“Everyday I thank God that I’m alive,” said Chef Marco Gaona who was admitted to San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital in 2017 on the verge of a diabetic coma. At over 350 pounds at age 39, he flatlined.

“I felt like Frankenstein because I was laying in bed with all the cables hooked up to my chest, my arms,” Gaona reminisced, holding back tears. “They didn’t know how I was alive [with my blood sugar] being 10 times above normal. I was at 1,422. I should’ve been dead.”

For reference, if you have a fully functional pancreas and tested your blood sugar right now, it would read somewhere between 70 and 140 as normal. 

After the doctors resuscitated him, Gaona made a vow to transform his eating habits to a low-carb, sugar-free lifestyle to honor his second chance at life. With a new exercise regimen and diabetic-friendly recipes in tow, Gaona has lost over 120 pounds and no longer has to inject insulin.

But still, as a Type 2 diabetic, his sweet tooth persisted. “When I was looking for desserts, they were so bland,” Gaona said, disgusted. So, he decided to make his own. “Being able to help other individuals that are struggling the way I was struggling, it makes me happy.” Four years after his near-death hospital stay, he’s launching The Cooking Penguin, a sugar-free (and guilt-free) dessert business that doesn’t compromise taste for healthiness. 

PLNU alumni AJ Crawford (19) and Nathaniel Hosmer (19) connected with Gaona through an academic advisor “and the rest is history,” Crawford joked. “You know, it seems counterintuitive: How are you going to help people who are diabetic get healthy with desserts?” Crawford, who’s the head of marketing for the Cooking Penguin, continued. “And the answer is because the biggest thing that [many] people with diabetes are missing is that sweet tooth. If they don’t have an alternative to it, it’s going to be a constant battle.”

As the chief financial officer, Hosmer explained that in a textbook sense, most business students roll their eyes at pursuing socially conscious ventures, hinting that business should be more about profit than actually helping people. “It is hugely inspiring every day whenever I talk to Marco,” Hosmer adds. “To be motivated by that vision to change the future or to change the way that people live their lives and not just create profit. I really appreciate that part of understanding how what we learn in business school connects out and becomes more meaningful and rich once it’s put into a practical application…He’s a visionary. He sees a future that could be and works tirelessly to make that happen.” 

And that vision is tasty. Chef Gaona has spent years perfecting the most delicious cakes and cookies, sifting through hundreds of sugar substitutes until he landed on erythonal, a sugar alcohol, as the key cooking ingredient. Now diabetics can still indulge in a decadent two-layer chocolate mousse cake with alternating sheets of vanilla cake and rich vanilla cheesecake mousse without the fear of a blood sugar spike. Or you could sample the Cooking Penguin’s “Berrylicious” strawberry and blueberry gluten-free, sugar-free cake topped with fresh berries for a burst of flavor in every bite. (Is your mouth watering yet?)

A year-long pandemic has forced many small businesses, especially in the food industry, to shutter. The Cooking Penguin wasn’t immune to switching from their original plan to kickstart their company. “It absolutely was difficult,” Crawford said. They had their first restaurant order about seven months ago, but once restaurants closed, they had to pivot. “We had to retool our whole business model because we realized you can’t ship mousse cakes outside of San Diego. We had to completely reinvent our desserts and come up with cake jars.” Mason jars filled to the brim with yummy desserts being shipped to your door? Yes, please.

Despite a current ship-to-home option though, the Cooking Penguin doesn’t want to be a normal, run-of-the-mill delivery service that preaches healthy alternatives only to a targeted higher class demographic. At its core, they want to expand past desserts into a low-carb, time-saving, and budget-conscious cooking educational model. Gaona will have videos, live cooking demonstrations, and recipes as well as catering services to help people transition to better eating habits. “Like I tell people in my videos, I teach you the simple way,” Gaona said. No reduction times. No fancy three-page cooking instructions. He understands that the majority of us don’t have the time or the money for such things. “It’s about learning how to manage, how you eat and the times that you eat, and make it a routine for yourself. That changes everything.” 

Imagine with me, if you will. We’re back to eating in restaurants safely, and you’re thumbing through a glossy menu. The white noise of neighboring table chatter fills the space, the ice in your water clinks as it melts, the rumbling in your tummy intensifying. You get to the sweets section and a special diabetic-friendly, sugar-free subsection emerges. As a Type 1 diabetic myself, I would feel recognized and appreciated. “Because it’s something that nobody has thought of: really taking care of the diabetic community,” Gaona tells me. “For me, to wake up every day and know that I’m doing something that is going to not be only for me but to help other people.”

The Cooking Penguin wants to be that dessert option for restaurants and serve as a sweet savior for a community low on options. “That’s why we chose penguins. They’re birds of a feather,” Gaono says. “Life’s too short. And sometimes we take for granted the little things. That’s what keeps me going. The passion; I know that I can make a difference in the world, I can make my mark. And I can show people that life without sugar? It’s still amazing.”

Jordan Robinson (Ligons) (16) is a former PLNU women’s basketball student-athlete who studied journalism and women’s studies. Currently, she’s a freelance sports journalist, TV host, and WNBA podcaster in Los Angeles, CA.