Local Bakery Specializes in Allergen-Free Treats

Nestled in the corner of the Lovell Heights Shopping Center, Benefit Your Life Gluten-Free Bakery and Cafe is spacious, comfortable and inviting for those with and without food allergies. The dedicated gluten- and peanut-free restaurant also houses a grocery side with gluten-free options ranging from pastas to quick breads to protein powders. Customers often come for the cupcakes, but they stay for the cinnamon rolls, paleo chicken salad and Saturday biscuits and gravy.

It hasn’t always been this way. When the store opened on Campbell Station Road in 2009, it was a healthy-lifestyle store featuring vitamins, outdoor gear and a small selection of allergy-friendly snacks. When previous owner Rhoni Speed took over, she started introducing some of her own gluten-free recipes for customers, and they were a hit. Eventually, Benefit Your Life went from lifestyle store to a dedicated bakery. However, the confined space and non-commercial equipment made the small storefront cramped and struggling to meet growing demands from the community. Though Rhoni eventually sold the business, she has stayed on as manager and continues bringing her delicious signature goods to the bakery.

Now under the ownership of Kirk Icuss, Benefit Your Life moved to its current location at 10420 Kingston Pike in April 2018. The new space provides a generous commercial kitchen for baking fresh, delicious bakery items daily, as well as a small lunch menu, weekend-only specials of biscuits and doughnuts, and wholesale items to local markets. They also make cakes for special occasions, and allergy-friendly holiday dishes are available for pre-order at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The shelves of grocery items are displayed with ample floor space to walk around and peruse the unique selection. The cafe also includes a comfortable seating area with tables and high chairs for families wishing to enjoy an allergy-friendly meal together; and for some families, this is the only place that can happen.

Store Manager Melissa Thomason started eating gluten-free more than a decade ago when her husband and two kids were diagnosed with Celiac Disease.

“I used to have to make everything we ate,” Melissa recalls, as her family could not frequent restaurants due to their dietary restrictions.

Now that more people are being diagnosed with gluten intolerance or sensitivity, the demand for gluten-free products has led to a lot more options on the market.

Benefit Your Life stocks a wide selection of pantry items like sauces, crackers, baking mixes and cookies, as well as two large freezers with pot pies, mozzarella sticks, doughnuts and more. While more retailers are stocking gluten-free options on their shelves, Benefit Your Life is committed to offering unique brands and items you can’t find anywhere else.

Isabelle Stearns is a baker and wholesale director for Benefit Your Life, but she started as a customer stopping in for smoothies with her mom and siblings. At the time, no one in her family had food allergies or sensitivities; they just loved the smoothies. Isabelle later discovered she has a sensitivity to gluten, to which she had no trouble adjusting thanks to her connection at Benefit Your Life. She now introduces her own recipes to the store’s repertoire, such as the cheesecake cookie bar. As wholesale director, Isabelle has partnered with several local businesses to sell the bakery’s individual desserts, like the famous brownies and cookies, and most recently, breakfast scones.

While the entirety of Benefit Your Life is gluten-free, the restaurant is also completely peanut-free, and they offer items that are dairy-free, paleo-friendly and keto approved. For people with multiple allergies, Benefit Your Life is a lifesaver. When customers or loved ones are first diagnosed with food allergies, many feel confused by food labels and frustrated trying to find what they need.

“Some people come in really overwhelmed, and they just don’t know where to start,” Melissa says. “We feel like we can help them.”

Ultimately, the customers remind the staff what a difference they make in the community and beyond.

“Some people find us online and drive hours to visit,” says Melissa, also noting the many regulars they see throughout the week.

While gluten-free options are growing for customers, delicious pre-made foods that are just as good as the original are still hard to come by.

“Being able to help someone find something to eat, it’s incredible to give someone that,” says Isabelle, “like a kid with allergies who has never had a cupcake or a man who hasn’t had biscuits and gravy in years and cries when he eats it. Food is such a social part of our lives, so it feels good to be able to help someone.”