America has always been the land of the free, but, if recent sales figures can be believed, it also is rapidly becoming the land of the “free-from.” During the last few years, the niche market for gluten-, wheat-, diary/casein-, egg- and sugar-free as well as vegan products has gained mainstream momentum.
Part is due to high-profile personalities, including Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jenny McCarthy, who have credited the elimination of these ingredients with everything from weight loss to the alleviation of autism symptoms. Then, of course, Americans have a penchant for trying to eat more healthfully without depriving themselves of the foods they love.
Global Industry Analysts market research company projects that sales of food allergy and intolerance products will surpass $26 billion worldwide by 2017. Packaged Facts market research recently reported that sales of gluten-free products in the United States alone climbed to $2.64 billion last year (the company had previously estimated that sales would reach $2.3 billion by 2011) and are expected to approach $5.5 billion by 2015.
But not all of these newly minted free-from fans are individuals who suffer from food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances–far from it. In a Packaged Facts survey of more than 1,800 adults conducted last fall, only 8 to 12 percent of gluten-free product purchasers did so because of a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance. Forty-six percent said they chose gluten-free foods because they perceived them to be “generally healthier,” 30 percent because they believed the products would help them to “manage their weight” and 22 percent because they perceived them to be of “higher quality” than their conventional counterparts.
But for free-from bakery operators around the country, these findings come as no surprise.
“Although ours is primarily a traditional bakery, sales of our gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free and vegan products have steadily increased over the past 10 years,” says Ed Dimmer, owner of Rheinlander Bakery, Arvada, Colo. “We have never marketed our products as ‘health foods,’ but a growing number of customers are coming to their own conclusions that free-from products are generally better for them than traditional ones.
“We don’t question their personal philosophies or try to give them advice,” he adds. “When they ask us about our free-from products, we show them the large selection that we make, and they decide what they want.”
Not a health food bakery
Nanette Goin and Donna Nelson agree that they don’t want customers to see their Just Delicious Diabetic Delights in Clackamas, Ore., as a health food store.
“We want them to come in because they crave our ooey-gooey chocolate chunk muffins or snickerdoodles, not because ours are the only bakery products they can have,” Goin says. “We target our products to everybody who has a sweet tooth.”
Stacy Hiles, owner of Stacy’s Gluten-Free Goodies, Tampa, Fla., says the ambiguity of the term “healthy” makes her uncomfortable with using it to describe her products.
“We are very open about telling customers what’s in our products and what isn’t,” she says. “But what we really emphasize is how good they taste–that’s what really sells the product anyway, whether the customer is ingredient-sensitive or not.”
Since Heather Esposito and Allison Lubert opened their Sweet Freedom Bakery in Philadelphia last year, they have been promoting their free-from products to consumers who are more mindful of how their diet impacts their weight, health and overall wellbeing and are looking for alternatives to traditional treats.
“We taste-tested our products on people who didn’t have allergies so we know they’re delicious,” Esposito says. “But Allison and I also are professional nutritional counselors so we can speak knowledgably about how various ingredients can affect the body.”
For instance, she says, some women in their 30s and 40s will ask about calories.
“We’ll certainly be happy to answer that question, but we also like to explain to them how different ingredients with the same or similar calorie counts are metabolized and can make the body feel either energized or fatigued,” she says. “We also encourage them to try one of our products and see how their bodies feel after they’ve eaten it.”
One visitor who felt the difference is a trainer at a nearby gym. In addition to becoming a regular customer himself, he has become a major source of referrals.
“When big, muscular guys come in, we know who sent them,” Esposito adds.
Fitness aficionados also are flocking to Decatur, Ga., specialty wholesaler Pure Knead Bakery’s newly opened retail store for free-from breads and sweets, says owner Michelle Kelly.
“So far, these customers have found us, but we plan to make a serious effort to market to them by giving samples to the fitness facility staff members or offering to bring muffins over for a Saturday workout group,” she says. “Our area also has a number of organized sports teams that we can contact.”
