Removing allergens has been the path to sweet bakery success for the Just Love Food Company.
The south Wales-based manufacturer, which runs a 10,500 sq ft production site in Oakdale Business Park, has gone from strength to strength in recent years, including winning Free-From Bakery Product of the Year at the Baking Industry Awards 2023.
Judges were enamoured by its simple but expertly delivered gluten-free Happy Birthday Cake, complete with a cutout label assuring partygoers of its allergen-safe claims. Watch our video of its production here:
British Baker caught up with Just Love founder and CEO Mike Woods and daughter Danika (pictured in the top image), who is now brand manager, to discover more about how the company has grown, what opportunities are emerging in the UK’s free-from sector, and areas of focus for the future.
A Just Love story
With years of experience in celebration cake production, and two children with severe nut allergies, Woods had the knowledge and impetus to launch a nut-free cake making business in 2010. He also enjoyed good relationships with retailers as well as with the Zero2Five Food Industry Centre at Cardiff Metropolitan University, to whom he turned for help with free-from formulations from day one – a collaboration that is set to continue.
Just Love launched its first first-to-market, nut-free celebration cakes in Sainsbury’s in March 2010. Own-label contracts with the retailer followed, with regional buyers from Tesco and Asda taking notice and granting listings in 2012.
December 2014 was a landmark moment for Just Love, with new UK food labelling regulations coming into effect that made it mandatory for the 14 top listed allergens in a finished product to be emphasised (usually in bold text) in the ingredients declaration. “From pushing the thinking around allergies between 2010 and 2014, where it was personal mission based, we now had an established brand that was well prepared,” recounts Woods, who says the law change “definitely pulled demand my way”.
Having delivered on nut-free, work shifted to the more difficult task of removing gluten from cake, as requested in numerous letters from consumers. Zero2Five was once again involved with recipe thinking, working in tandem with Just Love’s NPD team.
Venture into vegan
Next up on the allergen list was milk, which was eliminated “quite quickly”, and then egg in 2019. “We’ve become vegan from an allergy background,” says Woods, who estimates around 60% of the firm’s products are now vegan.
The only allergen out the top 14 list left for Just Love to get rid of is soya. Danika notes the company has been working with ingredients suppliers to reformulate its chocolate cake to remove soy milk, which had previously been used to replace cow’s milk.
However, as soy is still kept onsite to create other products, the company is wary of cross-contamination. “We wouldn’t claim soya free until we know that if someone was anaphylactic to soya, they could eat that product and not have a reaction,” she says.
Danika points to a recent article that said one in three vegan products were found to contain milk or egg when they were tested. “They haven’t come at it from an allergen point of view,” she says. Just Love is able to claim its vegan cakes completely free from animal derivatives (so doesn’t need to say ‘may contain’) and has never had a product recall.
The gluten-free Happy Birthday Cake contains egg to give an impressively soft sponge texture, and is produced on an alternate day from the vegan cakes at the BRCGS AA+ certified site. Equipment for each day is segregated and wrapped in colour-coded plastic sheets.
Part of Just Love’s vision for growth was to change from being seen as an allergen-based solution to being an inclusive solution. It had been first to market with a cake for everybody, but Woods admitted the need to “shout about it a little bit more, because I think people want it but don’t know it’s there”.
Investment in rebranding and marketing was the logical next step. Following market research via consumer interviews, branding and design agency Biles Hendry – which lists doughnut specialist Urban Legend and baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen among its clients – was contracted to create a new logo and packaging. Consultancy also came from Jocelyn McNulty, a former director of marketing at Kraft Foods, who had led the nationwide launch of Oreo in 2008. After a process lasting nearly 12 months, new packaging was unveiled in March this year.
Respecting that vegan is a choice for consumers rather than a requirement, Just Love has put ‘I’m vegan’ as a positive statement on its new cake boxes, and in a different place to the safety-assuring allergen messages.
Woods notes the vegan Confetti Traybake has “done phenomenally well” since it was introduced a few months ago. The traybake’s ratio of frosting to sponge was researched during a “cake trip” around London’s best bakeries, and it is piped by hand at the Just Love factory to give it more crafted finish.
The Vanilla Celebration Cake is also a product that is free from nuts, egg, and milk – the top three ingredients known to trigger anaphylaxis – making it ideal for a child’s first birthday party at school, when parents and teachers may not be aware of all the allergies among a large group of students.
