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‘It’s like living a dream’ — laid-off Strip worker turns keto baking into business

Updated October 20, 2021 - 12:21 pm

Red velvet cupcakes, custom-made cakes and almond joy bombs fill the bakery’s display case. Each one is made with Jill Shlesinger’s passion — and without sugar or gluten.

The treats can all be found at Starburst Parlor, a keto-friendly bakery that opened last week in Las Vegas.

The idea came to the owner and baker after years of baking and a layoff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shlesinger said she had worked as a general manager in a combination cafe-cocktail bar on the Strip for more than 10 years but was abruptly laid off when the business was sold in 2020.

Shlesinger began feverishly baking when the city closed down the Strip to satisfy her own cravings for something sweet, she said. She sticks to a keto, or low-carb, diet to help treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome and noticed that many sugar-free or gluten-free products taste like protein powder and cost “like $60.”

Once she was laid off, friends encouraged her to turn her pandemic hobby into a business. She and her partner began selling the baked goods while putting together the brick-and-mortar location at 2202 W. Charleston Blvd.

Shlesinger said it was passion and grit that put the bakery together. She and her partner spent the last year getting the word out through pop-up sales and regular clients while earning money to fund the bakery without a bank loan — something that may not have been possible if her previous employer had stayed in business.

“With no work, it came to fruition,” she said.

Shlesinger’s story mirrors others across the country. Data from the Census Bureau shows that Americans filed paperwork to start 4.3 million businesses in 2020. In Clark County, business applications were up 27.2 percent from 2019.

Also unique to the Starburst Parlor is its midcentury vibe. Stepping into the bakery is like stepping into a decades-old kitchen. Shlesinger and her friends live true to a vintage lifestyle, with home products, cars and more all from the 1950s and 1960s. She brought that into her bakery as well — the pastel walls and old-school equipment all reminiscent of that era.

The bakery is meant to be a one-stop shop for those with dietary restrictions. Beyond baked goods, Starburst Parlor also sells sugar-free ice cream and gluten-free pizza and bagels. Shlesinger’s recipes frequently replace typical flour with almond or coconut flour.

“It’s literally like living a dream,” she said. “I meet people every day that say I’m helping them. Cancer survivors, Celiac, diabetics, people on keto, people who’ve had a heart attack — they’re all craving the things I was craving.”

But for customers, finding such items elsewhere in the Las Vegas Valley is another story, Shlesinger said. She said she knows of very few other gluten-free or sugar-free bakeries, let alone one offering both.

“If you have a gluten allergy, there’s like one other bakery. But then say your other half is sugar-free or diabetic — this gives them the best of both worlds, and everything they can have.”

Starburst Parlor is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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