Commentary

Taking Gluten Free Into The Mainstream

Shari Cole was trying out a new pesto pizza recipe in her test kitchen in Arizona when we talked. Every once in a while she'd leave a sentence hanging and, after a slight pause, say something like "no, that's undercooked" or "I don't like the taste" before returning enthusiastically to the point at hand. Nothing is more vital to the success of her going-on-six-year-old Simply Shari's Gluten Free + Fabulous Line of cookies, pastas, pizzas and sauces than that they taste good enough to cross over into the mainstream.

I'm leery when I see or hear phrases like "gluten free." It seems like I might be deprived of something that, thankfully, I don't need to eliminate from my diet. Consequently, I've tended to steer away. That's my ignorance talking, of course, but I think a lot of people think the same way.

I recently discovered that the proof of Simply Shari's gluten-free Shortbread Bite Size Cookies is, as they say, in the gluten-free Shortbread Bite Size Cookies and Simply Shari's story is, as Shari has claimed all along, "fabulous." In fact, until last year, the cookies were simply known as Gluten Free & Fabulous Shortbread Bite Size Cookies. And therein lies a couple of tales.

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Cole started the Gluten Free & Fabulous line in 2005 with her father, Larry Schneider, a retired businessman who was diagnosed with celiac disease when he was in his 60s. He has been on a gluten-free diet for 16 years. Cole's daughter, Brittany, is autistic and also had digestive problems from birth. When she was 10, Schneider suggested that she might fare better if she were on a gluten-free diet, too.

"Within weeks, there was such a drastic difference," Cole says. A chronic rash and stomach distention disappeared. "Not only that, but she became this bubbly kid who was so focused in school that teachers commented upon it. I'd say, 'Really?'" Really.

Brittany, who has since been diagnosed as gluten intolerant, is currently applying for admission to mainstream colleges in California and wants to be a film animator. A lot of other hard work has gone into her success -- including the Peers Program at UCLA that helps kids on the autistic spectrum with socialization issues -- but Cole quickly perceived that there was a market for products for the 1 in 133 people who are confirmed gluten intolerant from a variety of auto-immune diseases including ADD/ADHD, OCD, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile diabetes (which Cole's sister and nephew have) and Crohn's disease, among others. That perception was born of experience at her own dinner table.

"Everything out there was so lousy," she says. "And all the chemicals, and the sugar and the sodium."

Cole, who had been an executive in the entertainment business, loved to cook in her free time and started experimenting with recipes in the kitchen. Her dad, who had forged several successful careers, suggested mass-producing the results. Three cookie offerings have grown into a line of 12 products and 16 sauces. And Cole is on a mission not only to become the premier producer of wheat-free, gluten-free and GMO-free products but also to educate the public about gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

If Cole is creating products that the whole family can enjoy, she wants to make sure they're visible. That's why she convinced the buyers at Krogers, for example, that her pizzas -- Pepperoni, Vegetable Margherita, Spinach Feta and Pesto Margherita and a few more in the development kitchen on the way -- should be sold in the main frozen section, for example, and not in the organic/natural/gluten-free case.

"People are in a hurry when they shop," Cole says. And even if they know there's an organic freezer somewhere, they don't want to take the time to find out what corner of the store it's hidden in. Her numbers, as a result, are "phenomenal" -- about a case a week (12 pieces) per SKU in 1,600 Kroger stores.

It's all moving a bit too fast for her father's taste. That's thanks, in part, to her social networking on Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon and Delicious, and her advocacy on behalf of the celiac and autism communities. "I have about 30 bloggers talking about me right now," she says.

"What about mainstream advertising?" I ask. She asks her marketing director and reports back. "We really don't have to."

There were several reasons for the recent name change, Cole says, including a sudden glut of brands with gluten-free in their titles. Buyers were getting confused. She thought the best way to differentiate herself would be to make herself the differentiating factor.

"The company is about me, and it is about my story, and I wanted to personalize it more," she says. "And I can't tell you how much it has changed the course of my business."

1 comment about "Taking Gluten Free Into The Mainstream ".
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  1. Susan Von Seggern from SvS PR, February 25, 2011 at 1:07 p.m.

    Yup gluten free is blowing up right now. My client Tia's Bakery has gone national after just 2 years in business. Being delicious is the key in any food marketing but certainly the community and social aspect of gluten free is driving sales. The gluten free consumer relates to the real personal stories like Shari and Brittany Cole's (amazing!) or Marilyn King's at http://tiasbakeryblog.com/the-story-of-tia/. Plus as more research appears on the value of a gluten free lifestyle for those who are gluten sensitive while maybe not fully celiac, the market will continue to expand.

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