LIFE IS SWEET WITH NO WHEAT!
by Cindy Branch
Jennelle Cassidy, born and raised in Whitefish, is a sixth generation resident of the Flathead Valley. When Jennelle was 15 years old, Dorne Michels passed away; he was her father, her best friend… and her strength. Jennelle says that her mother, Jeanne Newbury, had the heart and courage of a lion to raise five children on her own. Jeanne’s love has been constant in Jennelle’s life and has strengthened their relationship beyond the typical one of mother/daughter—they are dear friends as well. Dorne and Jeanne also instilled in their daughter the importance of working hard assuring her the rewards would be great. Jennelle says her strong faith came from a long line of impeccable Montana women—great-grandmothers, grandmothers, great aunts, mothers, and friends.
“My earliest memory of work was at the age of nine when I babysat for a neighbor every day after school. Throughout high school I worked at Haines Drug alongside my grandmother, Carol Newbury. Then I landed one of my favorite jobs—front desk receptionist at the Pine Lodge. I loved working with people and soon realized that it was my niche. After a couple of years there, I went to work at the reservation center for Big Mountain. This was all in preparation for a job I really loved, Group Tour Coordinator and Reservation Manager for Glacier Park, Inc. I stayed with that job until my husband, Scott, and I started Precision Painting. That was ten years ago. Always wanting to continue my growth and keep myself challenged, I started Brought to Life Beads four years ago. It is located in Whitefish at the Mountain Mall and has allowed me to pursue my dream: being creative, working with people, and teaching something I love.”
Jennelle now happily calls Columbia Falls home with husband Scott and their three children. When asked about the children, Jennelle proudly shared, “Our oldest, Lexi, is a beautiful and vibrant 16 year old. Our son, Dausson, is a towering teddy bear at just 12 years of age. Our youngest son, Houston, is the comedy and light in our family and is 11 years old.”
It was Houston who gave his parents a real scare, one that led them on a journey that resulted in starting their new business, Sweet NO Wheat. “This journey has not been an easy one. It began when Houston was 8 and became very sick. He could barely get out of bed and could not focus at school. Schoolwork and lack of energy became a daily struggle for him. I would have to keep him out of school because of continuous stomachaches, headaches, vomiting and so on.
“After a year of being in and out of the hospital and clinics, and countless x-rays, ultra sounds and blood tests, we finally stumbled on an answer.” The answer came from a family friend, a nurse, who asked if any food allergy testing had been done. Willing to try anything to make their sick little boy well, Scott and Jennelle quickly set up an appointment for another blood draw for Houston. The answer came three days later—Houston had serious food allergies to wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy, garlic, peanuts and artificial sugar. In addition, Houston had colitis and celiac disease so badly he was bleeding internally. Jennelle and Scott, who would do anything for their children, began the search for baked items that Houston could enjoy and not feel deprived. Jennelle wanted her little boy to enjoy the things other children looked forward to. Can you imagine a child not being able to enjoy his own cake at his birthday party? Pizza parties, BBQs, the classroom treats and other typical events all kids enjoy were not a part of this young child’s life. It was hard for Houston to understand and perhaps even harder for his parents when they felt unable to help their child.
Jennelle told me, “I read everything I could about celiac disease and gluten intolerance. And I began to bake. I really had not enjoyed baking because it was too structured for me. I love to cook, adding a dash of this and a pinch of that. But I’m not a recipe kind of girl; I do best when working and thinking outside the box. Well, I quickly found out you have to go by a recipe, using it as a base, when it comes to gluten, dairy and egg-free baking. It is more than just one challenge... it is three all wrapped into one. You take the base then you make it your own. When Houston would struggle with staying within the limits of this lifestyle, I would get back to the books and see what more I could do for him. I started to master cookies, little desserts and simple treats, but I struggled with bread.”
The Cassidy’s realized there was not going to be a magic pill to cure their son. Their main focus became making items that would appeal to his taste buds. Jennelle said, “This was one of the greatest challenges of my life. After the first year, I found that I was eating less gluten as well and was feeling a significant difference in my own health. Houston’s doctor had told us the allergies are hereditary and he felt certain it had come from me. A round of blood tests revealed just that: I, too, have celiac disease and have had it for many years. I had been suffering from migraines that were so debilitating that I could hardly get out of the bed in the morning and my energy level was so low that every task seemed to be a challenge. I was so focused on taking care of the children that I didn’t pay attention to my own poor health. So, all the work I was putting in to make our son feeling normal was proving to be a blessing to my body as well. This was an answer to a prayer! I finally knew what had been ailing me for most of my life, all because I would not give up on healing my son from the inside out.”
Night after night, Jennelle would bake trying to achieve a great tasting loaf of bread that was not dry or hard as a brick. After many, many attempts, she achieved the perfect loaf and proudly shared the news with her dear friend Louise Gulick, owner of Louizanne’s Catering in Whitefish. Jennelle also started talking to other people and discovered there was a huge need for gluten, dairy and egg-free baked items and treats. When Jennelle sought Louise’s advice about opening a bakery catering to those with food allergies, she responded, “I’ve tried it myself and it is much harder than I thought, and that was just gluten-free! Kid, you have a personal attachment to this and I know you can do it. If anyone can make it work, it is going to be you, Jen.” That was all the encouragement this devoted mother needed and she then boldly asked Louise if she could rent her kitchen. Since that moment she has not turned back. 10/10/10 was Jennelle’s first day in the commercial space slinging dough and Scott was by her side working with her on all the “experiments”. There were the not so good (mason bricks) and the aha! moments of Lemon Drops, Cinnamon Rolls, and Artisan Bread.
