Cambridge’s only gluten-free baker forced to relocate due to rent hike

Originally published Aug. 20, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Leesteffe Jenkins’ time and options are running short.

In less than a week, the doors to Violette Bakery will close and without a new, affordable location, Jenkins said she will be forced to shutter Cambridge’s only gluten-free bakery, founded only a year ago.

It’s not that her store wasn’t successful.

Named Best of the New for bakeries by Boston Globe Magazine in January this year, Jenkins said her made-from-scratch gluten-free goodies had garnered a solid following.

But when her landlord said he was raising the rent by 200 percent, Jenkins said she knew there was no way her small bakery could sustain the price hike.

“Our margins are tiny,” Jenkins said. “They’re tiny because we’re gluten free and they’re tiny because we try to use very healthy produce.”

A representative from the building’s property management agency, Eastport Real Estate Services, did not return a request for comment.

Like many gluten-free bakers, Jenkins started experimenting with wheat-less baked goods when she was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2005. Celiac disease is intolerance to gluten, or a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats that have been contaminated with gluten from other products. For people with the disease, an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, gluten damages the lining of their intestines, preventing the nutrients from being absorbed and a variety of other symptoms.

For Jenkins, the disease manifested as uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea.

“This is really gross,” Jenkins said by way of apology for describing the graphic details of her hospitalization in 2005. “(The doctors) could see that my entire intestines were completely compacted.”

Jenkins had always been sickly as a child, she said, suffering a variety of illnesses that would often leave her debilitated. But, when she stopped eating gluten at the age of 45, she said many of the aches, pains, and anxieties that plagued her throughout her life cleared up.

“It’s almost like you had a nightmare your whole life and you never knew what the nightmare was about, and then suddenly you realize the nightmare is your body and your body’s reaction to food,” Jenkins said. “You start to unravel something that’s always been bothering you. My whole digestive track relaxed and my body’s way of functioning has completely changed.”

The only problem, Jenkins said, was the gluten-free options available to her at the time tasted terrible.

“It was absolutely inedible and dreadful,” Jenkins said. “It sucked.”

Jenkins would probably still be cooking for herself if her veterinarian’s daughter hadn’t gotten sick. The daughter’s symptoms sounded food-related to Jenkins, so she offered to help.

“I said, ‘Let me cook for you for three to four weeks and see if it turns you around,’” Jenkins said. “Her daughter was up and about. … She’s gluten free and she’s completely healthy now.”

Word spread and soon strangers were asking to buy her baked goods.

“My friends have always said, ‘I love your stuff,’ but it wasn’t until people I didn’t know, who didn’t need to be nice to me, started asking me to buy my food that I started (thinking seriously) about doing this,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins’ gluten-free foods are different, she said, because she uses special medium-grain brown rice grown only in California, which she grinds into a fine powder in her shop. The rice doesn’t leave the same grainy, gritty texture that gives most gluten-free goods its signature chalk-like taste.

She uses only organic flour and eggs from free-range chickens, ensuring the products in her cooking come from both sustainable and local sources. A strict adherence to ethical cooking does add to the cost, Jenkins admits.

“If you have ethics, you have to stand behind them because if people don’t stand up for their principals, then change will never occur,” Jenkins said.

Despite a slightly higher price tag for the goods she bakes, Jenkins said her store was turning a profit and with only a handful of brick-and-mortar gluten-free bakeries in the greater Boston area, had attracted a dedicated customer base.

Everything was going fine, she said, until her landlord told her she had two months before she had to get out or her rent would increase by 200 percent. She launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $30,000 she estimates she will need to move her equipment and build out a kitchen in a new location.

That is, if she can find a new location. Jenkins said she has a bid in for a space in the Alewife shopping center, but hasn’t heard back from the landlord there. It’s the only place available now that meets her space and kitchen needs that she can afford, she said.

She can’t share a commercial kitchen, she said, because the federal gluten-free labeling law of 2013 requires gluten-free foods to be made in facilities without any gluten products.

“It’s my last grasp,” Jenkins said. “We hope (the Alewife location) will work out, but we’re really running out of time.”

Violette Bakery will be open until Aug. 24, Jenkins said. Then, she’ll have a week to move her equipment out of the space. Since she’s still paying loans on the equipment, she’ll have to either move into a new place quickly, or sell it.

To find out more about how to support Jenkins’ Indiegogo campaign, visit:

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