By: Jennifer Zeleski
When Panteleimon Simeonides sits down at the dinner table, his mother crosses her fingers. From the moment the fork hits his lips, she sets a mental timer for 15 minutes. If his body is going to react to an allergen, she knows his symptoms will begin much sooner than that, but it has become her baseline over the years.
If Panteleimon’s body decides to react, his symptoms start with coughing or the inability to swallow. By the time Kalliope Simeonides, Panteleimon’s mother uncrosses her fingers, her son’s face could already be turning blue. She will then have to administer an epinephrine auto-injector and prepare to get him to the nearest hospital immediately.
“I can’t tell you how scary it is,” Kalliope said. “[When he was born] we didn’t know what was going on, he couldn’t keep formula or any food down.”
The Simeonides family have spent the last 12 years dealing with his reality; doing their best to keep the youngest member of the family safe and healthy. They carry medication with them at all times in hopes that they will not encounter something that could cause a potentially fatal reaction.
Panteleimon was born with anaphylaxis, defined by Mayo Clinic as a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction, not only to common allergens such as dairy, wheat, and eggs, but also specific chemicals, meat products, nuts and most fruits and vegetables. He was just 3 years old when got the diagnosis.
Anna Simeonides, Panteleimon’s older sister, became his unofficial personal chef. She was 9 years old at the time, and the task was much more challenging than making baby food or trying out new recipes.
“When my brother was born, there were no cookbooks for allergy-free diets out there,” Anna said. “At the time, people hardly knew what Celiac’s Disease was. We had no idea what we were doing.”
Anna had to deal with the trial and error of trying to get meals to turn out properly with the added responsibility of avoiding common ingredients and being limited to only organic products. But she didn’t let the lack of tangible information stop her.
“I’ve probably read every gluten-free book and blog on the internet,” she said.
As an older sister, Kalliope believes Anna is like a second-mom to Panteleimon and has played a significant role in his health. But while her brother was fighting through symptoms, reactions and doctors visits, Anna’s culinary journey began forming behind the scenes.
Three of the most common food allergens according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration are dairy, eggs and wheat. These are also three ingredients commonly found in most baked goods, which could mean for many like Panteleimon, a life with no dessert.
Anna was surely not going to let that be the case for her brother, and ultimately for those who endure a life with specific eating regimens, some known more commonly as elimination diets or allergen-free diets. Vegan, vegetarian and paleo diets also fall into a similar category.
“I had this really deeply-rooted passion for cooking that I didn’t even realize,” Anna said.
After going through a culinary program in high school and continuing to cook for her brother through her teenage years, Anna let that same passion follow her to High Point University, where she found her place in an on-campus kitchen rather than the classroom.
Before finding her way back into a kitchen, an idea had sparked for her to bring her passion to the community of HPU. She decided to sit down with Nido Qubein, the president of the university, to ask if she could start Panther Pastries, a business proposal for a small baked-goods stand that would operate one day a week at one of the on-campus kiosks.
“She came to him with this binder of awards, licenses and approved liabilities,” Kalliope said. “She had already done all of this work.”
Due to a contract conflict with the school, Qubein couldn’t let Anna sell her products. But he wasn’t going to give up that easily, and offered to get her connected with people who believed could make a similar version of this idea come to life.
Great Day Bakery, located in the Wanek Center at HPU, had a place for her as an Aramark employee, where she could have the freedom to bake and develop her personal Panther Pastries platform.
“They contracted me as a baker, and I featured my own desserts,” Anna said. “I could go in, make whatever I wanted.”
When the school year ended, Anna realized she had a decision to make. Although she loved HPU and established Panther Pastries, she felt a calling to pursue the culinary pathway outside of higher education.
She discussed her plan with her parents, who encouraged her to do what she felt was right, even if it meant not continuing college for the time being.
With her mindset and even more determination, To Your Health Bakery was born. But taking the road less traveled came with a catch: Anna’s parents wanted her to gain more experience beyond her comfort zone, to ensure that this was truly what she wanted to do.
“That summer I worked in two restaurants with a crazy schedule,” Anna said. “I would work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every single day except Sunday, and then I did the farmer’s market on top of it.”
Not only was she gaining culinary experience in two other kitchens, but she was also operating To Your Health Bakery out of her family’s own. She would bake regular and gluten-free bread, allergy-free cakes, muffins and cookies. All of the products, often combined with vegan and paleo items, were transported to a local farmer’s market where Anna would sell them for profit.
“After I got into the swing of things and decided that this was what I really wanted to do,” Anna said. “I just never went back.” High Point University would just have to wait.
After two years of business at local farmers markets, Kalliope and Anna agreed that it was time to open a permanent location. Her mom had become her sidekick for the business, and they realized they had outgrown their home kitchen. Initially, they considered moving to a commercial location, but that would require having to clean everything beforehand and eliminate the potential of cross-contamination. They would also have to have some allergen-free equipment.
