates her.”

Silvestri plans to pursue baking beyond high school, studying at a business school and becoming a culinary professional. She said that starting her bakery now is like starting her career ten years early.

“Although it can be a little overwhelming, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because it will provide great opportunities in the future,” Silvestri said. “I’m getting a head start, and it’s really fun for me to be able to have the responsibility, the position of authority, and kind of being in charge of my own thing and have that thing be something I love to do.”

Kate Finnerty can be contacted at [email protected]