Gluten-free bakery at center of Sacramento couple's love story

03/20/2013 12:00 AM

03/21/2013 1:14 PM

It's only fitting that Pushkin's Bakery opened on Valentine's Day, for the fledging husband-and-wife business began as something of a love story, one tied to a medical mystery solved in part through the magic of gluten-free baking.

When Olga and Danny Turner started dating in 2006, he was athletic and full of life – but not for much longer. In no time, he felt weak and in pain – and it wouldn't let up.

"He went from doctor to doctor for three or four years. It was tough. It was a big identity crisis. He identified himself with sports. Then suddenly everything was taken away from him," said Olga Turner.

Finally, one doctor conducted an allergy test and determined Danny was extremely sensitive to gluten and dairy. He didn't have celiac disease, the genetic condition in which sufferers can have severe and sometimes painful reactions to the gluten common in such foods as bread, cookies and pasta.

His condition was called gluten intolerance, whereby consuming a small amount of the protein would leave him reeling.

After a year off gluten, Danny Turner got his life back. He and Olga ran a half-marathon. He swam in a grueling event at Alcatraz.

In 2010, the two married. Olga, an avid self-taught baker, transformed the way she baked so her husband could eat the occasional treat without falling ill.

But it didn't stop there. She became consumed by this new style of baking and its many challenges – without such ubiquitous ingredients as wheat flour, absent the butter that helps cookies taste so good and free of the cream that gives richness to frosting. She would spend countless hours in the kitchen, creating new recipes, testing numerous blends of non- gluten flours, and getting the taste and texture just so.

Her husband, 6-foot-5 and slender, was the taste-tester.

"It's persistence," Olga Turner said. "When a recipe fails, you don't give up. It is such hard work."

One day, it all came together in a peanut butter cookie Danny Turner loved.

"You should market that thing," he told her. "I've never tasted anything better."

Soon, the two were planning their future around a gluten-free bakery they would open.

They secured a building on heavily traveled 29th Street near S Street and spent day and night getting it ready to open.

Danny, 27, built the cabinets and display cases himself. He hung the wallpaper and did the painting. Olga, 26, was in there, too. She left her day job as a customer service manager for a medical company, but was still working nights as a server at busy Bandera restaurant after testing new recipes all day. When she finished at the restaurant at 11 p.m., she would return to the bakery and work some more.

"We were in here from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day getting ready to open," she said. "A huge motivator was 'I don't want to fail.' "

They named it Pushkin's Bakery after Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Olga, whose maiden name is Mokhov, was born in Russia and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 4 years old. On a visit to Russia with Danny in 2009, he proposed. During the trip, he noticed the reverence Russians continued to show Pushkin 175 years after his death.

She is fluent in Russian, which he is struggling to learn.

"We decided to name our first dog Pushkin, but the bakery came first," Olga said with a laugh.

The bakery has become the focal point of their lives. Ever since Valentine's Day, when they sold out of their first-day inventory, business has been steady and growing, they said. Olga does most of the baking and handles the finances. Danny handles the marketing, the online component, works on the bakery's image and takes orders behind the counter.

Olga said all of the recipes are original, based on trial and error and plenty of feedback from Danny. After five weeks in business, the bakery has 15 gluten-free items and counting, including banana bread, a peanut butter cookie, several varieties of scones, various cupcakes and an oversized peanut butter-and-chocolate sandwich cookie, among others.

The baked goods are so tasty and uncompromising that many would be hard-pressed to identify them as gluten- and dairy-free.

The bakery is a dedicated gluten-free and dairy-free facility, meaning there is no gluten baking on the premises. That's a significant factor for many who can't tolerate gluten. Danny, for instance, said his gluten intolerance is so sensitive that his body can detect when a gluten-free baked good is produced in a bakery where gluten products are also baked.

It's also crucial for customer Ashley Reed, 26, who was diagnosed with celiac disease four years ago. Her system can't tolerate cross-contamination with gluten. When she realized it was a dedicated facility, she was elated.

"I can go in there, and I say 'I want one of this and one of that' and not have to worry. For me, that's huge," she said.

Her favorite treat so far is the chocolate-banana peanut butter cupcake.

"It's so moist. A lot of the gluten-free things you get in stores taste cardboard and bland," she said.

That's why Pushkin's treats will appeal to a broader market even as the bakery is poised to capitalize on the growing interest in gluten-free foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to standardize the definition of "gluten-free" as the incidence of celiac disease increases. While the issue remains hotly debated, the agency says there are no advantages for people not sensitive to gluten – the majority of the population – to be on a gluten-free diet.

As for the Turners, the business has no employees. That means they are together practically day and night. Their next vacation? They can't imagine when that might be.

Before that happens, they hope to open another bakery, possibly in Roseville or the Bay Area, and expand their product placement into several grocery stores.

For the Turners, can life possibly be so sweet and peaceful 24/7? The two say they've figured out how to work together, patch up conflicts and divvy up tasks to suit their strengths.

The bakery and the love story appear to have survived stress and strain.

Said Danny, "One of the reasons Olga and I are so happy is we seem to embrace every single moment that we're here and we don't take that for granted."


PUSHKIN'S BAKERY

What: A gluten-free and dairy-free bakery

Where: 1820 29th St. Sacramento

Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Information: (916) 376-7752 or www.pushkinsbakery.com


Pushkin's Bakery photo gallery


Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

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