Making It

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By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, January 20, 2008

When Renee D'Souza was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, she suddenly needed gluten-free alternatives to her favorite breads and desserts. There weren't many, she says. Those she could find tasted awful.

So Renee, a Baltimore pastry chef, came up with her own. The result: Sweet Sin Bakery.

The company she and her husband, Richard, started in 2005 now makes gluten-free breads, brownies, muffins, cakes and tarts and sells them in 25 stores and restaurants in the Washington-Baltimore region. Their clients include five Whole Foods stores.

"I've had people brought to tears tasting a slice of bread or birthday cake that was so different from what they'd had over the years," says Renee, 27.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune intestinal disorder with a variety of symptoms, affects one in 133 Americans, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. The only treatment is a diet free of the gluten proteins found in bread, pasta and anything else made with wheat, rye or barley.

While working in a Baltimore hotel kitchen, Renee was constantly breathing in the flour, which left her lethargic and depressed. She could no longer even sample the desserts she prepared. So, while keeping her hotel job, she spent eight months experimenting with recipes from gluten-free cookbooks.

Richard, who had opened and managed restaurants for 15 years, encouraged Renee to sell her creations. They tested them on friends and family. "If they couldn't taste the difference, we knew we were doing the right thing," Renee says.

Tapping $10,000 in savings from Richard's part-time real estate business, they rented a recently vacated bakery in Baltimore. They started with one client, a local health food store. Within four months, and with no marketing, other stores began seeking them out. "Things just really exploded," Renee says.

Andy Craig, a buyer for Roots Market gourmet health food store in Olney, says Sweet Sin products go fast.

"Most others seem to be dry or really dense and chalky," Craig says, "but their stuff is very moist and really good."

Renee credits the quality of the organic and gluten-free ingredients, such as navy bean and tapioca flours. But they cost about four times as much as typical ingredients. Another problem: Without preservatives, Sweet Sin breads last only three or so days outside a refrigerator before they turn moldy. Sweet Sin reimburses smaller stores for products that go bad on the shelf.

"We lose a lot of money there," says Richard, 36.

Still, Richard says, he and Renee have made enough to cover their bakery expenses since the second month. In 2006, they brought in $70,000 in gross revenue and doubled that amount last year. They recently hired three employees to help with the baking. While continuing to live primarily off their savings, they hit a goal last month of paying their home mortgage with their bakery profits.

Richard says he hopes they will someday be able to find good, gluten-free food in all stores. That way, Richard says, Renee's traveling gear will no longer need to include an ice chest packed with her own Sweet Sin bread.

Have you found a fun or interesting way to make a living? E-mail Katherine Shaver at shaverk@washpost.com.


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