Nearing its three-year anniversary, Dempsey Bakery isn’t your everyday, ordinary bakery. Yes, just like every other bakery, there are pies, cakes and cookies, but Dempsey Bakery is gluten-free. It’s also soy-free and nut-free.
Founded by Paula Dempsey, the bakery wasn’t opened to serve the masses. More than anything, it’s meant to serve those who suffer from food allergies, like gluten intolerance.
“What’s really fun is when you have children, and adults too, come into the bakery and start crying,” Dempsey says. These aren’t tears of sadness, but of joy. “There’s an older picture on my Facebook page of two boys, with celiac disease, jumping for joy in front of my bakery sign because they were so happy to have a bakery to come to.”
It’s the exact purpose Dempsey envisioned the bakery serving, and it’s what keeps it going.
Seated in her bakery with a grilled cheese and chips from her kitchen, Dempsey points to a girl across the room enjoying a lunch with her brother and mom as a prime example of why her bakery is open. The girl, who suffers from various food intolerances “could hardly eat” the first time she came in the bakery, Dempsey says.
“I mean, how could you not be brokenhearted? She can come in here, eat a sandwich, that’s the kind of kids that come in here. They just rip your heart out,” she says. “And they’re so appreciative and their mommas are happy because they can have whatever they want.”
It’s the story that Dempsey sees daily as a couple hundred customers frequent her bakery on Cross Street in downtown Little Rock.
Truth be told, the hardships many of her customers face daily is a struggle Dempsey and her family know all too well.
Dempsey’s husband, Demp, was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis about 18 years ago. For many years, significant pain and swelling was just some of what he dealt with on a consistent basis, as a result of the arthritis.
“We never even really considered food [as a source of the pain],” Dempsey says of her husband’s suffering. “He went to the doctor about every three to six months, had his knees drained, took some very toxic drugs and that was what he was going to live with for the rest of his life.”
Then came the unexpected diagnosis of a gluten intolerance.
“We looked at [the doctor] and said, ‘what is that?’” Dempsey recalls.
With the switch to gluten-free, Demp has found relief from the pain and swelling.
The connection to her customers does not stop with Dempsey and her husband.
Demp and Paula have three sons, three daughters-in-law and six grandchildren, 14 members in all. Of the 14 family members, 10 have diagnosed issues and eat gluten-free.
With so many diagnosed, family trips, like the one the Dempseys took to the beach in March, make for quite a lengthy grocery list.
“You should see our list, actually, I’m going to turn it into a handout,” Dempsey says. “It is so detailed, because we have so many other food allergies besides gluten, I mean, some serious ones.”
The switch to a gluten-free diet — one that Paula, herself, also made after discovering a disappearance in nagging hip pain — was difficult at first with little to choose from at grocery stores and no local bakeries that specialized in gluten-free.
“You become a label reader,” she says, “because you have no clue as to what foods have gluten in them, which is pretty much everything in the store that is processed.”
The idea of opening a gluten-free bakery was one Dempsey wrestled with for years after Demp’s diagnosis.
“If there is nothing, and you want it, you have to figure out how to make it,” she says.
Finally, with the help of a young chef, Dempsey was able to develop six to eight recipes for a bakery.
Now, people just like her family are the ones she serves every day. The impact is not lost on her.
“I’m very empathetic,” she says. “We all are here. We all understand how careful we have to be, we’re very conscience. We try really hard to make it happen, because we know how hard it is.”
While Dempsey is still waiting to cut her first paycheck, the bakery is growing, and a reputation is being formed. Every day, the bakery welcomes a large crowd of non gluten-free eaters for lunch.
Dempsey Bakery now provides gluten-free food items to local restaurants such as Big Orange, The Root Cafe, Izzy’s, the Capital Hotel and The Main Cheese.
Even with the difficulties the bakery can sometimes provide for Dempsey, there’s no remorse for opening up the shop.
“The rewards are huge,” she says. “When the parents come in, they’re always so thankful. It’s very rewarding, and I know it’s needed.”
When you look back before gluten-free, do you miss anything you were eating?
Oh, absolutely. A lot of the things I miss, I’ve created. There are some things I can’t afford to make in the bakery, so I’ve created mixes so people can at least go home and make. Cheez-Its is one of them. Chicken and dumplings is a family favorite of ours, so I made a mix. Biscuits are something I have not mastered yet. I will, though, because we love biscuits.
What are the most popular items in the bakery?
Everyone’s bread, Hot Milk Cake and Cracker Bread.
Where do you see Dempsey Bakery in the next five years?
I am not sure where my bakery will be in five years, but I have so many options and things going on in my head for the future. I just have to find the resources and energy to make them happen.