Let Them Eat (Gluten-Free) Cake

The trend toward gluten-free eating contributes to a healthy bottom line.

Eric Pateman, president, Edible Canada | BCBusiness
Eric Pateman goes gluten-free at Edible Canada.

The trend toward gluten-free eating contributes to a healthy bottom line.

When Margaret Dron organized Vancouver’s first Gluten Free Expo last January, she knew she was tapping a flush niche. Still, she launched cautiously into the gluten-free community, considering the expo a soft pilot. “We didn’t have a Facebook page; we weren’t tweeting,” explains the 32-year-old entrepreneur, who has 11 years of experience in strategic marketing. Following a week of radio and newspaper advertising, she expected anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people would show up to check out 40 gluten-free food exhibitors. But she underestimated word of mouth. “Friends were calling friends,” she says. “I looked at people who were booking tickets online, and they were booking five, six tickets at a time.”

By the end of that rainy Sunday, 3,000 people had jostled for food samples and listened to talks on avoiding gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, and that’s in foods such as bread, pasta and soy sauce. And when she looked at post-fair surveys, Dron was surprised that a minority of the attendees had celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder for which the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet, for life; two-thirds of those who came to the expo were simply interested in the gluten-free lifestyle.

It helps explain why B.C. businesses big and small are getting into the gluten-free game. Abbotsford’s Silver Hills Sprouted Bakery rolled out its first line of gluten-free bread in January, selling to retailers such as Save-On-Foods. Burnaby’s FX-Foods launched its Martin’s Marvelous Naturals line of gluten-free granola and crackers last fall. And, in just over a year, five new gluten-free retail bakeries have opened in Metro Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Whole Foods Market regional grocery buyer Joe Kennedy says that his stores continue to increase gluten-free stock because customers are asking for it. A quick search on its website unearths 1,690 gluten-free product options and recipes. “It’s not just the folks with severe allergies, but folks who are looking, for dietary reasons or health reasons, to cut gluten out of their diet,” he says, noting that while the trend can be seen company-wide for Whole Foods, health-conscious Vancouverites have been quick to pick it up.

Several B.C. restaurants have also responded to diners’ requests for gluten-free options. Milestones Grill + Bar highlights gluten-free options, such as brown-rice spaghettini, on its regular menu, and Joey Restaurant Group, Cactus Restaurants Ltd. and Earls Restaurants Ltd. each offer specific “gluten friendly” or “gluten aware” menus on customer demand. (None of the restaurants keep gluten-free kitchens, and therefore don’t guarantee against cross-contamination, which is crucial for celiac sufferers.)

“It’s a significant trend,” says Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, pointing to a U.S. National Restaurant Association survey of chefs listing the top 20 menu trends for 2012: gluten-free and allergy-conscious cooking ranked number seven. In B.C., Tostenson puts the trend on par with peanut allergies, and notes that casual dining chains, which “tend to be more aware of market trends,” are taking it seriously.

When Eric Pateman, president of Edible Canada Culinary Experiences Corp., opened Edible Canada Bistro on Granville Island last summer, he designed all the menu items to be gluten-free or easily modifiable (by substituting rice-flour hamburger buns for wheat-flour buns, for example). Pateman’s choice to embrace the gluten-free trend was partly personal; he and four of his 13 staff members have celiac disease. But it was also a business move. Of some 300 diners, “we probably get 20 people a day asking for wheat-free products,” he says. Rather than making gluten-free menu modifications for those who needed them, it was more efficient to design all the dishes gluten-free. With radically better gluten-free ingredients on the market, he says, regular diners can’t tell the difference.

In Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Arlene Kennedy opened Mygoodness! Gluten & Wheat-Free Kitchen Ltd. to offer better options to people with celiac disease, including her daughter. But since she launched in May 2011, she has found that about 30 per cent of her customers aren’t diagnosed celiacs, but just prefer not to eat wheat. Kennedy, who spent 10 years in the corporate world helping others market their small businesses, is not worried that gluten-free eating might be a passing fad, and cites a greater awareness of celiac disease, which is frequently misdiagnosed. To date, she can’t keep up with demand. “My next step is to expand into the wholesale market,” she says. “Now, every second restaurant or coffee shop sees the need to offer gluten-free products.”

Clearly, Vancouverites are hungry for gluten-free eating. The Gluten Free Expo’s Dron is also betting that gluten-free eating is more than a passing fad. At press time, Dron was incorporating her company, Gluten Free Canada, into GF Events Ltd., which she hopes will become a go-to source for gluten-free events and information. “We’re expanding our business, looking at different ways to help the gluten-free community,” she says, citing cooking classes as an example. When she launched a free email newsletter in March, 3,000 people signed up.

Dron is planning Vancouver’s second Gluten Free Expo for January 2013, with more than double the number of exhibitors. This September, she’s also staging Toronto’s first Gluten Free Expo, and aiming to attract 100 exhibitors and at least 5,000 attendees. Using the power of media partnerships, food bloggers and social media, Dron says they will be marketing future expos “much, much more aggressively.”

And then, of course, there’s always word of mouth.