• Gastroenterology Patient Stories

    Diet restrictions inspire new career

Frances Shaw’s health and career mixed together in a muffin batter. With her perseverance and answers from Mayo Clinic, both her health and career as a baker and entrepreneur, are turning out golden.

Frannie Shaw with a package of her muffins.

Frances Shaw didn’t set out to be a baker. Her career essentially found her as she tried to find ways to manage her health and dietary restrictions, while still enjoying food.

In her senior year of college, while studying film, Shaw, now 25, suddenly found herself dealing with ongoing stomach and pain symptoms that had worsened dramatically. “I was really, really tired,” she says. And that wasn’t all. “I had bone pain and was instantly bedridden.”

Finding out what was wrong was not as instant, however. In fact, it was an odyssey that dragged out for seven years. “I saw every kind of doctor,” she says. Eventually, Shaw learned she had Celiac disease and an intolerance of dairy products.

After her diagnosis, Shaw eliminated gluten and dairy from her diet. “I did notice a big difference in how I felt,” she says. “But I was so hungry. It was hard to find the combination of gluten-free, dairy-free that tasted good.”

Still slowed by fatigue and mostly homebound, she had time to bake. And she hit upon something. “I made a muffin that was sweet, but not too sweet, using shredded coconut, sorghum flour and zucchini to keep it moist,” she says. Her brother and his friends gave the zucchini muffin rave reviews. It wasn’t just a good gluten-free muffin. It was a really good muffin.

“I knew there were other people out there like me, with restricted diets,” says Shaw. “I wanted to find a way to share these great muffins.”

So Shaw began taking samples to local community events and stores to test the market. She signed on customers. She developed recipes for banana, blueberry, chocolate chip, lemon zest and vegan banana muffins. As the orders grew, she contracted with a local bakery to produce the gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free and soy-free muffins — all made with high-quality organic fruits, vegetables and eggs just like she used at home.

As her business grew, Shaw found her health was holding her back. She continued to see doctors for ongoing and debilitating pain. Smoke, animal hair and other environmental irritants would cause her symptoms to flare. “I had to wear a mask to go to the doctor,” she says. “It was hard just to get out of bed.”

In 2011, Shaw went to Mayo Clinic in Florida, where she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. “It was so comforting that the doctors worked together,” she says. “When you have multiple things going on, it’s really hard.”

Christopher Sletten, Ph.D., clinical director of the Pain Rehabilitation Center “totally understood the reality of my situation,” she says. She participated in a three-week program at the center that included physical therapy, stress management, relaxation, behavior and occupational therapy, as well as learning strategies to learn to manage — and not exacerbate — her pain.

Shaw says the program challenged and changed her, calling it the hardest three weeks of her life. “Because of that program, I can keep going,” she says. “I’m not cured, but I can work out in moderation. I can ride my bike and do things with friends.”

And, she can sell more muffins.

In 2012, she brought muffin samples to the cafeteria at Mayo Clinic in Florida, and her timing was perfect. Jeff Page, Food Service, said the department had been researching gluten-free and allergen-free additions for cafeteria menus. And Shaw’s muffins were just what they were looking for. “These are as good as any muffin I’ve ever had,” he says. Now, they are a staple cafeteria offering.

“It was a dream of mine to have the muffins at Mayo,” Shaw says. “People like me are there all day, fasting, getting ready for tests.” Now, when the tests are done, and they are looking for something good to eat, they can look for Frannie’s Gluten-Free Muffins.

Shaw’s business, based in Atlanta, now bakes and distributes about 6,000 muffins a month to 200 grocery stories and food service outlets in the southeastern U.S., including cafeterias at Mayo Clinic in Florida.