Fenwick shop goes gluten-free

The Village of Fenwick — a little enclave of shops and eateries just north of the Maryland-Delaware line on Route 1 in Fenwick Island — has a new addition: To Life!
It’s a coffee shop and espresso bar.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Marty Brasse and Jill Arends at the To Life! shop, in Fenwick.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Marty Brasse and Jill Arends at the To Life! shop, in Fenwick.

Proprietors Jill Arends and Marty Brasse learned the hard way that serving cappuccinos and lattes involves nearly as much as running a full-blown restaurant, but they’re up and running now.

And, it’s a wi-fi (wireless) Internet café.

Vacationers who simply can’t resist checking their e-mail can set up at one of the palm-frond-shaded picnic tables in front of To Life! or grab a table or spot at the counter inside.

Laptop not wi-fi loaded? No problem — Brasse has wired Ethernet hookups, and, in a pinch, there’s a community PC for Web browsing.

But all this merely serves as backdrop for the main mission at To Life! Brasse, and Arends especially, mean to give everyone restricted to gluten-free diets an opportunity to celebrate.

There’s increasing sensitivity to food allergies these days. But, especially for folks suffering from gluten intolerance, it can be tough to find menu choices at many restaurants. According to Arends, it takes some hunting and seeking, even at the supermarket.

Not so at To Life! Customers can pick and choose without a care in the world. Arends, and her son and daughter, all have serious problems with gluten. They have celiac disease (it runs with the genes), and Arends doesn’t play around — her gluten-free regimen is very conservative.

Understandably so. Gluten might as well be poison for her family. Celiac disease nearly claimed her son’s life six years ago.

Webster’s defines gluten as “a mixture of glutin or gliadin, vegetable fibrin, vegetable casein (and) oily material…” but most bakers know it as the natural ingredient that makes bread dough elastic and the finished loaf chewy.

For people suffering from celiac disease, though, there’s a hidden danger in wheat, rye, barley and oats: It’s not just that people with celiac disease can’t properly digest gluten — their bodies actually launch an auto-immune attack on the stuff as it passes through the small intestine.

That irritates, and damages, the myriad little “villi” structures that absorb nutrients from food as it meanders by. And that can lead to a whole host of problems, from garden-variety stomachache or gas, to life-threatening ailments — even intestinal cancer.

Serious business — and, according to Arends (citing celiac researcher Dr. Alessio Fasano’s study), one in 133 Americans have this disease. The vast majority of those people remain undiagnosed.

Arends (a speech pathologist by trade) said it seemed like her son was always getting sick, but his pediatrician chalked it up to problems at school — that he just didn’t like school.

But by age 13, his liver had started to fail.

“By that point, he’d been so ill for so many years that I’d sort of come to the conclusion that it had to be this,” she said. “As a parent, you do so much research when your child is not well. But I had to force — and I do mean force — the pediatrician to test him.”

To that doctor’s credit, Arends said there wasn’t a well-defined blood test for celiac disease at that time — the only way to diagnose celiac disease was through invasive biopsy. And even then, the tests often produced “false negatives,” she said.

“I had to persevere,” she remembered. “I kept saying, ‘It has to be this — it has to be this.’” Finally, the tests bore out her suspicions.

A customer stopped by the counter as Arends told her story, and it wasn’t long before she was nodding her head, explaining that she’d gone through the same thing with her daughter. (She said she was lucky, though — in her case, the pediatrician had recommended the test).

This customer had driven to Fenwick Island from her home in Milford, her daughter in tow, and it was apparent how special a shop like To Life! could be for a gluten-intolerant child.

Her mother invited her to take a look around and have whatever she wanted —probably something a lot of kids take for granted but not this young lady.

Arends’ son was diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago, and then she found out the same condition was to blame for some of her daughter’s ailments, and her own. (She’d been diagnosed with celiac disease as a child and told she’d outgrow it — but that’s not the way it works, Arends pointed out).

The carefully regulated gluten-free diet became a fact of life for all of them.

Originally from Potomac, Md., Arends said she’d vacationed in Bethany Beach all her life, but with this new diet to maintain, she quickly came to realize how few options were available. Eventually, tired of packing coolers full of gluten-free foods every time they visited the Sussex coast, she said they hatched the idea for To Life!

“So, instead of having it be a horrible thing and your being limited, we decided we’d have a place at the beach where we would celebrate the gluten-free lifestyle, and educate people, and educate all the wonderful restaurants around here, and get the best of the best of what’s out there, in healthy, gluten-free and dairy-free food,” Arends explained.

And tasty, too. She features some doughnuts made with rice flour — virtually indistinguishable from the wheat-flour variety.

“The kids can come here and have anything that they want — everything in the store is gluten-free,” she said. “Children with this condition, they can’t have pizza, they can’t have candy, unless it’s gluten-free. They can’t have a lot of things – they know they’re going to get really sick if they eat something that they shouldn’t.

“They feel isolated,” Arends pointed out. “We wanted a place where you could come when you were on vacation and you would’t feel isolated.”

But all that aside, she suggested the gluten-free lifestyle just might be good for everyone.

“There are some really wonderful foods that don’ t have wheat in them, and seeing how we’ve got all these baby boomers who are looking for longer, healthier lives… and poor nutrition is really at the base of a lot of diseases,” she noted.

In brief, she and Brasse decided it was time to open a shop at the beach with some healthy snack alternatives.

And so, that’s what they’ve done at To Life! in the Village of Fenwick. For more information, there’s a (temporary) Web site at www.askroy.com/tolife (one of Brasse’s many projects), or call the shop at (302) 541-9567.

For more information on celiac disease, Arends and Brasse recommend the Web sites at www.celiac.org or www.csaceliacs.org. They offer special gluten food allergy cards that people can use at restaurants. And as time goes on, the two entrepreneurs hope to work with local dining establishments toward the addition of some gluten-free menu options.