Don Williams, CEO of brand and design consultany Pi Global ponders the recent success of gluten-free goods
About seven years ago, we started working for a tiny little brand called Mrs Crimble’s. At that time, it was worth in the region of a cup of tea and a pack of digestives and you could find it snuggled in English Heritage and National Trust outlets. Today, with no support other than the hard work of the management team and a tiny sales force, as well as some assistance from the identity and packaging oh and a damn good range of products this gluten-free bakery brand is listed in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose, and is worth around £15m.
As each day passes, so our cotton wool-wrapped consumers become more irrationally paranoid about... well, pretty much everything. It seems like everyone I meet has an ’allergy’ or intolerance to something or other. In all likelihood, what they actually have is, at worst, a slight sensitivity to certain foods and, at best, a psychosomatic belief that they have such an intolerance. As we raise another generation of precious things, so sanitised that their immune systems will be as effective as George W Bush’s English teacher, I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.
This is, of course, great news for Mrs Crimble’s and her ilk. For example, Genius bread, helped by the backing of Bill Gammell, is doing incredibly well. Private-label is also investing massively, with Sainsbury’s trying the shock-and-awe technique of blocking the fixture with an army of army-green packs. New players are vying for precious shelf space such as Hale & Hearty, which is injecting a light-hearted, apron-festooned offering into the category and everyone seems to be gearing up for a gluten-free battle of biblical proportions.
Of course no one is going to get seriously rich unless the wheat and gluten intolerance epidemic becomes a pandemic, or gluten-free finds a way of becoming... erm normal.
When we ’marginalise’ food, we somehow make it a little alien, not quite normal, even a tad ’Frankenstein’. But if we look at it objectively and dispassionately, it’s just food that happens to be wheat-free. The problem is, the minute you label a food ’free from’ something-or-other, it sets alarm bells ringing on the old taste buds front, because we all know that when you remove certain ingredients from food sugar, fat, wheat, dairy the compromise is that the taste usually goes with it.
In the case of gluten-free products this isn’t necessarily so; sure, no-one has cracked every product 100%, but there are some great-tasting products out there. But getting your average punter to believe this and give gluten-free a whirl, is not the easiest thing in the world, particularly if the goodies are imprisoned in the free-from fixture, which doesn’t have the footfall that regular food enjoys.
Yet when "Britain’s favourite baker" gets in on the act, you know this is a serious and growing category. Warburtons’ move into gluten-free could signal the start of a ’normalisation’ process, which might sort the men from the boys. Bring on the gluten-free mince pies!