Kathi Thibutot was delighted when she found the right kind of cream of mushroom soup she could sell at her Tiverton store, Healthy Haven.
Now, she’s searching for oyster crackers and chow-mein noodles.
You wouldn’t think such ordinary food would be hard to find. However, the store Thibutot opened almost three years ago at 80 Main Road is anything but ordinary because it caters exclusively to those afflicted with celiac disease – an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats.
To a lesser extent, the store offers products for those with other allergies, such as lactose intolerance, but Thibutot’s main focus is gluten-free food.
“I was diagnosed about 20 years ago,” said Thibutot, “and it is a total life change. There is not a lot available. People have no idea where to begin or what to look for. I hope my business is making a difference in people’s lives because I am able to help them one-on-one and I research all the products I sell.”
Healthy Haven carries more than 1,000 “totally gluten-free” products, Thibutot said, such as cookies, pizza, 13 kinds of bread, cereal, bagels, waffles, doughnuts, soup, ravioli, seven-layer chocolate cake and even nondairy ice cream, made from coconut milk. Her prices, she said, are comparable to supermarket prices and generally less than health food stores.
She opened her store in September 2007, just a year before the economy stalled. After a sluggish start, “the business is still growing,” she said, “not a lot, but a little bit every month.”
The National Institutes of Health estimate that about 2 million people in the United States have the disease and – in a startling statistic – more than 95 percent go undiagnosed because doctors often fail to recognize it. There are no drugs to treat it. Adoption of a gluten-free diet is recommended as the best way to control symptoms, which can include diarrhea, abdominal pain, anemia, irritable bowel syndrome and osteoporosis.
Like many others who suddenly lost their jobs during the recent recession, Thibutot began considering the idea of running her own business after the company she worked for, Paramount Cards Inc. in Pawtucket, closed in 2006. She had been employed as a computer-program analyst for seven years.
Friends wondered if running her own business was a wise move for a woman in her late 50s. “I told them, this is my dream and if I don’t take the opportunity now, I may never get that chance again.”
In 1997, a decade before opening her store, she started a support group for those with celiac disease that still meets five times a year in Tiverton. At her store, she features a sample table of gluten-free food products, which she changes every day, so customers “can try things first and not waste money on something they won’t like.”
And Thibutot said she spends hours on the Internet searching for new or hard-to-find products, such as the gluten-free chow-mein noodles and oyster crackers that have to date proven so elusive.
“I am still looking for those,” she said, explaining that it is important for those afflicted with celiac disease to expand their diets with different food choices “so they don’t have to have the same things over and over again.” •