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Making happy campers one loaf at a time

By Michelle Andujar
from Salem Weekly, Section Eat
Posted on Tue Mar 08, 2011 at 10:15:21 PM PDT

gluten free breadHeadaches, eczema, weakness and crankiness don't make happy campers. Those are some of the over 200 possible symptoms of celiac disease, a rare but ever-increasing autoimmune disorder where the body is intolerant to gluten (a protein found in most grains and cereals), although some of the people suffering from this disease don't experience any symptoms at all.

These unhappy campers struggle to find foods they can eat - and that they like, since they can't enjoy spaghetti, bread, cookies, and many other foods that may include gluten.

Fortunately for them, Happy Campers Baking company has popped onto the scene. They offer three flavorful types of vegan, gluten-free bread: the sandwich-style Classy Grains Loaf, the Kiss Me Garlic Rosemary and the super-nutritious Dark Seedy Loaf, which Happy Campers founders Lacy Gillham and Jan Taborsky like to bring on all their outdoor adventures.

The pair found out two years ago that they gluten-intolerant. Taborsky came to Salem as a high school exchange student from the Czech Republic and his host mom has celiac disease too.

Some of the comments the 23-year-old couple has received is that they're "bringing back flavor to the gluten-free world," that even people who can tolerate gluten choose their brand, and that someone finally achieved the texture of real bread, which was the most difficult challenge. It took months of experimenting with different ingredients, sequences, ratios, timing and temperatures.

"It seems like there's no expert on gluten-free baking. We talked to every baker in town, we worked with Food Innovation Center scientists at Oregon State University, and with other gluten-free bakers, but no one knows much!" says Gillham, whose father, a life-long artisan baker, helped develop the recipe.

While humans have pretty much mastered the art of raising bread, "gluten-free is a free for all," she says. The tricky part is achieving elasticity. Some people experiment with gelatin and many other gluten substitutes, but the Happy Campers found their secret "magic goop."

Happy Campers products are also made in a specialized gluten-free kitchen in Portland and each pumpkin seed or other ingredient is processed in gluten-free facilities to prevent any chance of cross-contamination. They're also packaged in compostable bags and labeled with recycled paper (adhesive-free; even adhesives can contain gluten).

"It sounds cheesy, but for both of us, it's just what we want to do. It's what we think should be done. The other part is that we like the outdoors. We love nature and we want to preserve it," says Taborsky.

The Happy Campers were married last November, which they say, "was the bread's fault." Taborsky had a student visa, which allowed him only to work on campus. When he was caught illegally selling gluten-free products at a local farmer's market, his immigration lawyer advised him to marry his girlfriend rather than be deported.

"It was Friday and we got married on Monday. We were going to wait until we finished school. It just happened a little sooner than it otherwise would have," says Taborsky, who is now studying for a Master's degree in entrepreneurship and marketing at Willamette University.

Happy Campers actually began as an undergraduate student project. "Real investors evaluate the projects and ours won, so there was some valid potential," says Taborsky, who is still getting school credit for the company's success. "My grade depends on how the business goes."

Gillham's friends were worried about the couple starting a business together because it could strain the relationship, but the opposite is just the case.

"It's been really easy and it has made it easier through hard times in the business having Jan's support. We're always joking around and having fun. When it's time to clean the kitchen I can spray Jan with water. It's great!" she says. "Every loaf is made by us." Each loaf is cut in half to show that caring hands baked it ... and, originally, to make sure it didn't collapse with a hole in the middle.

"A lot of the bread wasn't stable. We were staying [24 hours at a time] in the kitchen. Just now, recently, last week, we finally figured out what was happening and we can bake pretty quickly!" they say.

The Happy Campers are currently experimenting with a sweet gluten-free loaf ("something with cranberry, molasses and cinnamon"), and with ways to improve shelf life.