How sweet it is

When Janice Lavine went on a strict regimen to eliminate all food allergens from her diet eight years ago, she did so to support one of her daughters, whom medical professionals were struggling to diagnose. While the diet had no effect on her child, the lawyer-turned-stay-at-home mom noticed a profound difference in her own health.

Prior to the diet, Lavine said, her thinking “was like walking through dense fog” and the simple act of moving her fingers was a trial. “I couldn’t get my brain to work, and I had no energy. Everything was such a huge effort,” she said. 

Once she started eating wheat, rye and barley again, the Beverlywood mom said her symptoms returned. “I gladly gave up the things that made me sick,” said Lavine, 51, who now maintains a strict gluten-free diet.

A year later, when Lavine refused a slice of cake on her birthday, her youngest daughter determined that her mom should enjoy “yummy” things again. The pair started baking together, experimenting with and adapting recipes for a gluten-free diet. Before long, Lavine became obsessed with baking, even training at the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills.

This past November, Lavine opened Breakaway Bakery, a kosher, organic, whole-grain, gluten-free, dairy-free, casein-free bakery, which strives to be inclusive of food allergies and sensitivities without sacrificing one critical ingredient: flavor.

Set in an art deco building on Pico, just east of Fairfax in Picfair Village, the Kehilla-certified Breakaway joins a growing list of Los Angeles bakeries appealing to Jewish gluten-free consumers, including Schwartz Bakery, The Sensitive Baker in Culver City and downtown’s Babycakes NYC, all of which are kosher certified by the Rabbinical Council of California.

Gluten-free food and beverages, once regarded as niche products, are becoming mainstream. Companies like Snyder’s of Hanover and Republic of Tea are turning to the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America for its GF stamp of approval. General Mills has certified five of its seven Chex cereals as gluten free, and its Betty Crocker and Bisquick brands now include several gluten-free mixes.

In 2010, U.S. sales of gluten-free products hit $2.6 billion, a 30 percent increase since 2006, market research publisher Packaged Facts reports. By 2015, that total is expected to reach $6 billion.

Cupcakes from Breakaway Bakers

There are at least 3 million people with celiac disease in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign, and the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Disease Research estimates that an additional 18 million people suffer from a separate but related condition known as gluten sensitivity. For people with these gluten-related disorders, products made from wheat, barley and rye cause a range of symptoms that can include digestive disorders, anemia, arthritis, infertility, chronic fatigue and depression.

In addition to celiacs and the gluten sensitive, Lavine says that her Breakaway clients include people with Crohn’s disease, kidney disease, chronic fatigue and “people who are struggling to find out what’s wrong with them.”

The menu at Breakaway features cupcakes, muffins and cookies — some of which are vegan — but it also includes gluten-free varieties of Jewish favorites like hamantashen, rugelach (raspberry-cinnamon and apricot-fig) and mandelbread.

One recent client, Lavine said, was a rabbi with an egg allergy who ordered three-dozen rugelach for a Kiddush.

Customers have driven in from Monrovia, Cerritos and Ventura, and on a recent Thursday afternoon a Muslim family drove from Anaheim for Breakaway’s cupcakes and cookies.

“They found us online,” Lavine said. “They made an outing for it. That’s kind of cool.”

However, the bakery’s hours rubbed at least one client the wrong way.

Breakaway is only open four days a week — Wednesdays and Thursdays (10 a.m.-6 p.m.), Fridays (8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.) and Sundays (11 a.m.-2 p.m.). Mondays and Tuesdays are dedicated baking days, Lavine said, and the shop is closed on Saturday for Shabbat.

That Breakaway Bakery is even open to the public at all is a happy accident.

“We weren’t going to do retail. My original idea was to do frozen batters and doughs,” Lavine said. (Breakaway currently provides batters and doughs to Vicente Foods, Santa Monica’s Co-opportunity, Cambridge Farms, Western Kosher and Doheny Kosher Meat Market.)

But after renting the space, Lavine and her husband, who handles the finances, found they were in a redevelopment zone that requires a retail presence. 

“I’d like for us to be open longer,” Lavine said. “We’ve rented the place next to us. Maybe at some point, if we do well, we’ll knock the wall down and have bigger retail, with Wi-Fi and comfy seats.”

In the meantime, Lavine said she’s enjoying being back in the Mid-City neighborhood where her extended family once lived. She likes interacting with the public — listening to their stories and taking their product recommendations.

“I feel like we’re home. This neighborhood is fabulous.” Lavine said. “People think we’re in the middle of nowhere, but this community is fantastic, and the people are wonderful.”

Breakaway Bakery, 5264 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 968-9380. Visit Breakaway Bakery’s Facebook page.