Sweet Freedom bakery on South Street, vegan and gluten-free

Owners Allison Lubert (left) and Heather Esposito at Sweet Freedom. Products are vegan, and allergen- and gluten-free, and they serve those of any diet persuasion.
Owners Allison Lubert (left) and Heather Esposito at Sweet Freedom. Products are vegan, and allergen- and gluten-free, and they serve those of any diet persuasion.
Posted: November 21, 2010

Was I the last to hear that Bill Clinton had gone vegan? From the Golden Arches to golden beets in a single bound. Who says we are forever deaf to the pleas of our better angels?

Of course, the former fast-foodie-in-chief isn't out there all alone. Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, and Mort Zuckerman, the magazine mogul; actor Alec Baldwin, and, so it says in a piece on "The Rise of the Power Vegans" in this month's Bloomberg Businessweek, is, yup, Mike Tyson. (Yo, you got a problem with that?)

Heather Esposito, the co-owner of Sweet Freedom, the new (it will turn 1 in January) allergen-and-gluten-free bakery on South Street, turned me on to that story, shaking her head at the very concept of "power vegans."

I'd come back to visit Sweet Freedom because, frankly, it had changed my impression of vegan and gluten-free snacks - especially its gingersnap and pumpkin cookie sandwiches, which are lush and moist and sweet and chewy and subtly spicy, way different from some of the cardboardy vegan baked goods I've winced at (brownies being a prime offender) and vowed never to bite into again.

There's something else I liked about the place. It's not snobby or self-righteous. Doesn't wear its vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, corn-free, wheat-free, peanut-free, soy-free, casein-free, no-refined-sugars bona fides on its sleeve. (It saves them for the website and the back of the business card, and of course, if you happen to ask.)

This may be because Esposito and her business partner Allison Lubert - both into vegetables (but neither of them a practicing vegan) - came to the bakery sort of sideways; they'd both been nutritional counselors and their focus is on dialing down high-glycemic sweeteners (substituting agave nectar and coconut sugar, for instance, for refined white sugar) for diabetics, giving celiac sufferers something to chew on, and creating what Lubert calls a "safe haven" for kids with nut allergies.

So they're not into the pose, or the superiority that can make some vegans hard to take: "When people make their decisions about food," Esposito says, "they make the decision for everyone else."

Like kosher-keepers, vegans can be strictly observant - maintaining a diet free of meat, dairy, or eggs - and play havoc with their nutritional health. Lubert has gotten so she sizes up types of vegan: "There are the ones into it for animal rights and to save the environment. 'Potato chip vegans,' I call them."

A potato chip vegan, in fact, can adhere to the tenets of the faith and still stuff her face with Oreos, or Peanut Chews, or tofu hot dogs on white-bread buns.

Sweet Freedom is more than happy to serve them (and all manner of nonvegans, nondiabetics, and nonceliacs). But the customers who are happiest when they encounter the place are the other kind of vegans - the ones into it because of health issues.

"We've had mothers in here crying," said Lubert, who handles the administration end of the business: "And we've had [food-allergic] kids in here who'd never been in a bakery before . . . never been out of the bubble."

The bakery has something of a don't ask-don't tell policy for nonvegans - and, in fact, customers who are a little put off by the term. They might have a cupcake, a maple square, an oatmeal cookie, a brownie, and declare it decadent, sinful, or indulgent before the owners disclose its veganness: "In a way, then," says Lubert, "I've converted them a little bit."

What converted some of the power vegans, on the other hand, were cardiac issues and, in the case of Steve Wynn, a documentary called Eating, in which director Mike Anderson explains, according to the Bloomberg story, his strict meat-and-oil-free diet.

The Clinton Effect hasn't roared through cheesesteak and steak-house Philadelphia. But in quiet ways, you can feel it creeping in on little cat's paws - onto menus at South Philly pubs, in a new crop of Asian and Indian kitchens, at Horizons, the haute vegan spot at Seventh and Kater.

One thing Sweet Freedom doesn't quite nail is its odd-flavored, odd-crusted tomato pie.

But not to worry. Govinda's Gourmet Vegetarian a half block east is gutting the old pizza shop next door - getting ready to put in a brick oven for vegetarian and, so we hear, vegan pizzas.


Sweet Freedom

1424 South St.

215-545-1899

www.sweetfreedombakery.com.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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