By Kailey Pickering, For the Sentinel
AURORA | The wafting aroma of confections calls the name of every person walking through the bakery doors. The glass case boxes glisten with rows of beckoning treats.
But for many people the fun stops there. They can only bask in the bakery aromas. Some can’t even come inside due to allergen proteins lingering in the air.
Gina Di Tullio is more than familiar with that quandary. In 2011, she went to the doctor after enduring a chronic cough. She discovered that she had a condition called leaky gut syndrome. This is also referred to as “intestinal permeability.”\
This is currently not an official medical diagnosis or disease but is a real condition according to Dr. Matthew Brennecke, a naturopathic doctor at the Wholeness Center in Fort Collins.
“Leaky gut is a more permeable membrane in the gut lining, which allows undigested food particles to escape…the small intestine,” Dr. Brennecke said.
Di Tullio explained that for her body, foods that she was allergic to were responsible for her condition. After taking a test to identify the allergies, Di Tullio eliminated specific foods from her diet to heal.
Once she recovered, Di Tullio identified the foods that were the culprits of these bad reactions.
Those included gluten, which triggers neurological effects; dairy, leading to respiratory issues; egg and soy, causing gastric conditions; corn which provokes sores to appear in her mouth; and turmeric, kindling severe acid reflux.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education, 32 million Americans have food allergies. Fifty-one percent of that number have severe reactions.
Di Tullio eliminated foods that caused problems, but she found herself craving foods she used to be able to eat without fear. She wanted crunchy Girl Scout cookies and creamy chocolate icing.
So she embarked on a mission to create foods that were just as delicious and satisfying as the ones she remembered enjoying.
She jumped into creating gluten-free and vegan, egg free cookies while she worked as an IT instructor at Ecotech Institute. She brought her creations to class, hoping to get perspective and feedback.
“I made my own recipes, and I tried them on my students, so they were like guinea pigs for a year and a half,” Di Tullio said. “They helped me develop something that not only I liked, but that I knew the public would like.”
Developing delicious creations without the usual ingredients is no easy task. Joy Williams-Clark is an operations chef at Edible Beats restaurants with a background as a pastry chef. She knows the difficulty of baking without wheat flour, butter and eggs.
“In the pastry world…the five building blocks of the pastry are your flour, your sugars, your leaveners, your eggs and your fats,” Williams-Clark said. “And so when you go vegan and gluten- free, you’ve cut out over half of your building blocks and a lot of what the foundation of the pastry is… you basically created a really big challenge for it.”
Nevertheless, Di Tullio invented creamy chocolate bars, fluffy cream cakes, moist banana bread and more recipes that were allergen-free. She appeared at food markets, fairs and festivals to share her goodies as wholesale creations.
To expand her business to her own store, Di Tullio had to have a commercial kitchen. Finding one that had no gluten, dairy, egg or peanuts was a monumental challenge.
For many people with allergies — whether they have anaphylactic, celiac, neurological or gastric reactions — cross-contamination of foods is a huge risk.
Dr. Bruce Lanser is a pediatric allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Hospital in Denver. He specializes in food allergies, eczema and anaphylaxis, a condition where consuming certain foods trigger multiple antibodies in the body which fight off the threat the food presents. This often causes a combination of reactions including a person’s throat swelling up, breaking out in hives, an irregular pulse, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
“Small amounts of protein from whatever food you’re allergic to can trigger a reaction,” Lanser said.
These pieces of protein that Lanser described can easily sneak into food through shared kitchen spaces. It could be butter steaming through a grill, pieces of gluten floating in the air or egg residue on a pan.
Cross-contamination is almost invisible but can be life-threatening for those with these conditions.
“There’s a lot of unknown, but it’s definitely a risk for patients,” Lanser said. “And it’s a huge burden in your quality of life to always have to be so careful…They don’t want to stop and ask the question and inconvenience folks or have to talk about it.”
This challenge causes many people with allergies and dietary conditions to often avoid restaurants. Many may feel unsafe eating out or don’t want to inconvenience those around them.
Di Tullio is familiar with this experience and after working out of one of few kitchens in Colorado that had no risk of cross-contamination, she wanted to create a space where people could feel safe to eat, just like the rest of the population.
In August 2022, after selling products at markets and doing a mass amount of self promotion, Di Tullio opened Gina’s Kitchen at Parkside Collective. Today, her kitchen encompasses all sorts of treats including brownies, cakes, acai bowls, sandwiches and more, which people with allergies can consume without fear of cross-contamination lurking in the kitchen.
The bakery invites everyone in with colorful purple art on the walls, heavenly smells of vanilla and chocolate treats tempting customers inside glass cases. People with allergies are able to indulge rather than just be teased.
“There’s something for everyone at Gina’s Kitchen,” Di Tullio said.
Keeping the bakery running, however, hasn’t been a smooth road as sweet success.
After years of marketing herself without an establishment, Di Tullio chose the Parkside location because of the apartment complex next to the collective. She was looking forward to having a stable group of customers from the apartments.
That changed when an explosion erupted in the building that displaced residents in the apartment complex from their homes in September.
Without the next-door customer base, Di Tullio had to go back to marketing herself through fliers and outreach.
The bakery also faces ingredient challenges. While most goods for restaurants can be bought in bulk at lower prices, many of the allergen-free ingredients Di Tullio needs are priced much higher and often not sold in bulk. Di Tullio buys most of her ingredients at retail prices from local specialty stores or from Amazon.
With special ingredients priced so high, Di Tullio has to charge more than other bakeries to make her margins.
“There’s a struggle with getting reviews from people who don’t understand what the product is,” Di Tullio said. “Then there’s people who do understand the product and are raving about it.”
“Great place for vegan and gluten free treats,” Ursula Blyth wrote in her Google review. “LOVE the sandwich bread. Great taste and it doesn’t fall apart like most gluten free breads. Very delicious Black Forest that was surprisingly moist for being gluten free. Super cute and clean establishment.”
Additionally, Di Tullio has to compete with businesses that have a stronger customer base such as the Einstein Bros. Bagels just feet away from the bakery.
“There is such a need for this kind of restaurant,” Di Tullio said. “I feel like it doesn’t make sense that it would go under.”
Many restaurants have begun to cater to those with allergies as these conditions have surfaced. Williams-Clark explained that restaurants under Edible Beats have allergy guides, communicate directly with those with rrestrictions and ensure that the food is made in a safe space.
She recalls a woman coming in with 17 different allergies who had not eaten at a restaurant in more than three years due to her restrictions. Williams-Clark and the restaurant’s staff worked to make a dish of seared sea bass and wok-fried vegetables covered in a coconut lime sauce that the woman could enjoy.
The restaurant world has taken immense steps to help people feel safe while eating out. However, every restaurant accommodates differently, and walking into any restaurant for the first time holds a sense of uncertainty and anxiety for those with restrictions.
Gina’s Kitchen offers a space where many allergens have already been eliminated. No special requests need to be made as precautions have already been taken. It offers a safe space where people can enter without fear.
Di Tullio said that a variety of her customers find the kitchen through searches for dairy-, egg-, gluten- and peanut- free bakeries.
“We get a huge amount of people coming in from Children’s Hospital… (whose) kids have struggles, and so then they find us,” Di Tullio said. “(We have) people coming in from the airport because there’s nothing in the airport.”
It’s a bubble of normalcy for people whose lives have hardly been normal, she said.
14515 E. Alameda Ave.
Open daily 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.