Story by Robin Fitzhugh and photography by Kate Reali
In a small commercial kitchen tucked away on Highway 31 in Spanish Fort, Guncles Gluten Free Bakery’s owners are whipping up delicious and healthy treats five days a week. A near-tragedy inspired them to put careers aside and venture into the world of baking, but since opening their doors in 2018 they have been too busy to look back.
Both Mobile natives, John Edward McGee and Demetrius James met as young adults. Both men worked in Mobile. McGee as a licensed social worker and James in automotive sales, when a job opportunity took them to California where they both became realtors for high-end properties in the San Francisco Bay area. It was during this time that McGee began experiencing mysterious and, in some cases life-threatening, anaphylactic episodes which were eventually traced to a serious gluten allergy.
“We both love good food, cooking,and sharing with friends,” McGee says, “and while I was relieved to discover what was causing my health issues, my initial reaction was disappointment that I would never be able to enjoy the foods we loved again.” The two began a journey in 2011 after McGee’s diagnosis, searching out restaurants with gluten free options and searching the internet for safe and savory dishes to make at home. McGee remember “the one thing that was lacking, even in a food city like San Francisco, was a decent gluten-free bakery.” He finally located a baker who had developed a line of gluten free desserts and McGee began taking classes from him because McGee says, “baking without flour is an entirely different science. ”Family health issues brought the pair back to Mobile in 2015.
Residents of midtown Mobile in an older home they are restoring on Dauphin Street, James continues to divide his time between California and Mobile for work, but both agree the move home has been a wise choice. Because they have both adopted a completely gluten-free lifestyle, and because McGee had always had an interest in working as a pastry chef, their idea of a gluten-free bakery for this area continued to grow. In 2018 they happened onto the kitchen that was originally part of the former Fitzpen place in Spanish Fort and opened their doors that spring.
The menu of sweet items is diverse, with some southern favorites like Chocolate Ganache, Luscious Lemon, or Chocolate with Vanilla Buttercream cakes. Other recipes are inspired by family members who taught both men to cook growing up, including McGee’s mother’s Fig Spice Cake with Praline Glaze that was their first effort as gluten free bakers. All cakes are available in standard layer cake size or mini Bundt cakes which are great for gift giving. Special occasion cakes are also available for weddings, private parties, and birthdays. They also make gluten free Banana Bread with Roasted Pecans, Lemon Raspberry Friands (almond mini-cakes with fruit filling), and Brown Butter Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies.
While baking for people with special dietary needs is their first priority, both partners agree making gluten free foods that taste like the original recipes is hugely important. Guncles is focused on sweet treats now, and they hope to expand their menu of savory offerings like breads and rolls in the near future. At home, they have perfected gumbo, chili, fried chicken and other staples from their childhood that they have adapted using their special blend of tapioca, brown rice,and potato flours. James says, “family and friends have agreed they can’t tell the difference.” At the bakery, he added, probably a third of their customers are not gluten intolerant but prefer the taste and quality of Guncles’ treats.
McGee and James began offering their items for sale at local farmers’ markets last spring and summer and will be doing that again this year. While a storefront bakery is in their future plans, right now food can be ordered from their website gunclesgf.com or by phone and they offer to deliver in both Baldwin and Mobile counties. Guncles’ goodies are also on the menu at Locals in Fairhope, Wahlburgers at OWA in Foley, Our Coffee in Gulf Shores, and Fresh Café in the Eastern Shore Centre as well as at FOY, NobleS outh, Pour Baby, the Cheese Cottage, and Old Shell Market in Mobile. Peg Leg Pete’s and the Bodacious Shops in Pensacola have also included Guncles’ desserts on their gluten free menu.
Reflecting over the past decade since his diagnosis, McGee says his health problems have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “We learned to make more informed food choices for ourselves and now we are able to make the foods we love available to other people.