Written by Lori Boatfield
Photos by Steve Babin
Shot at location at the Huntsville Museum of Arts
Ashley Ramirez Ph.D., is a baker, restauranteur and author. She owns Mason Dixon Bakery, which specializes in gluten free products, as well as raising awareness about autoimmune disease and food allergies.
EVENT: What inspired you to be a baker?
AR: I always loved baking and cooking as a child, and some of my earliest memories are making apple pies for the holidays. It was my Pop-Pop’s favorite! While I loved being in the kitchen, I never actually dreamed of owning a bakery/restaurant. I am a chemist by training and at heart, which actually fits perfectly. Baking is truly science in the kitchen, fine tuning reactions to get the perfect texture and flavor profile. After finishing my doctorate, I came to Huntsville to pursue a career within the science field. Through a series of events, that career path did not come to fruition. While owning a bakery/ restaurant is not what I dreamed of as a child, I would never dream anything differently now. It is truly my passion, and my calling. I love being able to serve the community and fulfill a need, while bringing joy to people’s lives.
EVENT: Do you have a favorite story about a wedding or other kind of cake?
AR: It was actually a cupcake that changed my life forever. Mason Dixon started its first year primarily in the Farmers Markets, in order to increase awareness of the business. One of the first Saturdays at Madison City Farmers Market, I was set up with my cupcakes and breads on display. A little girl came up to the table, probably 5 or 6 years old, and looked at the cupcakes longingly. She said, “I wish I could have one.” I said, “Check with your Mommy, and maybe you can have one!” She said, “No, I can’t. I can’t have gluten.” My heart jumped. I said, “Well, you know what, every cupcake here is gluten free.” Her eyes lit up. She started pointing at the cupcakes. “This one is gluten free? This one is gluten free?” I kept nodding yes at every question. She couldn’t contain her excitement. She ran across to the booth where her Mom was and exclaimed, “Mommy, Mommy! Come here! I can have a cupcake, they are all gluten free.” In this moment, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
EVENT: Why is offering gluten-free products important to you?
AR: While choosing to be gluten free is a lifestyle decision for some people, for others, it is a necessity. I happen to be one of those people. Towards the end of college, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that causes your body to basically attack itself when you consume gluten. Mason Dixon was founded for two purposes. One to provide gluten free products to the community, and two, to spread awareness of autoimmune diseases and food allergies. While everything is gluten free, we also address several common food allergies such as dairy, egg, soy and more. It is our mission to provide safe and delicious foods to everyone. We enjoy the challenge of designing foods to meet an allergen list. We believe no one should have to go without the pleasures of a birthday cake or wedding cake.
EVENT: How have COVID restrictions changed the way you operate your business?
AR: COVID has certainly changed the way we operate over the last year. While everyone has been careful, several of our customers are naturally immune compromised, so we have felt called to be even more restrictive to ensure that our customers can continue to get the allergen friendly foods they need, safely. We have remained curbside only for the majority of the past year, restricting customers from entering the building. As a business that thrives on those “add-on” purchases, this has been challenging. We have implemented a new online ordering system that allows customers to see the menu online, place their order for now, or for days in advance, and then have it delivered to their car. Another main focus has been our e-commerce site, which allows customers to have bread, cookies, cupcakes and even cakes, shipped directly to their door, all across the U.S. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of orders from all across the country. The key of being able to survive this time is adaptation. You can never stop brainstorming, changing, challenging your business to adapt to the current situation.
EVENT: Tell about the program that helped provide lunches for health care workers.
AR: This summer, as the number of cases in our direct area began to rise, and our healthcare workers were put under incredible stress of trying to keep us all healthy and safe, several individuals and businesses began trying to find ways to show their support. We began a program called “Lunches for Heroes” where people could sponsor a boxed lunch to be made and delivered to the hospital. We coordinated with both Huntsville and Crestwood to deliver over 1,000 meals to our hospital workers. It was through the generous support of our community that we were able to provide.
EVENT: How have you adjusted to help couples who have gotten or are getting married during the pandemic?
AR: Each couple has been unique in their handlings of the pandemic, requiring us to take a different approach to every wedding. Some couples have delayed their weddings completely, some have gone from a buffet to a plated dinner, some have reduced to a small, intimate gathering instead of a large celebration. The most amazing thing about it, is that no matter how the celebration has changed, when it comes time for the wedding day, it has been a beautiful and perfect day each time. In my opinion, the pandemic has forced us to come back to focusing on the reason for the celebration, not the celebration itself. Some of my favorite weddings we have done this year have been 25 people, in their parent’s backyard. There are several precautions that can be taken to help your guests feel safe at your celebration, if you do choose to continue with a larger gathering. Switching to a plated dinner does reduce exposure between the food and the guests. It also eliminates guests gathering in the line waiting for the buffet. If you do continue with a buffet, be sure to space guests out while they approach the buffet line. Also, be sure to have your caterer serve every component of
the meal. We have not been allowing guests to touch any serving pieces. For your guests’ tables, consider dropping down to only six guests per table, as opposed to the standard eight. This limits exposure at the table and spaces your guests out a little more.
EVENT: I hear you have a new cookbook that was just published.
AR: In December of 2019, we were contacted by Callisto Publishing to author a cookbook entitled, “Paleo for Two”. It was such an honor to be sought out as the authors. It shows how far of a reach Mason Dixon has, and how far we have come in the last seven years! This cookbook focuses on healthy recipes for two people to enjoy at home, and can be purchased either on Amazon or directly through us at the store. Everything from breakfast entrees like Bananas Foster Pancakes, to desserts, salads and more are covered! We never dreamed that while trying to adapt to running a restaurant during a pandemic, we would also be authoring a 100-recipe cookbook. It was a challenge to say the least! This cookbook highlights recipes from our head Chef, Matthew Streeter, and myself. You will find a few recipes from items we serve at the restaurant, like our Paleo Sandwich bread, and Buffalo Cauliflower, to new recipes that have not yet made their debut. This cookbook is hopefully just the beginning of publishings to come from Mason Dixon!