By Leslie T. Snadowsky
Jumbo cinnamon rolls, cinnamon streusel coffee cake, lemon bars, and carrot cake are just a few of the popular gluten-free delicacies found at The G-Free Spot, a Hilton Head bakery that specializes in tantalizing the tastebuds of those struggling with gluten intolerance and celiac disease. With a mission to serve the best gluten-free gourmet goodies, The G-Free Spot has a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, separate from its regular kitchen, to serve those with dietary restrictions. Specialties include an extensive collection of palatable brownies, custom cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, pies and scones and breakfast and lunch sandwiches.
The niche-centric bake shop’s founder and CEO, Nicole Gardner, said traditional face-to-face networking helped spread the word about her appetizing offerings, but it was social media that started feeding the frenzy of a hungry underserved community.
“It was a steep climb because I come from a generational place where social media is not my norm,” Gardner said. “But, I learned a lot fast. When we are able to touch a person with a particular need, like the ones we focus on, they tend to share our information with all of their friends and family and anyone else who happens to be in that same type of situation. You may think it’s a relatively small community, but once you get out into the social media landscape and start connecting with other people, you realize it’s broad and it’s big. It worked tremendously well in our favor because it connected us with people we never would’ve seen come through our front door.”
While The G-Free Spot’s social media numbers for Facebook (2,000 followers) and Instagram (1,300 followers) may seem modest, the Main Street bakery’s delights have been featured in front of millions of viewers on TikTok.
“We’ve gone viral about six times now in various TikTok accounts,” Gardner said, “and it’s been extraordinary. There were more than a million views on three different posts that were associated with us. Our online sales went through the roof.”
Gardner’s g-free journey started when two family members received gluten-intolerant diagnoses, meaning they had to steer clear of ingesting food that contained gluten, a protein found in wheat and several other grains. Combining her passion for baking with a new set of rules and ingredients, Gardner set forth to create tempting treats worthy of foodies everywhere. At her bakery there are items to be enjoyed by the whole family, whether they are pursuing a gluten-free lifestyle or not. The G-Free Spot additionally occupies a unique space in the food service industry in that they aren’t so much competitors as they are collaborators with other bakeries serving the same customer base. Gardner said because of the bakery’s size they understand their limitations and try to connect with other outlets to satisfy demand. “As opposed to trying to keep everything really close, we have a much more holistic kind of mindset,” she said. “We know what it’s like not being able to find quality gluten-free food, so our social media is supportive and allows us to explore a very free-flowing, informational type of mindset when it comes to recommending other places to find quality alternatives. It really opens up the opportunity to work more collaboratively, as opposed to a completely competitive way.”
Social media, Gardner said, really supports that business mantra and model and has propelled her online sales in between peak seasons on the island.
“I step back and try not to be afraid of it,” she said of the volume of business her bakery has gained through social media. “I’m just in awe of it and so very grateful. It’s mind-boggling, it’s humbling, it’s exciting, and it makes you realize what you’re doing is right, which is reassuring. We just get so excited about what’s next and what we can do and how we can do it. That’s the biggest thing. How do we keep doing this well? It’s pretty cool.”
Gardner said her bakery stays busy from open to close, and even though the demand for her “life-changing” products grows more than its capacity, she don’t exploit her biggest asset. “We could go longer with our open hours, but we don’t because our team is really important to us,” she said. “The people that we have here making all of these things locally, they do it with a lot of care and a lot of love. So we make sure that even though there’s demand, we can’t necessarily go longer and harder. But we give our customers our all when we’re here.”
Three key takeaways
1. Nurture relationships. “I think it’s the most important thing that we can do just as human beings, not just as business owners,” Gardner said.
2. Be consistent and honest. “We bake things that are really, really great,” Gardner said. “And then there are things we don’t do and we find the people who do them really, really great and let the rest of our folks know. And then, sometimes when customers come in, they’ll come with recommendations that we’ve never known about.”
3. Be open-minded. “There’s so much out there to learn and our network is not just one way, it’s not just us sharing information, but it’s us receiving too,” Gardner said. “It’s not just about making a sale but it’s about getting better and constantly improving.”