Castle Rock, Colorado

Owner and founder Christopher Lehn balances flavor-full with gluten-free in baked goods for his own brand while operating a complementary co-packing business on the side.

Photos Jonathan Castner

“We’re out here to give people their lives back,” says Lehn about his brand of gluten-free products — muffins, pies, cakes, cookies, and rolls. All his baked goods are made without wheat flour. (Or, for that matter, any barley or rye.)

When Lehn and his family were diagnosed as allergic to gluten in 2010, it caused a massive disruption in not only their eating habits, but their social habits, as well — from his sons’ ability to enjoy cake at friends’ birthday parties to sharing meals with other family members. Furthermore, most of the gluten-free baked goods at the time were dry and less than flavorful. He cites “crumbly and gritty” bread made partially from almond meal as one example of the nutrient-dense substitutes he was having to purchase, instead of the rich and moist goods he grew up with.

In 2011, Lehn decided to take “a leap of faith” and start his food company, offering gluten-free versions of his favorite baked goods. “We’re not trying to offer products that are substitutions to what you’re used to eating,” says Lehn, referring to products made with, for instance, chia seeds or ancient grains. “We’re actually trying to give you a product you’re used to.” He adds, “Everybody in the family can now eat that product — and nobody knows that it’s gluten-free.”

At first, there were banana muffins, which led to the company’s name: a combination of “yummy” and “banana.” (And although Yumbana’s banana muffins contain walnuts, they’re one of the company’s few products with an allergen — nuts — in them.) In its current lineup, Yumbana now makes carrot cake, key lime pie, cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies, dinner rolls, and pie crust. In the near future, Lehn plans on releasing shelf-stable bread and cinnamon rolls. (Quite often, Lehn’s gluten-free items are sold frozen, since they don’t contain preservatives or, well, gluten — which “does a lot better job of locking moisture into products than items that don’t have gluten.”)

Lehn started off by selling his banana muffins at farmers markets and coffee shops. Today, he counts off the numbers of stores his products are available in: more than 100 King Soopers and 250 Walmarts, as well as around 90 Safeways. Geographically, Yumbana can be found as far east as Virginia and as far west as Hawaii. With revenue close to a million dollars in 2020, Lehn says, “We’ve almost doubled every year in the first several years of our growth.”

At his Castle Rock production facility, measuring just under 6,000 square feet, Lehn runs three mixers, two double-rack convection ovens holding 40 trays each, and, just as importantly, a commercial-grade dishwasher. “You’d be surprised at how much time you spend washing dishes,” he says, thankful that he can now clean and sanitize baking sheets and mixing bowls within four to six minutes. There’s also his hydraulic pie press, depositor, and extruder. “We went from hand-scooping cookies to this machine,” he says of the extruder, which is “capable of doing up to 200 cookies per minute.” In addition to Yumbana products, Lehn also co-packs for two other companies, which “provides revenue for increased promotion and advertising” for his own brand.

How does Lehn make something that’s both gluten-free and flavorful? “It really comes down to your choice of ingredients,” he says. Instead of wheat flour, Lehn uses different combinations of ingredients like white or brown rice flour, sorghum flour, modified tapioca starch, non-GMO potato starch, rice starch, and xanthan and guar gums. “All play a role in filling out this profile of experience that you get really from one ingredient: [wheat] flour,” he says. Furthermore, those ingredients aren’t all the same from vendor to vendor, leading him to note that “everything is its own variable.”

It takes a lot of experimenting to hit all the qualities Lehn’s looking for: “Can it be moist, can it be soft, can it actually have a good flavor and not be gritty in your mouth and have all sorts of aftertastes?”

Clearly, it’s much more challenging to devise gluten-free products. But Lehn is encouraged by the feedback he’s gotten from customers — both in emails and in-person at product demos. He says, “People would come up to us, and they would literally be in tears: ‘I haven’t eaten anything this good since I’ve gone gluten-free!'” Lehn adds, “It’s heartwarming and it’s encouraging — and it’s also proof we’re doing it right.”

Challenges: “There have been corporate changes in the way [supermarket chains], in general, buy things, and it’s become more difficult to get face time with buyers,” says Lehn.

Opportunities: “I think we’re living in a society that — by virtue of the pandemic — has embraced online food sales,” says Lehn. “I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to start selling directly to the customer online.”

Needs: “We need more space for the business in terms of storage,” says Lehn. That’s storage, in terms of having room in which to store dry goods, as well as more freezer space. “In the world of gluten-free, you have to have a freezer,” says Lehn. “Just about everything that’s not dry — a cookie or a mix or something like that — if it has moisture, it’s going to be frozen.”