“There will always be another Dunkin’ Donut.” That’s what I used to tell myself back in 1994 when I was tempted by sweet treats. but was not pleased with my weight. I worked at MANNA in Philadelphia and the volunteers that supported our incredibly fabulous hot-meals distribution program for people with HIV and AIDS would bring donuts to our kitchens and office. And since it was different sets of volunteers for each day of the week, it was a nice and loving thing for them to offer. Despite my indifference toward donuts, it was a wee bit of a problem for me because I would indulge just because they were there. So to help me set some limits, I reminded myself, as I walked past the box of high-calorie, high-fat circles of mediocre dessert food, that I could have those anytime. I resolved to save my indulgences for truly special dessert offerings.
Then a few years ago came my celiac diagnosis, and, despite what I had told myself about there always being another Dunkin’ Donut, that became an untruth for me.* It wasn’t such a hardship though, because I just wasn’t that interested in donuts. But still, it was one of those “Wah, poor me” things when our family would stop for a treat and I’d order black coffee, and smell the sweetness while glowering inside.
As I progressed in my skill at navigating the gluten-free diet, I began my quests for “The Bests,” such as the best gluten-free, locally-made pizza, bread, soft pretzel (still looking!), and sweets. And since I’m from Philadelphia, a town sandwiched between New York and Washington with a deeply rooted inferiority complex, I didn’t expect much. I heard about Babycakes in New York and Helmut Newcake in Paris and I wanted to go there. Oh, and until then, I should check out what we’ve got nearby. And I discovered Sweet Freedom near the intersection of Broad and South streets.
The short-ish version: Sweet Freedom Bakery creates sumptuous baked goods that are gluten-free, vegan, kosher, corn-free, soy-free, peanut-free, and free of refined sugars (though a non-allergy or sensitivity-plagued-ovore could enjoy these treats as well). There are none of these allergens on premises at all, so there is no worry about cross-contamination. Their pastry case is filled with a wide assortment of temptations, and the menu on their website notes seven kinds of cookies, six kinds of cupcakes, five kinds of quick-bread loaves, and six kinds of muffins, plus seasonal offerings, crumbles, brownies, blondies, magic bars, cinnamon buns, cake balls, tomato pie (their only non-sweet offering), and yes, donuts. Lots of kinds of donuts. And they are all that. Not lying. The donuts are amazing. You must go there and have one.
Better, since Philadelphia is conveniently nestled between New York and Washington DC and 40 million people (no joke!) live within 150 miles of Philadelphia, it is definitely road-trip-worthy, especially if you’ve been pining for gluten-free donuts. Maybe get tickets to a Phillies game while you are here. Since Sweet Freedom is just half a block from the Broad Street subway line, it’s a quick trip to the stadium. You can sit at one of Sweet Freedom’s tables or at the counter, enjoy a good cup of coffee with So Delicious coffee creamer, have some tomato pie and a delectable treat, then go to the game, or you can take your allergen-free fare into the ballpark with you.
Who’s the mastermind behind all these culinary confections? Her name is Allison Lubert, and she’s the owner of Sweet Freedom. Allison had been plagued by unexplained health problems, then diagnosed with unspecified autoimmune disease, and was eventually, in her mid-twenties, identified to have allergies to wheat, dairy, yeast and cane sugar. She is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and her recipes feature chickpea and fava bean flours, flaxseed (a common egg-replacement ingredient), and naturally low-glycemic coconut sugar. The use of higher protein flours and heart-healthy omega3-rich flaxseed can also help tamp down that nagging little voice that pipes up every time you eat something that might stray from your picture of the ideal diet. At least it does for me.
The long version: Located on South Street near Broad in an up-and-coming neighborhood next to the rather flamboyant Jamaican Jerk Hut, Sweet Freedom has a fairly unassuming storefront presence. Inside, it looks like pretty much any other bakery, perhaps with the exception of the absence of bread. I recently sat down with Jen Kremer, the busy manager of Sweet Freedom, to get a sense of what it takes to run an allergen-free bakery.
Jen is a classically trained French chef and has worked in the restaurant industry for 19 years. She left the restaurant biz a few years ago, feeling she lacked good balance in her life. When pregnant with her now 2-year-old daughter, she developed gestational diabetes and adopted (and still maintains) a vegan diet for health and well-being. In 2012 she completed the health counseling and holistic nutrition program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. When I asked about other food sensitivities she’s familiar with, she told me that her mom is “allergic to everything.” She’s quite accustomed to making accommodations for special diets. She told me she had no real interest in returning to the restaurant business after her daughter was born, but a friend introduced her to Allison, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jen’s been a part of the Sweet Freedom team May 2012. When I asked her what she likes best about working there, she said it’s the “Oh my gosh, I can have anything in here!” reaction she gets from new customers, and the knowing that she’s sometimes making someone’s first birthday cake ever. It truly satisfies her desire to help people. She is excited by the possibilities for the future of this unique bakery.
