Marilyn’s Interview with the AJC
Dec 03, 2018
By C. W. Cameron, For the AJC
There’s an industrial park in Roswell that is home to a wide range of businesses, from dentists to a church, to a shop with antique furniture. The tantalizing aroma wafting from an office at the end of one of the rows of buildings in the park is the clue you’ve found the home of Marilyn’s Gluten Free Gourmet.
The equipment inside the 5,500-square-foot space belies any notion this is a small-time operation. Drums with 125 pounds of gluten-free flour sit next to mixers — 20-quart, 40-quart and 80-quart models. Each mixer has a name. “Bertha” is the baby and test mixer, and has been around since the company started.
Huge ovens hold racks of 30 full-size sheet pans and rotate the racks, so the cheese straws and fruit cakes bake evenly, side-to-side and top-to-bottom.
Packaging equipment, pallets of baked goods, cavernous freezer space, and large loading doors for the trucks driving off full of product tell you this is one serious operation.
Marilyn’s Gluten Free Gourmet is a commercial bakery that produces exactly what its name says — gluten-free baked goods and mixes. That’s all. Those with serious gluten intolerance issues can rest assured there’ll be no cross-contamination here.
A small retail area in the front means customers can come to the bakery and purchase the full range of its products. It’s Southern comfort food at its most bountiful, including cheese straws available in original, jalapeno, and white cheddar and chive flavors; and buttermilk biscuits sold frozen, so they can be baked to order.
The founder is Marilyn Santulli, diagnosed in 2007 with a profound gluten intolerance. Ready for a change from her career as a corporate spokeswoman, and shocked by the poor quality and taste of the gluten-free products she found on the market, she found a new passion.
“I could not believe it was so difficult to find a ready-made gluten-free cake, bread or muffin that was good enough to buy the second time around,” Santulli said. “I quickly realized there was a need to provide better alternatives.”
She set out to create them, starting with adapting a family fruitcake recipe.
“I grew up perched on a stool watching relatives, an aunt in particular, and my Mississippi grandmother, rolling out biscuits every morning,” she said. “And, watching my mom make fruitcake. I adapted their recipes by taking out the wheat flour. Gluten-free means baking without products containing wheat, barley or rye.”
She likened it to a science experiment, tinkering with flours made from rice, potato and tapioca. “My mission was always to create products people would never guess were gluten-free,” she said. Her experiments took months.
Later that year, she started selling her fruitcake at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. The fruitcake soon was joined by cheese straws and graham crackers, as well as brownies, muffins and cakes.
Initially, she baked in a restaurant kitchen rented in the evenings, when the restaurant was closed, then moved into commercial baking space. Her team now includes a senior full-time baker and his staff, assistants and several packagers.
“My husband Paul is production manager, responsible for making sure we meet safety and certification requirements, plus warehouse and shipping procedures,” Santulli said. “Everyone works together for the common vision and advancement of the company. I am particularly grateful for the respect they have for the ‘no cross contamination’ rule. Our people do not bring lunches that contain gluten to the bakery. I couldn’t ask for a better crew, and they are the reason we’re able to sell our products across the country.”
Her first wholesale contract was with Whole Foods Market. “In 2008, I took a product to the grocery buyer at the Sandy Springs location,” she said. “He sampled and loved it.”
Now, her products are sold regionally at Whole Foods and Kroger, and are available at many Atlanta area stores, including Piece of Cake, Alon’s Bakery and Mercier Orchards. They’re sold online through QVC, as well as on the bakery’s website.
Like any intrepid entrepreneur, Santulli is not through growing her business. “It’s been many years of dedicated hard work, with tons of trial and error, to get to this point,” she said. “We feel poised to be one of the nation’s leading purveyors of gluten-free gourmet desserts and specialty snacks. And, we’re proud to offer products that we know are safe for those who need to be gluten-free.”