The pastries at Guncles in Midtown are so good they’ve been known to bring patrons to tears — quite literally. Guncles serves exclusively gluten-free sweets and breads, and for some gluten-intolerant or -sensitive eaters, these are the only doughy delights they’ve been able to consume in years, if ever.
“We love seeing the faces of the people who are experiencing it for the first time,” co-owner Demetrius James said. “We have people who stand here at the counter and cry. And then we’re all in here crying! It can be very much an emotional moment.”
Guncles, however, did not win the 2020 Nappie Award for Best Gluten-Free Bakery. It won for Best Dessert. That’s because its chocolate chip-toffee cookies, chocolate ganache cakes and fluffy cinnamon rolls are delicious enough to stand on their own, and they garner mainstream fanfare regardless of what ingredients they omit.
James and his partner, John Edward McGee, are the chefs behind Guncles. The duo, who grew up in Mobile, was living in San Francisco when McGee was diagnosed with wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis (WDEIA), a rare gluten intolerance that causes respiratory reactions when paired with physical exercise. A longtime baker and dessert lover, McGee was surprised at the lack of gluten-free options available at his favorite bakeries after he changed his diet.
So, he began training under a pastry chef and he and James started engineering their own confections, swapping out wheat, barley and rye for a custom blend of almond flour, brown rice flour, potato starch and tapioca starch. They were going to open a bakery in San Francisco, but family brought them home to Mobile. They continued to tinker with their recipes in Alabama and in 2018 launched Guncles with a few products at a farmers market.
“Living in San Francisco and going to some of the finest bakeries in the world, that was the standard for us. That was our frame of reference,” McGee said. “So, everything that we create, if it doesn’t meet our standards, which in our opinion, is that of a world-class bakery, it never makes it to a customer. If I don’t want to eat it, no one’s even going to sample it.”
Glowing praise spread quickly — the next-closest gluten-free bakery was a four-hour drive away — and the pair started selling their creations directly to restaurants and other markets. Last year they opened a brick-and-mortar storefront on Government, where they now offer a dozen varieties of meticulously prepared baked goods daily. (The sandwich bread, which was introduced in June, took two years to get right.)
“A lot of research goes into our recipes,” McGee said. “I gained 10 pounds developing the cinnamon rolls, but we don’t stop until we love it.”
The facility is also certified gluten-free, which means those with severe gluten allergies or celiac disease can eat there without fear of cross-contamination. Now customers will drive for hours to buy Guncles’ goods, and many items are ordered online and shipped all over the country.
“We love what we do, and we genuinely love pleasing people and seeing smiles on their faces,” James said. “I think that love comes through.”
A few weeks prior to the pandemic shutdown, the pair was going to expand their menu to include savory lunch items like gluten-free paninis, salads and gumbo. That plan is mostly on hold for now, but they will be introducing some highly requested sugar-free and vegan baked goods in the coming weeks.
The grand vision, however, is still clear: They want to expand Guncles’ reach throughout the Southeast, from retail partners in Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle and beyond.
“We’re striving for perfection. We love the challenge of making something that is better than what people can get elsewhere,” McGee said. “It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment. And it’s really exciting to see our vision come to fruition.”
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