Jaimie Mertz, sporting her signature red bandana while selling gluten-free baked goods in front of her 1984 red Volkswagen Vanagon, is easy to spot at the weekly Bethesda farmers market. Four years after beginning Red Bandana in her own kitchen, Mertz is weeks away from opening her first storefront and restaurant at 8218 Wisconsin Avenue.
Mertz said she came to gluten-free baking after doctors recommended her autistic brother remove gluten and casein from his diet. A lifelong baker, Mertz began experimenting with gluten-free options and started researching what it is about modern gluten that makes it so difficult for some people to process.
“The wheat that we are eating today is different than we ate 60 years ago. It’s bred for volume, and has a lot more gluten in it,” she told Eater. “Even for normal people, it’s harder to digest the wheat today than it would have been.”
Mertz grew up in the Bethesda area, graduating from Richard Montgomery High School, University of Maryland, and L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. She’s worked at local bakeries and restaurants, including Founding Farmers and Just Cakes.
“We always had customers with specific needs and asks,” Mertz said. “I wanted to have a dedicated facility where everyone who is serving customers is sensitive to those needs, whether it’s a gluten-free wedding cake or dairy-free dessert.”
For Mertz, gluten-free cooking is part of her contribution to serving healthier food, especially for kids. “I wanted to create a place where you could have that celebratory food, but not one that is bad for them,” she said.
In addition to serving breakfast and lunch seven days a week, Red Bandana plans to offer cooking classes and provide space for kids’ birthday parties. Mertz will have board games and Wi-Fi to encourage people to stay awhile. Her opening menu includes sandwiches, salads, and breakfast items, in addition to her baked goods.
Many of her chosen vendors already know her well from the farmers market circuit, including Swing’s Coffee Roasters and Pearl Fine Teas, with other D.C. outlets such as Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan providing the gluten-free foundation for sandwiches — Think: avocado toast with fresh black pepper ($5), or roasted veggies, with choice of hummus, guacamole, or spicy black bean dip, on Rise-supplied bread ($7).
Customer favorites include her gluten-free red velvet cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, and black bean oat brownie. “You really can’t tell that it’s got so much good stuff in there for you,” Mertz said about the brownie.
For Mertz, central to Red Bandana is the cake baking, which she calls “zen and repetitive;” she loses herself in podcasts — “I just listened to S-Town, it was so good, you have to listen to it,” she said — while doing it. Her custom cakes include a “Bonfire brownie cake,” a dairy-free cake with house-made graham crackers and marshmallows sandwiched between layers of brownies. Or the “Sweet and Salty,” vanilla cake with a caramel buttercream, topped with caramel popcorn and caramel glaze.
No matter the dietary restriction, Mertz is determined to find a cake that works. “We want everyone to be able to eat it,” she said.