Behind A Counter – Story of Bakery Owner, Monica Poole

Monica Poole – Owner – Deby’s Bakery

Growing up, I didn’t see myself owning a bakery, but I can see how experiences worked together to make Deby’s happen. 

I had a pretty vivid imagination as a kid. And curiosity. And I think that has fueled me. I can remember watching Gilligan’s Island and really wanting to take apart the TV so I can get to those little people and play with them. I thought, if I could get to those little people, they would be better than any toy

I did not know it at the time but we didn’t have a lot of money. When you grow up with less, you have to improvise. You just aren’t showered with things—which is not necessarily bad, it may be the best place God puts you. But we were not given every toy we wanted and we didn’t watch TV all the time. I mostly played outside with my brothers and sisters and we would make up games. My imagination really flourished. When I was 5, my mom and dad got divorced. I was the youngest and a real daddy’s girl, so having him go away was super devastating for me. It was probably my first real devastation in life. We had to get used to a completely different existence. We had always been lower income. After the divorce, with a single mom raising 4 children, we were even worse off. My mom got a full time job. Me and my sister, who was 2 years older than me, ended up doing almost all of the cooking. My sister had just gotten a Betty Crocker Junior Cookbook. We started working our way through the recipe list.

We cooked every dinner that looked good in that cookbook. If we got stuck or didn’t have an ingredient, which was a lot of the time, we would call my mom at work and say, we don’t have this ingredient. She would say, oh just improvise. I didn’t know how to improvise back then so, she told us, “If it calls for a spice and we don’t have it then just smell it. If it smells like it ought to go in there then use that one.” So, that’s what we did and we made some really bad food. We also made some really good food-when you are in that stage you have success and failure. And when you are 7 and 5 years, you don’t really care, you are just doing your best and I think that you don’t know the colossal size of your failures and you also don’t know the size of your success. For us, success was simple: you could eat it. Failure was also simple: you had to throw it away. Since we really never threw anything away, really, in our eyes, we never failed. Everything was at least edible. 

I do remember one dish being particularly bad. My brothers took over cooking one day. One of our favorite meals was “noodles and tomato juice”. Not good food really, but we thought it was great. However, when my brothers made it, we didn’t have tomato juice. They used tomato paste. They didn’t add any water so it was super thick, clinging to the macaroni noodles and tasting horrible. They wanted to spice it up and they started throwing in spices. They ended up pulling out the bottle of rosemary. The cap wasn’t on it and the boys dumped the entire jar of rosemary into the dish on accident. They couldn’t get it all out so they just stirred it in. It was awful. I am the youngest and, since we couldn’t throw the food away, they made me eat that entire pan. For a long time I hated tomato paste and I hated rosemary. That was a colossal failure but I didn’t cook it, my brothers did.. But I made some really bad food too.

So I learned how to cook and bake, but I still wasn’t on a path to opening a bakery. Lots of shaping still had to happen. The next big shaper for me was a family move from suburban Colorado to a parcel of land in Montana. My step dad and mom bought 5 acres of land in the middle of nowhere. No electricity, No running water, nothing. We lived in tents for 6 months while we built a log cabin. It was crazy. I truly hated it. I hated it from the very beginning. I hated it all the way through. I hated everything about it. We didn’t move into our shell of a log cabin until Thanksgiving Day. And it was just a shell, only a little better than a tent. There was no bathroom, there was no nothing. There were extension cords so that we could pipe in electricity and we had a telephone—that was exciting—but the telephone was out in the yard, on a tree. My step dad built a plywood enclosure around it and we told people, let it ring, let it ring 50 times because we have to hear it, we have to go outside, unbar the door…. I was 17, so with that perspective, it was just terrible. 

As terrible as I thought it was, I’m thankful because without it, I would have never considered going to college. College was a way out. Fortunately, I had a good GPA. I got a scholarship to the local community college and I maintained my grades to get free tuition. I majored in math and minored in physics and I didn’t ever use that degree. But that’s okay. Those classes shaped me too. They taught me to think in an organized way. 

During and also after college, I worked as a cook and nanny. There were three families I worked for and each of them had different cooking tastes. I remember telling one of the wives, “I need to get some flour.” She told me, “Oh we have enough flour to last 5 years.” I looked around and wondered, where is this enormous storehouse of flour—where are you hiding it in this house?!! I was envisioning a bunker full of flour. She brought out a 2.5 pound bag and I said, “Okaaay….” I used that up in one setting and I went to the store to get 10 pounds of flour so that I could make them bread. They thought I was the best cook in the universe. I would cook something and the husband would come racing over and say, “Oh please tell me that you have a recipe for that.” I said, “Well, no” and his head would fall like his best friend had died. I would think, Who follows a recipe for that kind of food? You just put it together and it works. I also worked for a family whose wife had trained in a French culinary school—all those experiences after college helped to shape me.