Skeptics on flavor
While certain groups of health-conscious consumers may have begun to seek out–or are willing to try–free-from products, the majority of non-allergic individuals tend to remain skeptical that the cookies or cupcakes can actually taste as good as traditional ones. To reach people who might not come to her, Hiles takes her products to farmers’ markets and large community events, such as fundraising walks.
“We find that many consumers don’t even know what gluten-free is, so it’s unlikely that they would ever have sought us out,” Hiles says. “But once they see how yummy our products look, they can’t resist tasting them, and then we become not just that gluten-free bakery, but that bakery with the great cookies.”
To demonstrate that their free-from treats could go head-to-head with products from any traditional bakery, Sweet Freedom’s Esposito and Lubert accepted the challenge of appearing on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.”
“We knew that we would be facing some ingredient challenges that our traditional counterparts did not have to consider, but we felt that by us competing on such a widely watched, foodie-oriented program, we could elevate the image of ‘free-from’ bakery products in the minds of many Americans,” Esposito says. “And although we didn’t win, we really feel that we achieved that goal.”
Offering limited-time discounts on their products through collective couponing websites Groupon and LivingSocial also helped Sweet Freedom to take the plunge into the mainstream.
“Our mail order sales skyrocketed, and now we receive emails from all over the country,” Esposito says.
When it comes to weight-loss strategies, some people count calories, some count carbs. But, for clients of one of the nation’s largest weight-loss companies, points are what really count. For the partners of Just Delicious Diabetic Delights and Greg Sambo, owner of The Thinnery in Upland, Calif., these points add up to big sales.
Working with local chapters of Weight Watchers®, the bakeries are able to assign specific point values, as defined by the program, to each product. “We’re not dietitians or nutritionists so we depend on the people from the company to figure out the points,” Goin says.
Although the bakeries cannot refer to the weight-loss company by name, use registered brand terms or claim any affiliation with it, the point values make it easy for customers to figure out which treats can fit into their daily menu plans.
“This has opened up a huge market for us,” Goin says. She posts the point value on each qualifying product along with calorie and carb counts.
Sambo, whose bakery caters to consumers with restricted diets and allergies or are looking for a “skinny” food with less guilt, promotes the fact that many of his products are friendly to the requirements of Weight Watchers. He doesn’t post the point values to avoid confusion and clutter in the case, but “customers know all they have to do is ask the sales staff to get them,” he says.
Both bakeries are meticulous about keeping track of any changes in the ingredients they use to ensure that all of the nutritional information numbers–including calories, carbs and points–remain accurate.
“Even a change in the manufacturer of a flavoring can alter any or all of these numbers,” Goin says.
Diets from love
For many non-allergic individuals, the most compelling reason for choosing free-from foods goes far beyond weight-loss and personal fitness goals, Rheinlander’s Dimmer says. That reason is love.
“We often get families who come in looking for a special occasion cake for an allergic family member. We have trained our staff to take them all on a tour of our store so they can see our entire selection of close to 200 gluten- and sugar-free pastries and cookies,” he explains. “Many families like to eat sympathetically with the allergic person, sharing the same foods so that the person doesn’t feel singled out or isolated.
“They’re all thrilled when they discover that they can all enjoy their favorite treats together again,” he says.
Just Delicious’ sugar-free cupcakes have been a boon for parents of diabetic children who want to celebrate their birthdays in school with their classmates, Goin says.
“Parents used to bake their own cupcakes to send to in-class parties, but schools no longer allow homemade foods to be brought into schools,” she explains. “We have made it possible for them to bring birthday celebrations back into the classroom.”
Even non-allergic brides and grooms are taking their guests’ dietary needs and preferences into consideration when they order their wedding cakes, and Just Delicious fills orders for a few sugar-free wedding cakes every month.
“They frequently ask for the inclusion of at least one sugar-free layer, a side cake or a big sheet cake so that guests can have a choice,” she says. “We encourage them to go for some of our specialty cake flavors such as caramel pecan, lemon or red velvet to give their guests a good taste of how versatile and delicious sugar-free can be.”