Meet Rose Calucchia.
The Brooklyn transplant runs her own gluten-free baking company, works as a personal trainer and also practices Chinese acrobatics and aerial arts.
Sounds like a perfect fit for Santa Cruz, no?
Calucchia started Sweet Cheeks Bake Shop back in 2009 while she was living in Brooklyn. Though never formally tested for celiac disease, the Ohio native has been eating a gluten-free diet for about 12 years after she began suffering numerous health issues. Eventually, through process of elimination, she realized gluten was the culprit.
At first, Sweet Cheeks produced both gluten-containing and gluten-free items.
“I really liked baking and was always trying to figure things out,” Calucchia says of her reasons for starting the business.
She started out small, baking for friends, relying on word of mouth and eventually getting gigs at weddings and places like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
She relocated to Santa Cruz about a year ago after 10 years in New York City and decided to forgo the gluten all together. Still, she says, she doesn’t like to make a big deal out of being gluten-free. She wants to make delicious items that just happen to be gluten-free.
“I don’t want people to have preconceived notions about it,” she says.
So far, it seems to be working.
After tasting her wares at events, people will often tell her afterwards “Wow, that was gluten-free? I couldn’t tell!”
She’s catered a recent wine release party for Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon, had her baked goods incorporated in an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art and has provided the goodies for a number of weddings. She’s also hoping to be able to start selling her baked goods to local stores soon.
Her stuff is not vegan, however, as many have asked.
“I really like using butter and eggs,” she says. “I make the real deal – just without the gluten.”
Currently she shares a commercial kitchen space in Capitola with other small food producers, including Friend in Cheeses and Family Famous Food, a which specializes in kiwi salsas. Sharing the space with other producers has led to some fun collaborations, such as finding ways to incorporate Friend in Cheeses jams and preserves into her baking, Colucchia says. For a recent winery event, she cooked up a batch of chocolate cream cheese thumbprint cookies with Friend in Cheeses’ strawberry tarragon jam to pair with a merlot.
Being in Santa Cruz allows her the opportunity to work with so many wonderful local ingredients, and she says the local citrus has been playing a big role in her baking – she’s been making dozens of lemon bars, for instance. She also loves the friendly nature of Santa Cruz, and the numerous opportunities for collaboration.
When not busy whipping up delicious cookies, cupcakes and pastries, Calucchia is a personal trainer at Equinox Gym in Palo Alto. She’s also looking to get more involved with Chinese acrobatics locally, a passion she was actively involved in back east. (She also was a dance major at Sarah Lawrence College.) Though she hasn’t found much of a scene for this locally, she has begun working with folks in San Francisco and Oakland.
And while it might seem contradictory for a personal trainer to also run a baking company, Calucchia says she believes she’s reached a happy medium with the two. While sweets aren’t always the healthiest snack, she strives to produce good, old-fashioned “real” foods that can be enjoyed without reservation — in moderation, of course. Maybe you shouldn’t hoover the entire plate of cookies… (Eds. note: I wanted to. Badly. The chocolate chip cookies are as close to Tollhouse style as I can remember since going gluten-free.)
Oh, and if you wondered, the silhouette of a woman doing a handstand in the Sweet Cheeks logo? Yep, it’s based on a photo of Calucchia – a nod to her love of dancing and acrobatics.
“I spent days and days in New York, drawing pictures and coming up with words,” she says of the design and her company name.
A friend suggested the name and it stuck. It was cute, kitschy but not too twee.
“It wouldn’t be me if it was too twee,” she says.
Interested in ordering some baked goods for your next event? Contact Sweet Cheeks here.