“At that point, we just thought it would be best to have our own store,” Anna said. “We never thought we’d take the leap.”
On Dec. 4, 2017, To Your Health Bakery opened its permanent location in Winston-Salem, located at 1263 Creekshire Way. The door itself reads, “No corn syrup, no preservatives, no additives. Food as it should be.”
“All of these people showed up,” Kalliope said. “Seventy-five percent of them have severe allergies and a story. I can’t tell you how many people come in and say ‘we are so grateful.’”
They quickly transitioned from being under a pop-up tent to an ample space with mosaic-tiled walls, pastry cases and a large menu. Their items expanded from cakes, cookies, bread and doughnuts to include fresh smoothies, gluten-free veggie lasagna and homemade salads.
“Everything we source that comes in here has one ingredient. So if I’m buying pecans, it’s just pecans,” Kalliope said. “And now we bake fresh every single day because we can’t keep things on the shelf.”
For Anna, opening the shop was more than she could have ever hoped for.
“It is so gratifying to have people come in,” she said. “We have had people cry walking into our shop. Some for themselves, others for their children because this was the first time their child had a dessert.”
Some of their bestsellers are Anna’s recipes that she has refined over the last few years, while others are inspired by her family’s Greek heritage or her accumulation of culinary recipes.
“I love perfecting things in gluten-free form, so my biggest challenge was cinnamon buns,” she said.
It took her three years to get the recipe to a place where she thinks it works best.
“When people come in and say ‘Oh my gosh! I haven’t had a cinnamon bun in 10 years,’ that makes my heart explode,” she said. “This is why we’re here.”
Beyond the baked goods, Anna wants to create a community for those like Panteleimon, who Kalliope refers to as “canaries in a coal mine world,” which is a growing population of people who may be allergic, sensitive or intolerant to ingredients in all types of food. The Simeonides’s goal is that an entire family can come by to pick up the products they want and everyone can be satisfied, whether they have infinite allergies or none at all.
“Food is a binding agent. If [as a family] you’re having to make several stops, it takes the joy out of it,” Anna said. “I’m never happier than when I see parents, kids and everyone eating their regular items and their vegan or gluten-free things, and just enjoying it all. When this is your life, and you live it, you know.”
She has high hopes for hosting educational seminars in the space as well, which could help other families and individuals who may have gone through similar hardships.
“We have learned so much about all of these things through family members and ourselves, it would be a shame not to share this information,” Anna said. “Especially seminars about gut health, Crohn’s Disease and allergies. I just want to share that with others.”
Her mother agrees, especially after citing herself as “one of the most protective moms in the universe.”
“You think you’re suffering alone. Our hearts break for people,” Kalliope said. “And so many people are suffering for so many reasons.”
The bakery also prides itself on specializing in custom orders that can accommodate to any dietary restrictions.
“We have suggestions for people, and we’ll educate them, so they know what we think about a product,” Kalliope said. “No matter what it is, we’ll try to work around it.”
For those who might still be concerned about the precautions Kalliope and Anna go through each day, their promise is more than just a statement. All of the ingredients have individual containers with separation and distance from others, including separate mixers, baking sheets, and countertops for allergen-free items.
“We realize how important it is because it happens in our home,” Kalliope said. “It’s so imperative that we wash everything down because we know, first hand, what can happen to the poor soul that’s going to eat something they can’t have.”
The only promise they cannot make is that they’re a nut-free facility due to the high volume of customers who follow a paleo regimen and rely heavily on a variety of nuts for protein.
“We always have a paleo item,” Kalliope said. “The one thing we can say is that we’re a peanut- free facility. We do not bring peanuts in here.”
As for Panteleimon, Kalliope believes that through their faith and emphasis on providing safe food and a safe environment, he’s on the right track.
“Here we are nine years later after the diagnosis, and due to elimination diets, no cross-contamination and by the grace of God, he’s healthy,” she said. “He’s been a gift.”
Through practice, exposure and determination, Anna has culminated 12 years of cooking, baking and recipe testing experience, and can now add being a business owner at 21 years old to her resume. Kalliope gives partial credit to the time Anna spent at High Point University for getting her to this point.
“This is all, in a way, because of Dr. Nido Qubien,” she said. “At High Point they truly want you to succeed, and he saw potential in her.”
To Your Health bakery will soon turn six months old, but until then Anna and Kalliope want to ensure that customers know it is a safe place to visit to get your sweet tooth fix, and they understand being concerned because of their own experiences.
“Are we human? Yes,” Kalliope said. “But the running joke is that we have sandpaper for hands because of the amount of washing we do, and we have to do it.”
Also, good luck telling the difference between their regular, gluten-free or allergy-free products. Even if someone has no allergies whatsoever, they challenge you to put their products to the taste test.
“Our tagline is always, we want you to tell us,” Anna said. “Your taste buds are going to tell the truth of whether or not you can tell the difference.”
Jenn Zeleski is a student contributor to YES! Weekly. She is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Communications at High Point University.