February 2019

A G Thing: The G-Free Spot proves you don’t need gluten to have a decadent treat

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

To a certain type of person—those of us with noses, eyes and taste buds—there’s simply nothing like the experience of walking into a bakery when the ovens have been cranking out sweet and savory treats all day. That aroma of sugary goodness ensnares us. The kaleidoscopic array of delicacies, neatly arranged behind the case, compels us to pore over the offerings in search of something delectable.

But the experience is nothing compared to that first bite—oh Lord, that first bite. It’s like all the flavors of childhood washing over your tongue, like diving into an ocean of perfectly balanced sweetness. It’s a multi-sensory experience that borders on the orgasmic. But for those suffering from a gluten sensitivity, this decadent experience has stood just out of reach for too long. They could smell, they could look, but they couldn’t taste. At long last, thanks to a little bit of baking wizardry at The G-Free Spot in Coligny Plaza, the full sensory experience can be enjoyed to its fullest by those suffering from a gluten sensitivity.

Long before founding G-Free Spot, owner Nicole Gardner had been an avid home cook and a product of an Italian family defined by Grandma’s cuisine. But something always felt a little bit off after eating. It wasn’t until her then three-year-old daughter Hailey began experiencing the same symptoms that she decided to investigate the causes. It was determined that they both had celiac disease.

“That was the beginning of our journey,” Gardner said. “You basically have to relearn everything you know about cooking. [Gluten is] hidden in all of these areas you’d never imagine.”
Rather than try to prepare special meals for herself and Hailey, then separate meals for husband Shawn and sons Ean and Conner, she put the whole family on a gluten-free diet. “I’ve never been a short-order cook,” Gardner said with a laugh. “When the family’s eating, we all come to the same table.”

And then a funny thing happened. Not only did Gardner and Hailey begin feeling better, the entire family found themselves really enjoying the gluten-free cuisine Gardner had created. As gluten can be found in nearly every cereal grain, from wheat and barley to rye and oats, and since those grains are nearly omnipresent in the typical recipe, she was forced to get creative.

“It is very difficult in that you’re missing a key protein to your baked goods. And it’s the one that gives you that light, fluffy airy feeling you want in your baked goods,” Gardner said. “When you take the fluffy factor out, you have to figure out how you’re getting that back using other things.” That meant getting scientific, gauging the reactions different ingredients produced, from corn starch and buttermilk to sour cream and eggs.

Her kitchen became her lab. Following a long career in the corporate world, Gardner finally found herself putting her chemistry degree to work. “I cut my teeth working in a lab right out of college,” she said. “If I went back to my professors, they’d never believe this is what I did with my degree.”

The family was so impressed by what Gardner had created in her pursuit of gourmet gluten-free goodies, they decided to begin selling her baked goods online. Almost right away they knew they were onto something, and the next logical step was a bakery of their own.

“We knew we wanted to eventually go brick and mortar just because of the nature of our business. We can offer fresh. We can offer variety. And we knew there was a definite need,” she said. “Having lived it, we also knew there wasn’t anybody filling that need.”

When The G-Free Spot opened its doors a year ago, Gardner quickly learned that she was far from alone in her aversion to gluten. “We’re a part of a much bigger community than we thought possible. It’s a very moving experience for many of our customers,” she said. “They seek us out and they trust us.”

And even beyond that community, she’s found a receptive local clientele who are drawn by The G-Free Spot experience. It’s that same multisensory love letter to the power of delicious baked goods that drives people into bakeries the world over. It’s just accessible to everyone, regardless of their gluten sensitivity. Ultimately, it’s that experience Gardner sees as being the heart of what The G-Free Spot is.

“Our main focus from day one was quality of experience,” she said. “Your experience starts before you come in the front door. It’s not just what’s in the cases. It’s the faces; it’s the environment. And people bring things home, so that experience goes far beyond just when we see them.”

And, of course, there are the sensations that make up that experience. That aroma of baked goods; it’s there and it is irresistible (“It’s aromatherapy. I wish we could bottle it.”). That case full of baked goods—from the famed carrot cake to scones and brownies, each tempts more than the last. And then there’s that flavor, that sense-quaking rush of sweetness set against delicate, moist deliciousness, that leaves you asking, “Gluten? Who needs gluten?”

No matter who you are, whether you’re gluten-free or not, that experience is there for you. And when you see those smiling faces that deliver that experience, you should know they are enjoying it just as much as you are.

“We have an extraordinary staff, with all types of experience in food service and baking going back decades,” Gardner said. “And we all just love being here. We get to bake all these wonderful things and watch people enjoy them. I’ve always said, ‘If we’re not having fun doing this, we’re doing something really wrong.’”

The G-Free Spot is located in Coligny Plaza, 1 N. Forest Beach Dr., Hilton Head Island. For more information, visit www.thegfreespot.com or call (843) 802-4411.

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