Gail Elvidge first discovered that peanuts could be deadly to her son Tanner when he was just 8 months old. “He was reaching for an English muffin that had peanut butter on it, and I gave it to him,” she says. “He immediately broke out in hives, and his eyes swelled up and turned red. It was instant.”
Doctors diagnosed Tanner as having so severe an allergy to peanuts that exposure to even a trace could send him into life-threatening anaphylactic shock. The horrified Gail, 35, and husband Mark, 37, became hypervigilant—inspecting playmates’ snacks, scouring labels—even calling manufacturers to see if their foods were prepared in a factory that also processed peanuts. But one problem tugged on the South Hero, Vt., couple’s hearts: Almost no commercial candies, often made on the same assembly lines as nutty varieties, could be guaranteed safe. “Everybody has candy bars when they’re growing up,” says Gail, “and he was never going to be able to do that.”
So Gail took matters into her own kitchen. Hunting down nut-free ingredients, she whipped up treats that first delighted Tanner—and now satisfy thousands. In 1998 she and Mark launched Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, the nation’s only chocolatier catering specifically to people allergic to peanuts and other nuts. This year they expect to sell about $200,000 worth of $25-a-lb. truffles, $5 chocolate Santas and $2 dinosaur-shaped pops through a Web site, local stores and their own shop. The goodies are “very, very high quality,” says Nicolette Kalman, 31, a fan from Williamsville, N.Y. “It reminds me of Belgian chocolate.”
Most important, “Vermont Nut Free gives parents of children with allergies peace of mind,” says Chris Papkee, 34, founder of a Web site for parents of peanut-allergic children. “Now parents can give their kids something for Halloween that they don’t have to be worried about.”
Tanner, now 6, is not alone. An estimated 3 to 4 million Americans have peanut or tree-nut allergies. While life-threatening reactions to peanuts are relatively rare, doctors say there’s no way to tell which allergic patients are most at risk, so all must observe strict precautions. The amount of peanut protein that can trigger a reaction is “in the milligram range,” says Dr. Wesley Burks, a specialist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The ubiquity of peanuts, peanut oil and other by-products—plus the risk of cross-contamination during production—makes the grocery store a minefield. “You have to think about everything—cereal, bread, chips,” says Gail.
The Vermont native, who left her accounting job in 1994 when Tanner was born, had to be no less scrupulous tracking down ingredients for the sweets she learned to make by “experimenting and reading a lot of books.” Hunting far and wide, she found a source of nut-free baking chocolate and tracked down manufacturers willing to vouch in writing that their products never come in contact with nuts.
Word spread quickly, especially among Internet allergy support groups. Last month Gail and Mark, who manages a duty-free shop in Quebec and heads Vermont Nut Free’s business side, moved operations from their kitchen to a Victorian house in central South Hero, an island town on Lake Champlain. Four employees help with the labor-intensive production: “It’s all hand-molded, hand-dipped, hand-wrapped, hand-everything,” Mark boasts.
Meanwhile, Tanner, who carries a device that can inject him with life-saving epinephrine in case of an emergency, has never had another allergic reaction. A more pressing concern for the Pokemon-loving first grader is keeping up with schoolmates who want in on his supply of T. Rex pops. “When he’s at a party or something,” says Mark, “Tanner always brings the coolest treat.”
Eric Francis in South Hero