And what does the future hold? A cookbook, for one. In June 2013, Sweet Freedom successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise $15,000 to publish a cookbook that will share their coveted secret recipes for delicious allergen-free sweets. Jen tells me that Allison compiled the recipes and worked out the publishing details, all the while juggling family responsibilities with one small one at home and twins on the way. I supported it at the Kickstarter $30 level so Sweet Freedom will send me the print copy of the cookbook as a thank-you. Can’t wait!
Another is the possibility of a second location in the area (South Jersey, maybe?), with the idea that it might include bread. Jen told me that one thing people ask for is bread, and though they don’t promote it as such, the current Sweet Freedom location is also a yeast-free operation.
Jen’s favorite items are also the donuts, especially the apple cider donuts and the cookie crunch donuts. (Gotta get the donuts, I’m telling ya.) Allison’s favorites are the blueberry oat bars and the magic bars. I’ve had both of those too – also delicious. They ship all over the country, and they do at least 50 special orders a week. And by now I have tried Babycakes NYC and Helmut Newcake in Paris. The three are definitely different experiences, but Philadelphia need not have an inferiority complex about its premiere gluten-free allergen-free bakery.
*I note that Dunkin’ Donuts is testing a packaged gluten-free blueberry muffin and cinnamon sugar donut in several US markets. If/when they come to Philadelphia, I still won’t need to have them, because now I have a far superior option.
Sweet Freedom Bakery
1424 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146
In the science of happiness, it has been demonstrated that creating enjoyable and memorable experiences keeps us happy into our old age way better than spending money on stuff. I'm all about creating excellent experiences. Jenn and I went to Paris last October and the boys stayed with their aunt and uncle at home. Summer is our time for all of us, and when it's a family vacation, we gear activities toward what we think our 9 and 11 year old sons will enjoy. That leaves out a lot of stuff -- most museums, lots of walking in hot cities. Come to think of it, my tastes tend to skew the same way. They also aren't keen on taking many hours to get there, wherever there is.
To maximize everyone's potential for a good time, we decided to stay sort-of local for our vacation this year. We are less than 2 hours from home, but other than the travel time being brief, we might as well be a thousand miles away from our suburban Philadelphia home. Our vacation strategy? Go far enough away that we don't have to call it a "stay-cation," skip the plane fare for a family of four, go during the week to avoid the crowds, and stay away from checking work email at least 90% of the time.
Our destination? Jim Thorpe, PA, population 4,774. Why? Rafting, biking on converted railways, excellent state parks, caverns an hour away (in case it rains), and a waterpark not too far to cap off the trip.
As always, we are staying at a place with at least minimal food storage and prep facilities. We nearly rented a house through VRBO.com, but because of an iffy forecast, we decided instead on a Hampton Suites because of the indoor pool in case we get rained in. I packed accordingly and, at least until the refrigerator got overly excited and froze all my vegetables, I was in pretty good shape. Breakfast is included with the hotel, so when I don't want to have my protein shake in the blender I brought, I am enjoying fruit and individually packaged yogurts. I packed lunches for our two day-long outings so far: Salad during our rafting lunch stop, PB&J on an Udi's bagel for our 15 mile bike ride. I have plenty of snacks on hand too -- homemade oaty protein bars, granola circles, gf Oreos from Trader Joe's, Xocai healthy dark chocolate, veggies and hummus, raisins, trail mix, etc. A couple of shops in town have boasted gluten-free ice cream and desserts. We have spotted a couple of places in town through Urban Spoon that sound like they can accommodate a gluten free dinner, but so far we've not had a big dinner out. Jenn and the boys have been happy with pizza or sandwiches by the pool while I have eaten provisions I brought. Maybe we'll venture out for dinner tomorrow. Maybe not. Doesn't matter really.
It doesn't matter because I didn't come to Jim Thorpe for the food. My main goal is to stay healthy and unglutened so that I can enjoy the journey of making happy memories. We chose to stay in this small town in Pennsylvania for the opportunities for family fun and adventure. So far, so good. I know that the memories of our excursions together will far outlast any recollection of meals eaten or not eaten, as the case may be.