Years later, I had gotten married and had my daughter, Deby. My second pregnancy turned out to be identical twins. My first pregnancy was difficult because—I didn’t know it then—but I was in the throes of Celiac Disease. I debated whether or not I should have any more children. But my husband and I decided on one more and it really scared me when I was told I was carrying twins. That was a hard pregnancy as well. The boys were born at 34 weeks at St Joseph’s, the only hospital at the time that could handle a high-risk twin birth. St Joe’s was another fortunate happenstance because at St. Joe’s they were Looking for candidates for the Daisy Cedar Study of Celiac Disease and Type 1 Diabetes. After their birth, a person came into my room and asked if they could test the boys for this thing I never heard of before—Celiac Disease. I thought it sounded really strange but my family did have a history of Type 1 Diabetes. So I asked, are you going to hurt them? They said no, we will test their umbilical cord blood. I said that would be fine. 

A few months later I got a letter saying that my boys had a 90% chance of developing Celiac Disease and 60% chance of developing diabetes. I enrolled them in the study more because of diabetes and never even thought of Celiac Disease. At 2, Michael’s test came up positive for Celiac Disease. I recall that both boys had been sick a lot. Both got RSV when they were around 3 months. Then around 2 years old, they both came down with viral pneumonia. In between, they seemed to have a lot of stomach issues. It turned out that all three of my children had gluten intolerance. At the time I didn’t know what was going on so it was good to finally have an answer. It was the final shaping event because without that, I would have never had the idea to start baking gluten free and Deby’s would not be here today.

When Michael was almost 3, we were told that he was positive for Celiac Disease. I looked more into the symptoms and realized that the trouble I was having was very likely the same culprit. My worst symptom was low energy and anemia—my doctor couldn’t get my iron level up even with supplements. I wanted to sleep all day. That was devastating because I wanted to be a better mom and not be so sick. So, when Michael was diagnosed and he got the endoscopy results with flat villi, and I looked 

into the symptoms, it was such a relief to have an answer both for him and for myself. I decided to go on the gluten free diet with Michael and see what would happen. I figured it couldn’t be that hard… 

Then I went to the grocery store.

There was nothing to buy—I could buy all my vegetables; I could buy that stuff—but there was nothing ready to go. I think in that time, after I had my boys, my body had become so depleted that I actually started to buy prepared food instead of making everything from scratch. And I thought, what am I going to replace all this stuff with because I am still really tired, and I have three kids? We were at the store for 3 and a half hours and I left with nothing. I felt that there was nothing I could buy.

My initial attempts at baking gluten free were hardly a success, but eventually I figured out the basics. But it was a pain to mix all of those different flours for each recipe. I told people, What I really need, what would really help me, is if I had a flour that I could just dip into and make the things that I was used to making before. Even if it didn’t work for every recipe, I thought, if it could work for 75% of the things I want to bake, I would be happy. Everyone told me that it was impossible, that no one could do it. I thought, “I’m going to do it!” 

Three and a half years later, after daily experimenting blending together different flours in different amounts, I came up with my Deby’s all-purpose gluten free flour blend and I still sell it today. The blend was such a breakthrough. Baked stuff just started to turn out. I was involved with the Celiac support group in Denver. I started giving people some flour just to see if they would have the same results. When they did, I knew I really had something that was going to help people. I wasn’t thinking of a business yet. I just wanted to help other Celiac people eat the food they loved.

I love food; I love to eat. When I was cooking for my family, I fed off the positive feedback I got from making a good meal. I know I’m not alone in that. Food and eating is more than just a necessity, it has a social aspect, it brings people together–it can bring enemies together. 

If the food doesn’t taste great, so much is lost. I noticed pretty early with gluten free products, people were not enjoying their food. I saw that the products available on the market at that time—in my mind, I thought, those manufactures aren’t even trying. I thought the market was being taken for granted, as if the manufacturers were thinking, “Oh you have to eat this so I can throw together any old horrible concoction and you’ll buy it because it is the only choice you have.” Having my baked goods and other foods turn out so that people would eat them and not even know they were gluten free, that is what eventually started me on the path to opening Deby’s, to thinking about it as a possibility.

We risked everything for our bakery. We cashed in my husband’s pension. We cashed in his retirement, we mortgaged our house, we maxed out every single credit card we own, we even maxed out the business credit card that we had. We got the biggest SBA Loan we could get—We really thought we had something. We thought, this is going to be big. 

I did a bunch of research and I said to my husband, “This isn’t going to be like low-carb. Because once you go gluten free, you can’t go back (if you are really gluten intolerant) without suffering. You are going to stick with it because if you go off gluten and then try to eat it, and you are really gluten intolerant, you are going to get sick. And if you are Celiac, you are never going to be able to eat gluten, you are going to have to stick with it.” 

I remember talking to the SBA Loan officer—I talked to her forever. She didn’t want to give us the loan because she never heard of Celiac Disease before, never even heard of gluten free. There wasn’t a gluten free bakery that she could refer to see any kind of business pattern. She said to us that this kind of business didn’t exist and I said, “Exactly–I can start one. This is going to exist.” It took me several hours and, thank goodness I did all that research before-hand, the bank finally gave us the loan. We started our business and I really think that I was the first dedicated gluten free business in the US that started as a wholesale, storefront, and restaurant. We had all three going at the same time. I don’t have the restaurant anymore, but I did for 3 years because back then restaurants weren’t doing anything gluten free. Most didn’t even know what it was.

