Crookston grocer finds restricted-diet niche

CROOKSTON, Minn. - Shoppers at Wonderful Life Foods in downtown Crookston will find plenty to stock their kitchen, including bread, cheese, pasta, soup and desserts.

CROOKSTON, Minn. – Shoppers at Wonderful Life Foods in downtown Crookston will find plenty to stock their kitchen, including bread, cheese, pasta, soup and desserts.

One thing customers likely won't find is gluten-virtually everything in the small grocery store is free of the proteins found in wheat to which an estimated 18 million Americans are sensitive.

Count Shawn Rezac and Erin Brule among them. They opened the business earlier this month at 115 N. Main St. in Crookston, with plans to add a cafe soon.

But gluten sensitivity isn't the only thing Wonderful Life Foods can accommodate. For those who can't eat or drink traditional dairy products, there's lactose-free cheese and milk, and vegans have options as well.

"We're familiar with all of the terms and lingo and are ready to help anybody who is new to eating either gluten-free or dairy-free," Brule said. "But we've really got some great food that we think everybody's going to like."

Brule's journey to a diet without gluten began a few years ago. She had suffered from migraines for some time and started an "elimination diet" in which she cut out things like grain, dairy and processed food to find the culprit. Once Brule started eating wheat again, the migraines returned.

Rezac went through the same diet more than a year ago.

But the two discovered they weren't the only ones with dietary restrictions. That's the market Rezac and Brule hope Wonderful Life will serve.

"We wanted a place like that to shop for our families," Brule said. "The people we talked to, the more people we were finding had a grandson or had a nephew or had someone that they were close to who were experiencing the same thing."

Rezac and Brule hope the focus on gluten-free items means shoppers won't have to look at every label to know what they're buying, a common chore for someone with a restricted diet shopping at a traditional grocery store.

"It eliminates a lot of the confusion about shopping, hopefully," Rezac said.

The business received a $41,000 loan from the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) earlier this year to help finance the kitchen operation.

Rezac said the cafe will provide a "quick food option" for customers to grab sandwiches, soups, salads and baked goods on the go.

And keeping with their theme, the kitchen also will be gluten-free, Brule said. They hope to open the cafe early next year.

"I think the entire population is looking for a healthy food outlet," CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said. "(We) felt it was a good niche market."