In honor of Celiac Awareness Month, we checked in Susan Hougui, who founded and owns GeeFree with Steven Leyva. Based in Englewood Cliffs, GeeFree is a gluten-free company that sells and ships gluten-free puff pastry dough and puff pastry dough products such as chicken pot pie, spanakopita, franks in a blanket and more.
JERSEY BITES: What inspired you to start a gluten-free business?
SUSAN HOUGUI: I’ve always been interested in food, baking, and cooking. Through the years I’ve seen trends come and go and when the low carb came around, I was very interested. I did a lot of baking and behind the scenes work for that area. Then I found that there was a need for gluten free. I also suffer from autoimmune diseases and I’m diabetic—I have a lot of medical issues so when I tried the gluten-free diet, I felt a lot better. So I was on a mission to find something that was not only going to be trending and more popular, but healthier for me and everybody else.
How did GeeFree come to be?
Cofounder Steven Leyva and I used to work side by side years ago at a previous business. We thought if we ever found something that was worthy, we would go into business together. In 2013, I took a trip to Israel and I saw this amazing gluten-free pastry dough. It wasn’t all natural and there were some issues with it, but I figured there’s nothing like that here. I called him up and said I found it! Long story short, we tried to get it here, but we couldn’t because logistically it was impossible. Steven and I reverse-engineered the ingredients. We made it productionable, all natural and much better tasting. That brings us to where we are now.
Would you say that buying ingredients for gluten-free recipes is harder than getting what you need for recipes that do have gluten in them?
Today, it’s a lot easier. Years ago, even two or three years ago, it was a lot harder. So right now I don’t think it’s hard to find gluten-free ingredients.
Food is just one of the many things a person living with celiac has to monitor. How do you ensure that gluten doesn’t interact with the gluten-free dishes?
Somebody who is gluten free typically will have a kitchen without gluten. We are certified in our factory for less than 3 ppm (parts per million) and the USDA guideline right now is 20 ppm. Also, everything is wrapped and packed, so they are gluten free.
What’s your favorite gluten-free dish to make?
There are two. I love the franks in a blanket that we have but I guess the best one is the puff pastry dough.
What ingredient or dish would you recommend to someone was recently diagnosed with celiac or wants to try something gluten free?
First, I would ask them what their favorite food is, that they miss the most, and based upon that, I would offer something we could provide. I did have somebody recently tell me that they made Danishes with the pastry dough and thanked me because their grandfather was from Germany and missed having Danish. He was finally able to make something that was not in his diet anymore. So it really depends on the person and what they’re craving.
What is your favorite gluten-free thing to eat?
That’s really difficult because I like food. There isn’t really anything I don’t like since you can make anything with our dough. But I really love the new hot pockets we’re coming out with, especially the breakfast one. I love the pizza one, too. You know what, I don’t have a favorite because everything is good. It’s like asking me to pick a favorite child. Can’t do it.
Can you give us a recipe for something good for beginners to try?
With our puff pastry dough, you can roll it out, place it in a pie pan, put in whatever filling you want and bake away. Then you’ll have a delicious pie, very easy.
Is there anything you would like to share with the gluten-free community or your customers
I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to provide them with delicious food. We’re not so restricted anymore. There’s hope to lead a semi-normal food life. Being gluten free doesn’t have to be a life sentence of tasteless eating.
I see you are running a television commercial. How did that come about?
I was introduced to Billy Procida, founder of Procida Funding & Advisors, a year ago. Even though his company invests primarily in real estate, he believed in GeeFree knowing that there is a growing concern regarding the foods we eat. He became a partner and committed an infusion of $1 million into the company for sales, marketing, distribution and an e-commerce website.
View the commercial here!