Owner of Sedona-based Karen’s Gluten Free Living, Russell says her introduction to baking started as a child with an Easy Bake Oven. She recalls making Rice Krispies treats, cookies and brownies. “I was the oldest of seven siblings and I was always hungry, so I made snacks.”
Russell’s pilgrimage into health started in college where she studied nutrition. “I started to eat healthier, but when I was in my 40s, I was diagnosed with chronic insomnia and fibromyalgia. I decided to change my diet to gluten- and dairy-free and threw out all my regular flour, dairy, butter, cheese and sugar and replaced them with gluten-free flour, coconut sugar and other healthier food options,” she said.
As her health improved significantly, she decided to become a health coach, guiding others to a better way to live healthy. During this journey, she published a book called, “Gluten Free Living.”
However, her dissatisfaction with the gluten-free products on the market inspired Russell to begin making her own. “The gluten-free food available didn’t taste fantastic and they were dry and crumbly and full of sugar and processed ingredients. So, I began to formulate recipes that were healthy and tasty.”
Her first product was her Chocolate Chip D-Lites. “I would take my cookies to a party or picnic and people loved them so much I would have to hide a few so there would be some left over for me.”
In 2014, Russell started selling her Chocolate Chip D-Lites at the Sedona Farmer’s Market. She began to add more products such as her Red Rock Energy Bites, Pecan Delights and her Gluten Free Paleo and Sour Dough Breads. “Two years later, I quit health coaching and decided to devote all my time to this business. I registered as an LLC, and sought investors to finance my kitchen packaging/marketing for the products.”
“We love to support local sellers,” said Flagstaff Natural Grocers Store Manager James Rowe. “Previous to working here, I worked at the Sedona store and Karen’s gluten-free products were a big seller. They are selling well in Flagstaff, too. Pecan Delights are my favorite.”
Karen’s Gluten Free Living kitchen is a Certified Gluten Free Kitchen, which means there is no cross-contamination. “I pay a fee and get audited every year; plus, I have to keep paperwork. It’s an involved process, but worth it because people with serious gluten-free health issues such as celiac disease can be assured they have a genuine gluten-free product.”
During the 2019 Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization (VVREO) Moonshot Pitch Event, Russell’s products were a hit. “Her passion for her field and quality of product really shone through,” said Moonshot Vice President of Operations and Finance Amanda Kristinat. “On a personal note, after being given the opportunity to try some samples, I was hooked. My whole family loves Karen’s shortbread cookies.”
A regular shopper at Russell’s weekly Sedona Farmer’s Market, Margaret Weant- Leavitt says she absolutely loves Karen’s cupcakes, cakes and cookies. “I’m a self-professed chocoholic and can’t go a day without these wonderful baked goods. I couldn’t find good bread until I tried her sourdough bread and bagels…they are amazing. When I share with my friends, they are in disbelief that they are gluten and sugar free. Plus, they taste like gourmet baked goods.”
Packaged mixes are available from Karen’s Gluten Free Living, as well. “We have a brownie, muffin, bread and shortbread cookies mix,” said Russell, who plans to add more products.
A heart-warming recollection for Russell was when she was at the Sedona Farmers Market and a young boy walked up. “He was eyeing my cupcakes and told me how good they looked but he was sure he couldn’t have one because of his allergies. His mom came and read the ingredients and he was so happy because he could have one. Those are the moments that make it all worthwhile.”
Born in Japan and raised in Ohio, Russell is married and has lived in Sedona for eight years. She has three adult children and four grandchildren. Her kitchen is currently based out of her home. “Someday, I’d like to grow bigger and get a bigger space.” QCBN
By V. Ronnie Tierney, QCBN
To find Russell’s products, visit karensglutenfreeliving.com or call 928-282-8918.