My oldest, Deby, was 4 when my boys were diagnosed. We started having a gluten free household but it wasn’t completely gluten free. Deby was in school and she was fed school lunch–which was all gluten.

In the beginning, Deby couldn’t do her alphabet when she started school. I could read really early, but Deby wasn’t even interested. She couldn’t follow a story or turn the pages in a book at 5 years old. So we knew beforehand that she had some serious learning disabilities. I thought, maybe she is just a late bloomer, and, since I was able to, I started her late in school. In the first parent/teacher meeting, I knew it wasn’t going to go well. They warned me that something was wrong. The suggestion was that she had ADD. We had her evaluated and she was put on medication. 

As elementary school progressed, Deby got progressively worse. I would have to drag her out of the car and make her go to school and it was clear that she was afraid–she was definitely terrified of something but we had no idea what it was. And, inevitably, I would be called around noon that Deby was in the nurse’s office and I would need to come pick her up because she had a fever. Three to four days out of 5, Deby would come home in the afternoon. 

We were seeing a doctor who thought they needed to put her on a stronger medication. They suggested Paxil and I was really nervous about that. But they wanted her on an anti-anxiety drug since she scored high in anxiety on her IEP. So we agreed to put her on Paxil because she seemed terrified of everything. The doctor said, “Well, Paxil will either help her or send her completely over the edge. * It took about 2.5 weeks for her to go completely over the edge. She lost it completely and was committed to a juvenile mental institution just before she turned 10. They told me she had schizophrenia but they were not going to diagnose her with that because, they said, “Children don’t get schizophrenia. We are going to diagnose her with bipolar disease, with hallucinations both auditory and visual, and delusions.” So we went home and I did a bunch of research and I found out that all this medicine cocktail they had her on would shorten her lifespan dramatically. When I brought it up, her psychologist said, “Well, that’s okay. She is so affected by this that she probably won’t live past 21. She will probably commit suicide by then because she was self-injuring and she wanted to kill herself by 9.” I thought, well you may think that but that is not going to happen.

There was a website called Brain Talk. It featured a bunch of diseases where you could go into the forum and talk with other people who had those conditions and post questions and read posts and answers. I was in this forum mainly for Celiac Disease because the Celiac community was very big and active in this forum. There was also a forum for schizophrenia. I just happened one day to be in the Celiac forum and I saw a post from one of the schizophrenia people. I thought, why is a schizophrenia person posting in the Celiac forum? I clicked on the post. It was a single little paragraph on an article from a European doctor describing a study on the subject of schizophrenia in children. His conclusion was that childhood schizophrenia was gluten induced. I thought, we know how to be gluten free so I am going to try that and see what happens. 

By this time, Deby was removed from regular school and put into a private school for children with emotional disorders. One of the rules of the school was that we had to keep Deby on her prescribed medication. Though the medications were not making very much difference, I kept her on them. I also switched her to a completely gluten free diet including her school lunch which I had to pack for her since the school didn’t have a lunch program. You have to remember, at this time, she was not communicative and the medicine made this symptom worse so she never said much of anything. On the morning of the fifth day after going completely gluten free, she said, “Good morning Mom! I don’t want to take my medicine anymore, it makes me feel funny. * And I thought, oh my gosh! That was a whole string of words and it made sense!! I decided to give her a cut of her dose of only one of her medications and send her to school. 

At noon, the school called and her teacher said, “I just want to tell you that Deby has had the best day she has ever had and whatever new drug she is taking–(her doctor was trying new medications to see if anything made her better and the school knew this)—keep her on that!” Going on a gluten free diet helped her so much. She went to the special school for the last half of her 4th grade year. Her teacher said, “She really doesn’t need this school. In fact, she really doesn’t need 5th grade, she can go to 6th grade.” Deby had caught up so much in her Learning and everything improved from then on.

So Deby did great. It turned out that she does not have to be 100% gluten free because it does not affect her the same way as Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. But she does know the triggers. And now she is actually going to go to school for psychology and is engaged. My sons are also good and they stay on the gluten free diet. They are very picky because they can get fresh bread all the time. We named the bakery after Deby. We were going to name the bakery The Magnificent Kitchen but I’m glad we didn’t. Every once in a while, people will ask why we named the bakery Deby’s. Sometimes I get this feeling that I should tell them Deby’s story and then I give them a brief overview. Almost without fail someone will have this connection with mental disease and have a reason that they needed to have that story to tell it to someone else and maybe to give that person hope. And that is what we do, in a small way, we restore hope. Celiac Disease is a serious condition and when it’s diagnosed, or even if it’s gluten intolerance, not getting to eat the foods you love and feeling like you will never get them again, can be devastating. We make our food as close as we can to what customers remember. That smile I get when a customer enjoys a doughnut or a cinnamon roll or any product of mine, that is what keeps me going. It makes all the effort worthwhile.

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Written by Monica Poole | Owner – Deby’s Gluten Free Bakery, Denver, CO | For more info about Deby’s click here

Photography by Rachel Henry | Raysopal Studio | For inquiries click here

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