Alex Ellison has long been a fantastic baker, a skill she showed off any time her daughter needed to bring a snack to an event. But then, at age 7, her daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease—and oddly enough, Ellison was diagnosed with it three months later.
"Kids who have food special needs—it's a hard age to have to be different," the founder of Atuvava Bakery tells Racket, chatting via phone as she wrangled chickens in her yard near Powderhorn. Going to birthday parties and saying no to cake, or being the kid at school who can't enjoy the snack a classmate brought in... it's a tricky thing to navigate.
But Ellison had a bigger issue with their new dietary restrictions than the social challenges: A lot of gluten-free food simply sucks.
"I have been so disappointed, since my daughter and I were diagnosed with celiac, how low the bar is for gluten-free food. It's just so disappointing," she says. With Atuvava, she wanted to make breads and cakes and pastries that didn't feel like a consolation prize for gluten-free folks. They've been a hit—so much so that soon those gluten-free baked goods will have a home at 3800 28th Ave. S., Minneapolis, the space that most recently housed Infusedlife Plant Based Emporium (it was A Cupcake Social from 2014 until 2020).
Ellison's been perfecting gluten-free breads and pastries for a long time now. (Her daughter, now 20, is the one coined the term "atuvava"; as a tot, "vava" was her word for food, and "atuvava" meant, "Can I have food?" or, "Do you want my food?") "We're the Atuvava Bakery, we're not the 'Atuvava Gluten-free Bakery,'" Ellison says. "I made it a goal to try make really, really, really good—but gluten-free—food that everybody would want."
The result? Even Great British Bake-Off judges would have to give credit where it's due. Take Atuvava's baguette, which is a dead ringer for the "real" thing: a crusty, hard exterior encasing a nice soft crumb. But getting there has been a learning experience. "I've probably given the chickens more bread than I've actually given people through the process of trying to create a really, really good loaf of bread," Ellison chuckles.
The bakery started small, with orders for friends and family. Then, right around the start of the pandemic, someone—she's not sure who—put her "secret, underground bread business" on blast via Facebook. "I started getting boatloads of inquiries," she says—more than her space could handle, as she'd been baking out of one of the downstairs units in their fourplex and was running out of room. Before long, she was looking for a dedicated bakery space, and she took over the lease at 3800 28th Ave. S. in August.
Atuvava's brick-and-mortar bakery will have all the gluten-free treats that have been a hit so far—danishes, breads, macaroons, cinnamon rolls, cookies—and Ellison will be able to experiment with new delights now that she's in a space of her own. They get a lot of requests for savories, for example, but she hasn't been able to explore that much, as Minnesota's cottage food laws have pretty strict provisions around what you can and can't make from a home kitchen. Moving into the new space will let her explore gluten-free quiches and savory scones. There's also the business of her white whale—the gluten-free croissant—of which only a handful of truly great options exist anywhere in North America.
And while she emphasizes that the new bakery won't be a coffee shop, they will have coffee and espresso and tea.
The hope is to open Atuvava by the middle of December (but it might be closer to the new year). Either way, they'll say hello to the neighborhood later this month at a Small Business Saturday open house with nearby Homespun Gifts and Decor, Tare Market, Studio Emme, Curly Girl Boutique, and Key West Bistro.
Atuvava started with family, and the timeline for the new bakery will depend on family. "We're kind of family forward, and when we can make the work part work, it works," Ellison says. And like most family-owned businesses, it'll continue to be a labor of love.
"You're not making a million bucks as a baker—the amount of hours you put into it, you're barely breaking even," she says. "But the payoff comes from how many people each week, how many messages I get... 'Oh my God, I didn't remember what this tastes like.' That's where it's at, for me: Knowing I was able to give someone that thing."