Amy Soergel, A&S '07, was sick. A lot. For close to nine years she suffered from a host of symptoms that led to diagnoses from depression to irritable bowel syndrome. She had her gallbladder removed. Then, shortly after graduating with a degree in public health studies, she was diagnosed with celiac disease and ulcerative colitis, and her life's trajectory changed forever. She returned to the family farm just north of Pittsburgh, where she opened Naturally Soergel's, an organic, gluten-free, and allergen-free market. Her mission: to bring a larger variety of hard-to-find foods to those who require special diets.
What made you decide to open a gluten-free market?
After they did a genetic marker test that showed I did have celiac, I went gluten-free. About five months later, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I realized dairy was giving me flare-ups with the colitis, so I removed dairy. And eggs were the final thing I removed that really helped. I started to realize there was nothing in my area—no Trader Joe's or Whole Foods—that catered to people like me who were on a special diet. My family has a farm market, and I was ordering food for myself through the market's food distributor. My dad said to me one day, "What about opening a store on the farm that would allow people like yourself to have access to the food they need?" It seemed like a good idea because there was a need in the community and there was nothing else like it. I decided to give it a shot.
How do you handle competition from other stores and online?
We do now have a Whole Foods in the area, so there is competition, but I try to put that aside. My mission is to help people on special diets who can't find the foods their diets require. Maybe another store might have one or two flavors of a product or item whereas I'll carry the entire line. They have more options and variety here. And yes, you can buy anything online, but you may have to order $100 in products just to make it worth the shipping. It's more of an experience to shop here. You can ask if a product is good or recommended. And we're very honest.
Do you engage a lot with customers personally?
I host what I call "Gluten-Free 101," which is a free store tour where I give customers the benefit of my experience with how to prepare certain foods, my favorites, staff favorites, how to make cold and hot pastas, how to prepare a mix without eggs. I spend a lot of time on the floor talking to customers.
What is a challenge that's unique to your business?
When people have allergies, you have to be 100 percent sure that what you're putting on your shelves is right. If you say something is nut-free chocolate, it better be absolutely nut-free. Several years ago, I ordered gluten-free stuffing for the holidays and I put them out on the floor. That very same day someone bought some. Turns out, the company hadn't sent us their gluten-free version. Thankfully, we have a computer system and I could find the woman who bought it. I called her immediately. Had she eaten that, not only is my name on the line but she could have gotten very sick, and that's scary. I have to protect the people who trust me to keep them safe.
What's the biggest mistake you've made?
At the very beginning, I didn't know how to manage people who were older than me. I was only 23. That was a difficult time for me as I learned to work with people, understand what they were going through and how we could work together, but also to be a manager, to be a leader. My father taught me everything I know.
If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
One of our biggest things is education and how to educate our customers. I would have been ready with more staff training because they wanted it and I wasn't ready at the beginning. Customers come in and want to know what is good, how to cook something, why they should be using a certain ingredient. I didn't realize at the time that vendors would come to the store and do training relevant to their products that gives the staff just the right amount of information they need to answer customer questions. The resources were always there, but I didn't know it until a few years ago.
Are you wary that the gluten-free marketplace is oversaturated?
I think the hype about it has diminished and it's more of an everyday mainstay. The product itself has come so far very quickly. The quality and consistency have improved. Take bread; it used to be really dry and crumbly. You had to toast it just to get it to hold together. Now you can have a hamburger on a bun that's soft, that doesn't fall apart, that doesn't have an aftertaste. It's hard to not find some kind of gluten-free effort in most stores. On my end, that's competition, but as a consumer it's nice. There are lots of food trends, but I think gluten-free is here to stay.
What's one of the best things that's come from opening the store?
My husband is celiac and has been gluten-free since he was 5. In 2008, before we met, I had a poster in the farm market about how I was opening the store, and his mother went home and told him this cute girl was opening a gluten-free store. He dropped in the first weekend I was open. He asked me on a date, and the rest is history. He co-founded a gluten-free brewery in 2014 about 20 minutes down the street from me. So he's living the entrepreneurial lifestyle, too, and together we're riding the wave.