By Keith Seiz
(from left) Bert Cohen, Marvin Rea and Scott Mandell
Sorghum flour, pure cane brown sugar, fruit juice concentrates, unsweetened applesauce (water, apples), brown rice flakes, expeller-pressed safflower oil, currants, natural rice dextrin, cinnamon, vanilla, xanthan gum, baking soda and rosemary extract.
Believe it or not, this list of ingredients makes oatmeal cookies. Something seem missing? Try oats, milk, butter, eggs and wheat flour. At Enjoy Life Natural Brands, Schiller Park, Ill., these ingredients are taboo. The company operates an allergenfree bakery, forcing creativity when formulating bakery foods for a population with special dietary needs that forbid many common baking ingredients.
Enjoy Life's Soft Baked No-Oats "Oatmeal" Cookies provide the perfect example of the everyday challenges facing Enjoy Life. How do you formulate oatmeal cookies without oats? The bakery uses brown rice flakes. The crunchy flakes are made from flattened and toasted brown rice and mimic the flavor and texture of oats.
Challenges don't come solely from creating formulas without using the main building blocks of bakery products. Obstacles also arise from sourcing ingredients and making sure the company's allergen-free integrity is never compromised.
Scott Mandell, Enjoy Life's president and chief executive officer, readily accepts these challenges and obstacles of providing a growing population with unique dietary requirements with great-tasting bakery foods. This was the mission he and Bert Cohen, co-founder and chief financial officer, accepted when they founded Enjoy Life in 2002.
The two former bankers found inspiration for Enjoy Life from Bert's mother, Joyce, who's multiple sclerosis restricted her diet. The two hatched a business plan to start up a glutenfree bakery. After delving into the market, plans changed, and the company found a niche in producing products free of all common allergens.
"We saw the rise in people with food allergies, and there was no company dedicated to producing bakery foods for people with all of these different allergies and intolerances," Mandell says.
Convinced they had found an underserved niche, Mandell and Cohen invested nearly everything they had in a 6,500-sq.-ft. bakery west of Chicago. The initial product line consisted of cookies, bagels and snack bars.
Fast-forward to 2006, and Enjoy Life is a thriving bakery with a comprehensive product line and distribution to traditional and natural supermarkets throughout the United States and Canada. The company's product line now includes cookies, cookie packs, granola cereals, snack bars, bagels, breads, chocolate chips and trail mix.
Enjoy Life added cereal to its offerings when it acquired Perky's Natural Foods two years ago, which is based in a separate facility in California. The company also recently moved to a 16,000-sq.-ft. facility and updated its brand. Unchanged, however, is Enjoy Life's dedication to producing bakery foods free of common allergens.
The big eight
In the United States, common allergens include wheat/gluten, dairy/casein, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, fish and shellfish. Canadians include sesame and sulfites, and Europeans add celery and mustard to their common allergen lists. Enjoy Life's products are free of all of these common allergens, which poses many obstacles to the bakery's research and development efforts.
"There are a lot of big ingredients on the common allergen list that make it difficult to come out with a product that tastes good," Mandell says.
And like most food manufacturers, success always boils down to taste. "If it doesn't taste good, it doesn't sell," he says. "It's tough for our product developers because we tell them what we want. Then, we tell them that they can't use this or that, and then we tell them it has to taste good."
Developing common allergen-free formulas starts with finding a base ingredient to replace wheat flour, which contains gluten. To replace this vital building block, the company uses sorghum flour, brown and white rice flour, tapioca flour and ancient grains, such as amaranth.
Sourcing these ingredients has become easier for the company as it grows in size. However, some ingredients in the company's formulas still come from only single sources. "We try as much as possible to make sure we don't get boxed in, and that we have supplies from multiple sources," Mandell says.
Quality check points
After sourcing its ingredients, Enjoy Life must ensure that what they are asking for is exactly what they receive. The first step in sourcing ingredients is a supplier statement, which all of the bakery's suppliers must sign, stating that all ingredients are free of common allergens.
In addition to the supplier statement, Enjoy Life also tests ingredients that are susceptible to commingling with allergenic ingredients.
As ingredients enter the bakery, they are placed in a staging area, where a sample is taken and tested. The test takes about five minutes and can detect gluten at levels as low as 10 parts per million. Once the ingredient passes the test, a sticker is placed on the package, and the pallet of ingredients is taken to the warehouse.
For Enjoy Life, having a warehouse at its plant is quite a departure from the bakery's early days when ingredients were stored at a 2,000-sq.-ft. space a half mile from the bakery. The new plant also has improved efficiencies.
"Our old facility didn't lend itself to a good flow," Mandell says. "At the new bakery, we were able to set the place up how we wanted to."
To manufacture its products, the company relies on a balance of automation and flexibility. For the most part, machinery perform the major tasks, such as depositing, forming and packaging, and the company's employees manually move the products from station to station. The company further promotes flexibility by putting most of its baking equipment on wheels, allowing operators to combine and remove parts of the process to reduce changeover times.
Spreading the word
The growing number of people with food allergies bodes well for the future of Enjoy Life. However, the company considers itself more than just a provider of food to people with allergies. The company's grassroots marketing tactics promote the Enjoy Life brand while informing people about the facts and myths of food allergies.
In a joint effort with Living Without magazine, the bakery created a Food Allergy & Intolerance Survival Guide, which it distributes to doctors, dieticians, supermarkets and support groups. This guide contains information on common allergens and symptoms of food intolerance.
The company also markets directly to dieticians through a vast database the company keeps. "The dietician is the gatekeeper to the consumer with specialized needs," Mandell says. "We send them information to give out to their patients."
To further market its products, Enjoy Life developed an intensive sampling program that is aimed directly at support groups for people with celiac's disease, autism and food allergies. Sending product samples to support groups helps them find foods that they can eat and introduces them to the Enjoy Life brand through product information and coupons.
Enjoy Life's products also are emblazoned with symbols and statements. The company has developed its own allergen-free symbol and statement, which appears on every Enjoy Lifebranded product. Mandell says Enjoy Life was the first bakery to use the certified gluten-free symbol that recently was introduced by the Gluten Free Certification Organization. To obtain the right to use this symbol, the company is subject to an annual ingredient review, on-site inspections and product testing. For Enjoy Life, the certification process is simple because allergens are not allowed in the bakery.
For the past four years, Enjoy Life has been a trail blazer in its niche of allergen-free bakery foods. Although many companies tout gluten-or nut-free products, Enjoy Life is one of few bakeries dedicated to producing bakery foods devoid of all common allergens, according to American, Canadian and European standards.
"What we do is not easy, and we don't see other bakeries dedicating their facilities to be common allergen-free," Mandell says. "Not only does this give us a uniqueness, but it also is a barrier of entry into the marketplace for many potential competitors."
... at a glance
Location: Schiller Park, Ill.
Market served: national distribution in both traditional supermarkets and natural food stores
Bakery management: Scott Mandell, co-founder and president; Bert Cohen, co-founder and chief financial officer; Cindy Kaplan, director of marketing; Patricia Marko, director of sales; Marvin Rea, director of operations and Sandy Kasten, quality assurance manager
Equipment: mixers (3), rack ovens (2), proofing oven, dough portioners (2), bagel line, bagel slicer, cartoners (2), package wrapper
Bakery size: 16,000 sq. ft.
Product line: cookies, chocolate chips, snack bars, breads, bagels, granola, cereal and trail mix
Plans: secure additional distribution throughout North America, launch Not Nuts! Trail Mix and other items in 2007, increase the size of production bakery next year.