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Growing a gluten-free empire
Entrepreneur looking forward to first spring in new premises
As the evening sun sets on Tache Avenue, Betsy Hiebert points out the smell of fast food in the air.
"People are finally venturing out of their homes and vehicles, and it’s great they’re coming out of hibernation after the long winter, but what if you can’t grab a burger or an ice cream cone?"
Hiebert — along with her three children and three siblings — is among many Canadians living with celiac disease, which is characterized by a permanent intolerance to gluten, a protein found in various types of wheat, rye, barley and oats.
"With a family history like mine, it gives me quite a bit of motivation to make really tasty food," Hiebert said.
The East Kildonan resident opened Cocoabeans Bakeshop, located at 268 Tache Ave. in St. Boniface, last December. The bakery specializes in gluten-free items — many of which are also dairy-free — and its product line includes homemade daily sandwich specials, bread and cookies, as well as stocked items such as gluten-free ice cream cones, pancake mix and macaroni and cheese.
The venture started out several years ago in Hiebert’s basement, which eventually became a commercial kitchen. As the popularity of her products grew, Hiebert decided to look for premises to house her gluten-free empire.
"I started off going to farmers markets and tried to feel the market out. I wanted to know if there was room for a high-end gluten-free bakery in Winnipeg. I began peddling my wares to more and more businesses and knocking on more doors," Hiebert said, noting she also started baking for Winnipeg Jets players last year.
"The kicker for me was when Tall Grass Bakery approached me at an event and asked if I was interested in baking for them. That catapulted the business into a whole new realm and there was no room to hire anyone to help me in my basement."
Two months ago, Hiebert hired Julianna Schwarz to help her cope with the growing demand for her products.
"She has really blossomed and picked things up and run with them. She’s young and very interested in developing textures and flavours. She’s a trained pastry chef, whereas I’m self-taught, so we’re learning from each other and we’re a really good fit."
The entrepreneur also puts an emphasis on helping educate her customers, particularly if they have been recently diagnosed with celiac disease.
"Once they are diagnosed, I see people that are like a deer in headlights. There can be panic, shock and a mourning period for the food they no longer eat," Hiebert said, pointing to a selection of gluten-free cookbooks. "People also have to adjust their drinking habits and learn to like things like wine or rum or potato vodka," she added.
"I try to make things fun and knock people’s socks off with the taste factor, as there’s a lot of horrible-tasting stuff out there."
As well as her walk-in business, Hiebert also takes orders for birthday cakes and cupcakes for weddings.
For more information, visit cocoabeanbakeshop.com or go to Facebook and search for Cocoabeans Gluten Free Bakeshop.
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