Houston has proved to be Jennelle’s most demanding critic. If he has a craving for something, she embraces the challenge. Since its beginning, Sweet NO Wheat has been selling out of items daily. People come into the new shop just to see if they are “for real”—that it is possible to bake items that are gluten, dairy, and egg-free. And if baking without these ingredients were not enough of a challenge, the family’s pastor, PD, presented Jennelle with yet another one. He suffers from a yeast allergy and asked if she could eliminate that ingredient as well. Jennelle took on the challenge and made fresh baked items beyond his expectations. This turned out to be yet another blessing as the demand for yeast-free products has proved to be just as important as gluten, egg, and dairy-free. Sweet NO Wheat offers loaf bread, hamburger buns, flatbread, focaccia, pizza crust, cinnamon raisin bagel bread, dipping sticks, all kinds of cookies, scones, brownies, pumpkin bars, lemon bars, rhubarb bars, muffins, cakes and so much more! The house specialty is the product that started it all—bread!
Prior to achieving that perfect loaf of bread, Jennelle had a heartbreaking conversation with her son. “Houston sat me down and poured his heart out to me about what he really misses, what he wants so badly, the tastes that he sneaks even if it is a great risk for him. ‘Mom, I want bread that will not fall apart!’ That night I had a dream and I truly believe God gave me the answer I had been seeking for nearly three years. I came back to the kitchen and did exactly what I was instructed to do in my dream. I cried at the sight of my first real, flexible, flavorful, spongy loaf of bread. I put my head in my hands and thanked God for it all—all the struggles to get me where I am. I went back through all the recipes and made the changes. To my great surprise it made my recipes interchangeable. I could hardly wait to get this beautiful bread to our son. I made sandwiches for the whole family just the way we like them—loaded! With Houston’s first bite he said, ‘Mom, why are you feeding me real bread?’ I began crying and immediately knew it was literally the bread of life—for our lives. Houston had sandwich bread, finally! He ate with the best and brightest smile, the smile that had been lost for a long time. It was then that I realized there are so many people in the same situation—longing for something as simple as great tasting bread. To feel normal, to be freed in a way”
I love the name of their growing business and was intrigued by the origin of the name. Jennelle explained, “My husband Scott and I are great ‘thinkers’ and even better when we go for drives. We went out on a drive and began brainstorming about a name for our business. One of the names that didn’t make it, but was fun to joke about was No Glue for You. The name we did decide on was Sweet NO Wheat. It is perfect because life can still be sweet without wheat. We asked the kids for their opinion and the vote was unanimous.”
Jennelle and her family have turned this life altering challenge into a true blessing. I asked Jennelle what the future holds for Sweet NO Wheat. She giggled and replied, “We just opened a store in the Whitefish Mountain Mall along with Brought to Life Beads. We now have a cold case to carry your everyday needs. We are able to educate people who just don’t know what to do with their new diagnosis or those who have suffered for years but had nothing worth biting into. We have a huge demand for our specialty products and we need to get them out to people faster, and in more places. When the store had been open for only six weeks the word hit the newsstands and the store sold out of bread... 56 loaves, to be exact… in one day! There is such a demand that Scott and I find ourselves taking time away from our other day jobs to make this a full time investment. Right now, we bake from 4:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then go off to our day jobs. Some nights we have to go back in to the kitchen for the night just to keep up with the demand. Scott does the Farmers Market on Tuesdays in Whitefish and has a near sell-out each time. The most common responses we hear are: ‘Please do not go anywhere’; ‘Where can I get your products daily?’; ‘I am from out of town; how can I get it when I leave and will you ship?’; ‘What restaurants carry your products?’ and ‘How do I order?’ Currently, we have just the one store in Whitefish, but we have plans in the works that will allow us to meet the needs of the Valley.”
Sweet NO Wheat is in the planning stages of expanding into a manufacturing site in the Flathead Valley. “We want to serve our locals and also get to those outside of our valley who do not have access to the extensive options we offer. Being in the pizza joint on the corner or the local coffee shop is great, but we want to blanket the market and provide greater accessibility, creating more normalcy for people with allergies with our unique menu. We have literally grown overnight. We have people stopping in from all over the U.S. and a few from outside the States saying that they have heard about us and are excited to try our products. My email is overflowing daily with question or orders. Our Facebook page has created a lot of buzz, too.” Scott and Jennelle have been approached by a couple of major franchises that would like to offer their allergy-free products in their nationwide stores.
“Knowing that we are making a difference in so many lives is very rewarding! Some of the folks that have stopped in to check us out are almost desperate. Our pastor had not had a hamburger bun in many, many years. The gluten, dairy, egg and yeast-free bun I created for him turned out truly awesome. And I have so many other great customer stories. One is of a mother of three who was literally starving herself because her love of food ended with her diagnosis. She was overjoyed with our Cherry Almond Cookies. Another woman had multiple allergies that left her with very limited options. She could not get the wrapper off the Lemon Drops Bar fast enough; it was gone by the time I gave her change back. There was a little two-year-old girl who really touched my heart. Pizza is her favorite food, but she couldn’t have it because she has severe celiac disease. Her enthusiasm and happiness in the simple joy of now being able to have her favorite food brought me to tears. A little boy came into the store singing, ‘We are getting me bread today. We are getting me bread today!’ Most people are just astounded with what we have on the menu— and then they find out there is no egg, no dairy, as well as no gluten. Most items are also yeast-free and some items are low sugar as well. Sometimes we have people just gaze into the case not sure what they are going to get. I have not been hugged, kissed and thanked so abundantly in my entire life as I have been since the beginning of Sweet NO Wheat. ‘Options’ has not been a word in the vocabulary of so many for years. We are able to offer these people the gift of options.”
Sweet NO Wheat is definitely a family affair with Scott and Jennelle doing most of the baking; the three kids help bake, clean, and man the store. For this Montana family, life is absolutely “Sweet NO Wheat!”