All four of Just Love’s shareable cakes, which includes a vegan Indulgent Chocolate Cake, are available in Asda stores, with Tesco stocking three, and Sainsbury’s two. A Morrisons listing is a hope for the near future.
Rising raw materials costs has been one of the biggest challenges for the bakery manufacturer this year. “I’m 58 now, and I’ve never known such rapid growth in inflation over such a period of time,” says Woods. Just Love has absorbed some of the inflation while staying profitable, also coping with the significant time (up to eight weeks) that some retailers take to action price increases.
The business is holding greater levels of stock to reduce its vulnerability to interruptions in the supply chain, and has increased its warehouse capacity by taking on a second unit adjacent to its existing site.
Roughly 10% of ingredients come from Europe and have previously been affected by post-Brexit red tape issues at the border (which Woods says is getting better now) as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. In Just Love’s favour, vegan ingredients are not subject to the same import restrictions as ingredients that contain animal derivatives.
The new storage facility has also allowed Just Love to move things around on the production side, leaving it with the space to double its capacity, and Woods doesn’t see the company moving any time soon. “We’ve got a brilliant team here, highly skilled bakers and decorators, and 90% of them live within 10 miles,” he says, adding that these permanent staff members are well trained in keeping the site free of allergens.
Woods estimates that Just Love’s current workforce of 90 will expand to 140 over the next three years.
Demand for Just Love’s free-from cakes experienced a steep increase of around 70% after the law changed on allergen labelling in 2014. This has continued with the growth of allergy diagnosis, veganism, and lifestyle choices.
Common allergens outside of the top 14 are also emerging, with Danika saying the business has had quite a lot of queries about coconut, strawberry, pea protein and rape seed. “We don’t have a massive following,” she says of Just Love’s social channels, “but I’m very proud of the engagement that we’ve got with the top fans that we’ve had for the longest time. I think it’s nice because they’ve seen me grow up as well, so we’ve kind of got that dialogue now where we talk about allergies very openly. It’s not just about the business.”
“We feel like we’ve done the hard work and now we can have fun with flavour and concept and format”
Woods claims the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all have high nut allergy statistics, and is keeping an eye on opportunities to export its cakes. Just Love is considering sending its cakes to the Republic of Ireland once again, as it did pre-Brexit, following the easing of paperwork due to the Windsor Framework agreement. “I think the Welsh government will be supportive of that”, adds Woods.
Having cracked the recipe for vegan and gluten-free cakes, Danika says they’ve enjoyed “a bit of an NPD buzz” recently. “We feel like we’ve done the hard work and now we can have fun with flavour and concept and format,” she says.
“It’s all about capturing the magic again. When you get into that mindset of it being fun and playful and inclusive, almost like the allergies are a given, you can take it anywhere. We’re really excited and we’ve got loads of little projects on the go.”
Just Love is aiming for 40% of its business to be in producing free-from bakery products for retailer own-label ranges. Another 40% is intended to be occupied by its branded portfolio with the remaining 20% reserved for foodservice, which Woods thinks is the company’s big opportunity to grow.
It already supplies UK wholesale provider Booker with eight-inch vegan cakes (sold frozen) that can be cut into slices to serve 16. The business now has a range of eight cakes for foodservice operators that includes gluten-free varieties. There is also an idea to make traybakes cut into single-serve squares, and a long-term goal of providing guidance on cross-contamination risks and training on the use of EpiPens.
Just Love sees many occasions for celebration cakes that it can move into, including baby showers – blue or pink fountain sparklers for gender reveals are already being sold on the company’s website along with other cake decorations supplied by Ginger Ray. Shareable cakes don’t have to be just for celebrations, notes Woods, as consumers also buy cakes as a dessert for their family or dinner guests.
Woods says he’s read Mintel data that highlights an increase in demand for personalisation in cakes, with bespoke hand-drawn messages on a cake helping make them more relatable to the receiver. People are also getting more comfortable with giving cakes as gifts, as physical gifts like CDs and books have become obsolete due to technology. “Those kind of gifting cakes could play their part massively,” he adds.
After being perfectly positioned as a nut-free cake supplier when the labelling laws changed in 2014, Just Love now appears set for continued growth via vegan and gluten-free offerings, expanding its range of inclusive cakes that can be enjoyed by everyone.