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Desert Companion

Profile: Sweet Success


Diabetic Treats
Photography by Brent Holmes

He came to the bakery looking for work. He got a slice of the American Dream 

When Juan Jose Medina walked into Mrs. Williams Diabetic Delights bakery almost 20 years ago, he had no idea that his life was about to radically change. He was just looking for a job. Newly arrived from his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, he had a degree in accounting, but getting his diploma validated here was a challenge. Medina had never baked in his life, but right away, he says, Janet Williams and her husband, Ron, took him in under their wing.

Mrs. Williams, who goes by Janet Prusinski now, says that Medina was a godsend. “I trusted him from the day he walked in there,” she says. She taught him everything she knew about baking and running a bakery. Prusinski started the specialty bakery on Decatur Boulevard in 1991 because her husband was diabetic, and the sugar-free options out there were “not fit to eat.” When they opened, they only had six items on the menu. “Ron goes, ‘Six is better than nothing!’” Prusinski says and laughs.

Medina remembers feeling nervous that first day. “I was really shy, because it was hard to communicate,” he says. His English wasn’t great at that time, he explains. But by day two, Prusinski started teaching him how to bake, and he started to feel right at home.

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Baking without sugar can be a challenge — sugar substitutes don’t retain water (and therefore moisture) the same way, they don’t crystallize or brown like table sugar, and baking times can be completely thrown off. So Prusinski, and now Medina, experiment tirelessly. “You have to measure everything,” Medina says. He uses a blend of Splenda and stevia, and sends out every new recipe to a lab for testing, because the bakery also provides customers with sheets that detail how many calories and carbs are in each of their menu items. And since most of the ready-made bakery products come with sugar in them, Medina says they make about 95 percent of the products in house from scratch.

Sometimes they get special requests. Medina remembers a woman who came in and asked if he could make a naked cake for her wedding. “I said, ‘A what?’ and just started laughing,” he says. “Like a cake with naked people on it ... for a wedding?” The customer quickly specified that naked cakes are the trendy new dessert — a cake that’s not completely covered and has see-through icing. That he could do, and everyone went home happy.

The most popular products at Mrs. Williams Diabetic Delights are the cheesecake, éclairs, and pies. The pie options here abound in July: Several years ago, Prusinski decided to do something fun for the summer and started Christmas in July, a month-long period during which they make all the holiday favorites that are normally only available in late fall and winter: Dutch apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, turtle pie, and apple cranberry. Year-round pie favorites include cherry, blueberry, black forest, and piña colada (Medina’s favorite). “Our coconut’s a huge seller, because it’s hard to find unsweetened coconut,” Prusinski says.

Although Prusinski retired two years ago, Medina says she still comes in most mornings to help bake. When it came time for her to draw up a will, there was no question who she wanted to leave the business to. Prusinski’s only son had passed away a few years before Medina came into their lives, and Medina, she says, is her adopted family. Medina’s sister lives here now, and her kids call Janet “grandma.” They have family dinners every Wednesday.

Since taking over the bakery, Medina hasn’t changed the menu much — a little tinkering with recipes here and there. He’s experimented with Mexican pastries, but those have too many carbs for diabetics, he says. He’s tried using alternative flours, like almond or coconut, but the consistency doesn’t come out to his liking.

His attention to detail pays off. What the bakery is providing customers isn’t just a chance to indulge in a sweet treat every once in a while. It’s bringing back some normalcy to people facing tough new medical decisions. Medina says that seeing diabetic kids walk through the door is a special joy. “You know diabetes doesn’t respect age,” he explains. These kids get to run in and choose candy, cakes, and cookies without being relegated to a few tiny sugar-free options in the corner of a regular bakery.

“Somebody can walk in the door and look around — everything you see in this shop, no matter where you turn, is (sugar-free),” Prusinski says. “Yes. This shop is for you.”

Medina, for his part, loves his job. “I’m here 10 hours a day, 6 days a week,” he says. “It’s just love here. People come in smiling because you make their day happy.” He’s even training his brother-in-law to cover for him and possibly someday take over. “I (want to) keep it a tradition for Ron and Janet. That’s in my head.”

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