When Dave Wilkes was diagnosed with gluten sensitivity, he didn't know what that meant.
He didn't know the difference between gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance, what foods contained gluten or how to avoid them. But shortly after being diagnosed, Wilkes was driving home in Cedar Park when he saw the words "gluten-free" above a storefront. His education about gluten sensitivity began.
That store was Food for Life, which opened earlier this year selling only foods that are free of gluten and casein, elements in grain and dairy products that trigger reactions in some people, including those with celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine when gluten is consumed. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in 133 people has the disease.
Walking into the store, you will see small booths for sit-down dining to the left and frozen meals and pantry staples to the right. Owner Sherrie Kjar is often on hand to answer questions about the store and the gluten-free lifestyle in general.
"She's really helped me take that first step to get away from gluten completely," Wilkes said. "It's not a pleasant experience learning all this, but they definitely take a lot of the pressure off and help you get through that moment."
Food for Life is a haven for those who avoid casein or gluten, which can be a difficult task, considering their prevalence in common foods such as bread, cheese, milk and even ketchup. Casein is found in dairy products. Gluten is not only a component of wheat, barley and rye, but is also often added to food as a flavoring and thickening agent. Kjar uses special test strips on ingredients and products to ensure they are gluten-free before she uses or sells them.
But Kjar wants her food to be more than just safe to eat. She also wants it to taste great and has worked on her recipes to get their consistency and flavor right. "It's not a convenient way of life," Kjar said. "I made stuff and threw it away for years."
At Food for Life, the menu ranges from waffles to meatloaf to chocolate cake. For those who don't have time to eat at the cafe, there are refrigerated chicken pot pies, personal pizzas and family-size lasagna dishes to take home. Retail products for sale include gluten-free Kinnikinnick brand bread and doughnuts, gluten-free condiments and Glutino Pretzel Sticks that Wilkes said taste better than regular pretzels. Kjar also offers her own special flour blend in bags for customers who bake.
The store has been open only eight months, but Kjar has been helping people eat gluten-free, casein-free diets for more than eight years. When her son, Dillon, was 2 years old, he didn't play with his toys, make eye contact or communicate. Dillon's doctor diagnosed him with autism and said he would probably be institutionalized by age 6. Now 10 years old, Dillon is on the honor roll in mainstream fourth grade and dreams of becoming a video game designer. Kjar said she believes putting him on a gluten-free and casein-free diet has made the difference.
When Dillon was diagnosed, Kjar — a chiropractor for almost 15 years — said that Western medicine primarily offered anti-seizure medicine and drugs to sedate him, which she did not want. After researching alternatives, Kjar decided that controlling Dillon's diet was one thing she could do herself. Three days after removing casein from Dillon's diet, Kjar was already seeing positive changes, she said.
"He gradually started saying words and communicating," Kjar said. "It was almost like he was completely frustrated in his body before."
Although a gluten-free, casein-free diet isn't an accepted medical treatment for autism, it is widely regarded by support groups as a safe option for parents to try. Ann Hart, president of the Autism Society of Austin and mother of an autistic son, said many of the society's members have put their children on this special diet.
"There's a percentage of people with autism who will respond to the diet and some who won't," Hart said. "Trying gluten-free, casein-free is a pretty low-risk endeavor. It can't hurt to try it."
After her experience with Dillon, Kjar began helping other moms and dads who were interested in the diet for their children through online forums and e-mails. But Kjar said she felt like she couldn't reach enough people that way, so she created Food for Life.
Kjar splits her time between the cafe and her chiropractic clinic. When she's not at Food for Life, her father, Billy Jack Newland, can step in to answer questions. Kjar's husband, Chris, might be in the kitchen making a batch of his own wing sauce creation. The boy who's watching YouTube videos on the computer when he's not helping count change and bag groceries is Dillon. The boy who once didn't communicate or play enjoys science and playing tag and Frisbee at recess. He also loves his mom's pizza.
"It's so delicious," Dillon said. "I like it when she makes cookies and pizzas."
Dillon is not the only one who loves his mom's cooking. Frequent customer Brandi Huneycutt, whose son is gluten-sensitive, said she likes that she can talk to Kjar about gluten-free foods, and her son likes that Food for Life offers gluten-free snacks similar to Lunchables to take to school. He's also a fan of Kjar's pizza and brownies.
"People have hugged, cried and sent thank-you e-mails, they're so happy to have found this place," Kjar said. "I wouldn't change anything at this point. That's why Food for Life is here: to help other people. I want people to feel like they have someplace and someone to go to."
Gluten-Free Pumpkin Bread Muffins
2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (such as Food for Life Flour Blend)
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. xanthan gum
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup pumpkin purée
1/2 cup oil
1/3 cup coconut milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare bread pan or muffin pan by coating with oil or nonstick spray.
Mix all dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl until blended. Add all other ingredients and mix until smooth.
Pour into muffin or bread pan.
Bake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 25 minutes.
— Sherry Kjar, Food for Life
Food for Life
2051 Cypress Creek Road, Suite L, Cedar Park. 331-0096, www.gfcfcuisine.com. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.