Though she never went to school for it, Harmony Bakery’s Lisa Gorman describes herself as a sort of community nutritionist.

Since opening nine years ago in Hampden, interactions with the former stay-at-home mom turned successful business runner go like this: A customer strolls up to the bakery counter; Gorman greets them with a spiel on the day’s freshly made tarts. They trade a few softballs about the weather, and work, and the now-grown kids returning to town for some almost-forgotten holiday, before asking the big question.

“Lisa, what can I have today?”

Gorman can tell you what to eat. She listens to every lament, whether it’s a patron grappling with ulcerative colitis or discovering soy makes them gassy. And unlike most spots catering to those with semi-functional GI tracts — everything tastes good. The space at 3446 Chestnut Ave. is a committed gluten-, dairy-, wheat-, soy-, egg- and peanut-free bakery, with offerings most people would have difficulty finding in a city much larger than Baltimore. I know, I’ve tried.

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In 2021, I was diagnosed with celiac, an autoimmune disease that flares with any trace of gluten. Less than 1% of Americans may be affected, and about 83% of Americans with the disease will either go undiagnosed or confuse it for another illness.

Health experts have called May Celiac Awareness month as a means of prompting more screenings. I spent the more than 20 years prior to my diagnosis feverishly munching on pastas and breads, only to find it was slowly killing me. Sometimes I still play it fast and loose, assuming a food is gluten-free because it feels embarrassing to ask. So, when that delicious tin tray of halal food from an unassuming Fells Point food truck sends my organs into a turbine, I’ll spend the next few days at Harmony.

If you’re already rolling your eyes, trust me, this place is a feat of engineering. Gorman’s spinach and mushroom tarts are rich and cheesy, despite not having any cheese. The dough is soft but does not crumble in your hand like most other gluten-free offerings. The quiches and empanadas are sturdy, able to hold chunks of dense veggies from chickpeas to artichokes and tomatoes, while retaining moisture. Her butternut squash macaroni and cheese, which magically passes off mushrooms for bacon, manages to be both tangy and gooey. I heard a customer once ordered Gorman’s morning glory muffins in the form of a wedding cake.

“Gluten-free, vegan, it’s a whole ‘nother animal,” she said.

Without gluten, a protein found in wheat, the dough is less pliable. Sometimes the milk substitute and the yeast gets too hot, stifling the proofing process, or rest time for the bread. Sometimes the gluten-free dough gets too dry, causing it to break apart. Gorman will often use xanthan gum to help create the desired texture, but using either too much or too little can give the dough an unpleasant consistency.

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Most mornings, her parents Don and Renee Gorman, 83 and 78, respectively, come in around 2 a.m. to start baking, and don’t leave until 8 a.m. When inside Harmony, her parents will say “We work for Lisa” and often refer to the business as “Lisa’s bakery,” despite being the listed owners. It was their Pikesville health food restaurant, Puffins, that inspired the bakery. The now-shuttered spot was “before its time,” said Lisa Gorman, 55, who recalls it being one of the few health-conscious spots to find success 40 years ago, barring smoking, soda and any artificial sweeteners in the space.

Over the years, Gorman’s parents sold Harmony’s signature tarts and quiches at Waverly farmers market, garnering a following. Now, her mother concocts Harmony’s soups, her father mixes different gluten-free flours into a custom blend and Lisa Gorman constructs the fillings.

“He’ll ask me, ‘How is the dough today? Is it working?” Gorman said of the finicky ingredient, which is too soft some days and too hard to work with on others. Savory pastries are easier to manage because Gorman and her team of bakers can dig into them as they’re cooking, but when it comes to sweets, the texture and flavor cannot be checked until they’re done. The Russian roulette of a process can cause waste, which is expensive considering gluten-free products can cost over 200% more than their alternative.

They try to be frugal, using extra dough and leftover fruit to make pop tarts. Still, the upfront costs of a bakery like Gorman’s are steep. She recently raised her prices to offset the rising cost of food. Yet studies prove gluten-free bakeries remain a profitable market.

“People ask us all the time, ‘Can you expand?’ And I know if I had a larger sit-down restaurant it would be successful,” she said of the cafe, which sells most of its goods online. “But it would be a whole other level. This is manageable.”

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Harmony Bakery in Hampden caters to most food allergies. (Meredith Cohn/The Baltimore Banner)

The facility is small. Four seats flank two countertops where a customer can see through the entire bakery. The space is too tiny to offer non-gluten-free items without risking cross-contamination, which would be a concern for Gorman’s mother, who has been gluten-free for the last 15 years due to a health concern. Lisa Gorman’s son, who has Crohn’s, has been on and off a gluten-free diet. Gorman does not have a health condition, but says she feels better eating plant-based.

“People will come in and say I haven’t had a doughnut or a bagel in 10 years,” she said. “I don’t really work the register, but I’m always being called over.”

They’ll tell her about the corn allergy and the grains they’re cutting back on, the nutritional yeast that makes their stomachs spin or the bad reaction to soy that forced them to clear their pantries. She’s seen young kids jump up and down for a bite of the few birthday treats that won’t hurt to eat and families able to bring home cakes for Easter or Passover that everyone can share.

“Part of why I love doing what I’m doing so much is interacting and talking with people and learning about why they’re at Harmony. What is going on? Why do you need that specific food?” she said.

In recent years, Gorman’s noticed more people examining what nutrition their body needs. When she walks down a grocery aisle, she sees the world changing. Boxes are labeled for major allergens and showcasing more creative health alternatives. She doesn’t know what sparked the fad that both she and her parents had been championing for decades. Was it the pandemic? Or maybe doctors more concerned about what patients are putting in their bodies? Either way, Gorman’s happy to watch the dial slowly turn in her favor.

There’s still a ways to go, she said, but in the meantime, all who are hungry are safe at her bakery.

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