By offering coeliacs something they’d struggled to buy before fresh gluten-free bread it’s not hard to see why Genius triumphed in The Innovation Award category, sponsored by Asda, at the Baking Industry Awards last year. The addition of this loaf to the supermarket shelves meant those requiring gluten-free bread, could actually purchase a loaf, and eat it as it came fresh.

The story of how Genius came to be and it is a story began in chef Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne’s kitchen at her home in Edinburgh. With two of her three sons suffering from food allergies one wheat, one dairy she was desperate to come up with a fresh loaf of bread that they could and would eat. As the co-author of Leith’s Techniques Bible and recipe book How to Cook for Food Allergies, she used her knowledge to test out different recipes using a domestic oven. She worked tirelessly for over a year, writing-off two ovens in the process, before she hit upon a recipe comprising water, potato stock and cornflour, among other ingredients that she thought might work. She approached Sainsbury’s, who stocked her book, to see if they could do something with it. Understandably, the supermarket had questions about how she could produce the loaves, and suggested getting in touch with United Central Bakeries’ (UCB) commercial director Paddy Cronin. UCB is the biggest own-label free-from supplier to Sainsbury’s and, incidentally, launched Genius there last month.

"Lucinda came to see me in mid-January 2008, when I was halfway through my annual, month-long free-from diet," explains Cronin. Every January for the past four years, he has given up wheat, gluten and dairy, "to really understand our consumers’ needs and the issues they’ve got". Cronin says he now understands just how difficult it is to get good quality free-from products, and food to eat on-the-go. "All of a sudden Lucinda put a loaf on the table that she’d made at home. I thought it was the best I’d ever tasted," he says. "It’s actually quite different to the loaf that was launched the taste, texture and smell were all there, but it was a small funny-shaped loaf, that you could never sell." Cronin says he knew that if they could "get it right", it could be great. He gave her a few pointers, one of the first being that it needed to be a normal-size sandwich bread. He also gave her the services of his new product development (NPD) manager, the use of the NPD kitchen at UCB, and the ingredients that would be used if it were to be produced on an industrial scale.

"We worked with her on developing the product and she did further trials at home," explains Cronin. "We worked until August/September 2008, until we were happy with the product, and then we made plans to talk to the retailers."

Purely by chance or fate as Cronin suggests Bill Gammell a former European entrepreneur of the year and owner of a big oil company in Scotland is a coeliac. His children also went to the same school as Lucinda’s and managed to get hold of a loaf of her bread. He loved it and decided he wanted to invest in the project, says Cronin.

"We were at the stage where we were trying to decide what should be the next step to take it forward as private-label or as a brand when Gamble put forward the investment behind the brand hence the name Genius."

Launch pad

The loaf was launched exclusively in Tesco at the end of April 2009 and, due to customer demand, it is now also available in Asda, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Whole Foods Market and Selfridges.

Asda even launched the loaf in its standard bread section, rather than with other free-from products. There are plans to increase the brand’s distribution further, as well as move into new markets.

"One of the focuses this year is foodservice," says Cronin. "It’s a huge opportunity, and we’re currently working with a number of foodservice companies on what can be done." The bread is in the process of being launched with foodservice wholesaler Brakes, and Starbucks is to launch its tuna-mayonnaise sandwich using Genius in mid-February (see BB 29 January, page 5). Additional launches under the Genius brand are also planned, including a 600g sliced variant, which has just been launched, and rolls, to come this month. The loaf was previously only available unsliced. UCB has also made a multi-million pound investment in a new production line for the loaf, which was commissioned in early January, due to the need to increase capacity to meet demand.

Cronin initially didn’t mention to Bruce-Gardyne that he had entered Genius into Asda’s Innovation category in the Baking Industry Awards purely because he wasn’t sure he would get anywhere with it, he says. "We had entered it for other food awards, and I knew we’d got a great product here, but entering it in a bakery category was the hardest one, because this is a product that doesn’t contain any wheat. I wasn’t sure if the baking industry was ready to recognise a product like that."

The fact that it was the first fresh gluten-free bread to market was one of the main points highlighted to the judges. "It’s not all about having the knowledge and a passion for the product it still really needs to deliver," says Cronin. He and Bruce-Gardyne took samples of a standard loaf, an example of a gluten-free loaf currently available on the market and Genius, along to their presentation to the judges, to illustrate just how far they had come with the development of this loaf.

Since the Baking Industry Awards, the loaf has also won a Gold Q award the Oscars of the food industry, says Cronin. "It was great to win the Gold Q award, but being on the bakery side, I found winning a Baking Industry Award was actually better, as it is judged by bakers," he says. "Winning an award at BIA adds a bit of kudos. I didn’t think we’d win it and we hadn’t built up our expectations, so we were over the moon." For Bruce-Gardyne, meanwhile, the human side of the success is more important than the financial. "She has seen a piece of dough, that she started to keep her son happy, transformed into an amazing product, that is actually changing people’s lives," he says.

The bread has now been on the market for 10 months, and has already sold over one million loaves, making it one of the biggest brands in the free-from sector. Cronin says the gluten-free bread market has grown from around £8m at its launch to around £13m now. "I’d expect that, by this time next year, it could be worth £19-£20m," he predicts.

As well as huge sales figures, the company has received a wealth of positive feedback on the product; as Cronin says, consumers buying free-from products are not afraid to tell you exactly what they think. One email from a mother said her son could now sit and eat a sandwich from his packed lunch at school alongside all his friends and feel normal.

Cronin says the team is also looking at export as a big opportunity for the brand in the future. However, as the bread is fresh, the logistics of getting it to the Continent still need to be worked out.

Bruce-Gardyne is still heavily involved with the current development work, but one question Cronin couldn’t answer was whether she still bakes her gluten-free bread at home or whether she now buys Genius from the supermarket.

How did it feel to win?

"To have a product that hasn’t got any wheat in it, and to win, I think that’s transformational," says Cronin. "I never thought that would happen."