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Fargo man's gluten intolerance leads to specialty bakery

Paul Mehl owns gluten-free bakery Simply Savory Foods at 1910 1st Ave. S. in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Paul Mehl was sick of potato chips.

The Fargo man's computer job required a lot of time on the road, where he had to grab many meals at small-town convenience stores.

But Mehl had recently learned he had gluten intolerance, which severely limited what he could eat. He found himself subsisting on what he calls "the potato chip diet."

In efforts to find tasty and affordable gluten-free alternatives, Mehl - one of six in his family with celiac disease or gluten intolerance - began testing recipes and ingredients in his own kitchen. Friends and family members were so impressed by the results that they encouraged him to sell his products. Now Mehl operates Simply Savory, a gluten-free bakery that occupies the front of a warehouse just off Fargo's Main Street.

"The gluten-free community has been very helpful," says Mehl, who quit his job to start up the business last summer. "I think people get excited when they find quality stuff. And, of course, it helps me, too. The better product I make, the better I get to eat."

Simply Savory sells cookies in flavors like oatmeal chocolate chip and butterscotch toffee, six varieties of muffins plus carrot and chocolate cake. It also makes breads, gluten-free pizzas and several gluten-free soups and sauces.

One of Mehl's biggest hits has been his gluten-free baking mix, composed of four types of flours, cornstarch, sugar, xanthan gum (a binding agent) and sea salt.

The mix can be substituted, cup for cup, with wheat flour to make breads, biscuits, cookies, cakes, pancakes, pizza crusts and quick breads.

New customer Kathy Hurst, Moorhead, says she's used it to make chocolate chip cookies.

"It is wonderful," Hurst says. "The kids like them better than the cookies I made before."

Hurst discovered she had a gluten intolerance just weeks ago. Since then, her 14-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten that leads to intestinal damage. She discovered Mehl's frozen breads through Sydney's Health Market in Moorhead, which carries some Simply Savory products.

"Compared to the other (gluten-free) manufactured breads, there really is no comparison," she says. "When I tried it I thought, maybe this gluten-free thing won't be so bad."

Patty Hetland of Fargo began searching for good gluten-free products when she learned her son, Tyler, has celiac disease.

"However, these products are typically either really dense and heavy or rather brittle and crumbly," Hetland says.

But Hetland says Mehl's baked goods taste like "normal foods." She noticed how his bread smells like real, fresh-baked bread when she opened the package.

She also has made chocolate chip cookies with Mehl's baking mix and found herself eating six cookies - something she never would have done with other gluten-free mixes. "They have the texture and taste that cookies should have," she says.

The secret to Mehl's baking success is a combination of four non-wheat flours, including those from the cereal grass sorghum, tapioca and garbanzo and fava beans. All are good, high-fiber replacements, although he uses very small amounts of the fava flour because of its strong "bean-y" taste. He's found a reliable source for his flours from Dakota Prairie Organic Flour Co., a gluten-free mill in Harvey, N.D.

Another tool in gluten-free baking is xanthan gum, which is produced by the fermentation of corn sugar. Xanthan gum imitates the gluten in baking recipes. It acts as a binding agent, helps dough rise as it should and gives baked goods a tender texture, Mehl says.

Because of his customers' health concerns, Mehl has to be meticulous about every ingredient he uses. As a diabetic, he's long been a conscientious label reader, and he's learned gluten can be found in unexpected foods, including some chocolate chips and common wheat flour substitutes, like spelt. When in doubt, he'll call the product manufacturer to ensure an ingredient is completely gluten-free.

Word-of-mouth has helped boost his small but loyal customer base considerably, and Mehl's products are carried by several grocery stores, including Hugo's in Wahpeton, N.D. His next goal is to be carried by Fargo supermarkets.

"We hope to continue to slowly grow, get into local grocery stores and get our product into local restaurants to help them meet their customers' needs," Mehl says.

"We've got this whole warehouse to grow into."