As a child, Ruth Wardein envisioned herself on her tiptoes, as a graceful ballerina.
Though she still sports the trademark ballerina's bun, what keeps Wardein on her toes today is operating Epiphany Gluten-Free Bakery in Naples. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye-based products, causes inflammation in the gut, which can lead to a host of health issues. Several national studies note a rapid rise in people choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. “Some of the symptoms I hear from (customers) are insane,” Wardein says.
Wardein started experimenting with gluten-free baking at home. “I probably wouldn't have done it if it was just for myself, but it was out of love for my dad,” who was also gluten intolerant. Friends and family raved about her gluten-free sweets, insisting — with cash — that she make them weekly.
Just a little more than five years later, Wardein has gone from home baker to opportunities to land on shelves of industry giants such as Publix and Whole Foods. On the way there, Wardein has rapidly increased production. She's also gone six years without a paycheck, pumped sales back into the company and learned some valuable business lessons.
At first, Wardein, a mother of three, used a group email to take weekly orders on items she was making for her own family — garlic bread, lasagna, muffins and such. She expanded the batches per request. When a pediatrician friend listed Wardein as a resource on his newsletter, inquiries exploded. “I was flipping out,” Wardein recalls.
Next came farmers markets booths, with some encouragement from her business partner, Andrew Amick, and a 2011 state law that allows baked goods made in homes to be sold at the venues.
The partners participated in specialty-food trade shows, taking advantage of the courses offered, such as pricing. “I don't like to just go and try to figure it out. I will gain from the greatest, wise business heads that there are,” says Wardein.
They tested the commercial route with a factory in Vermont. Recipes were made in large scale and shipped to Naples on freezer trucks. Distributing to Publix and Whole Foods was considered, but when it came time to commit financially, Wardein hesitated.
One lesson learned: Be wary of growing too fast. “I wanted to get back to the science,” Wardein says.
The bakery ultimately U-turned from distribution. “Our first whole investment went toward that,” she says. “It was an expensive education.”
A commercial kitchen became available in Naples and expansion continued while Wardein searched for a storefront. When Wardein was offered the last sliver of space in a newly developed plaza on Immokalee Road, she had just 24 hours to decide. She says she agreed to take the space without the funds, and that God answered her need through her circle of support. “He's propelled me, dragged me. He's been there the whole time.”
During construction of the store, she's squeezing the operation in her parents' Naples home. “We call it our secret lab,” says Wardein.
Expected to open this spring, Epiphany will become one of the few exclusively gluten-free bakeries south of Sarasota. It will also offer even more restrictive Paleo-friendly items. Wardein also reports she has been approached to franchise her concept.
With room to work, walk-in freezers and ample storage, production can expand into more local cafes and stores, provide delivery and shipping and accept more specialty cake orders, too. Epiphany will serve coffee, breakfast sandwiches and comfort foods in addition to baked goods. Wardein welcomes children to an interactive “haven” and intends on hosting field trips and parties.
Wardein anticipates some new challenges ahead. “I've had some wise business people tell me, 'Be careful, as soon as you open a brick and mortar, people aren't as forgiving.'” Her focus is on staffing to meet these demands.
“We're very blessed, we've had the most beautiful, wonderful, incredible, encouraging customers,” says Wardein, “and they are why we are opening a store.”
(This story was updated reflect the correct spelling of Ruth Wardein's name.)