Red Plate’s Top 8 Allergen Free products were turned down this morning by a smaller chain of specialty grocery stores. Despite all our marketing materials leading with “Nut Free | Vegan | Gluten Free”, the bakery buyer’s reason was “We have enough gluten free product right now.” I countered with “Red Plate products are also nut free, soy free and vegan”. The buyer answered, “We don’t get many requests for that in our bakeries.”
I’m feeling frustrated, yet hopeful that those of you who are affected by food allergies and intolerances can help turn this “no” into a “yes”. Indulge me while I give you the background and then ask for help on behalf of small “Free From” food companies.
My personal trips to the grocery store start with the produce section, down the refrigerated aisle to grab Earth Balance soy free buttery spread and straight to checkout. Like many of you, rarely are packaged goods safe for me or my family to eat. The deli might as well have skull and cross bones signs plastered on every glass surface due to dairy cross contact. The gluten free section just taunts, dangling new possibilities, only to have hope dashed by reading the phrase “Processed in a facility with…” and back to the shelf the package goes.
My husband and I started Red Plate Foods almost two years ago making “Free From” baked goods, wanting more great tasting, safe, clean label products for ourselves and other families. We weren’t looking to get rich and we weren’t naïve – the food business chews up startup companies and spits them out. With hard work and some luck, we’ve had enough success to persist. Red Plate Foods gourmet baked goods are sold online and in almost 60 grocery stores and cafes in Oregon and Washington, with monthly sales at the majority of those locations growing. We have a five star rating on our Facebook page and glowing customer testimonials emailed almost daily. So why am I writing to you?
Because in so many ways, it isn’t enough. Sixty locations isn’t enough to sustain a food manufacturing business and it CERTAINLY isn’t enough to serve the needs of the nearly 15 million people diagnosed with food allergies (never mind intolerances) in the U.S. looking for safe food options. These are significant and growing numbers, yet grocery store and restaurant decision makers don’t know the real size of the market. 15 million people is nothing to sneeze at, but consider that their families also buy groceries and eat out, too. Now we’re talking about earning the loyalty of a large segment of U.S. consumers.
For those managers who are more aware, they frequently offer one GF/vegan menu item and assume the audience has been pacified. Or grocery shelves offer two or three of Enjoy Life’s products, and the store considers their obligation to the food allergy community met. Personally, I would like more choices.
As a shopper, you correctly assume that not much is available for you in the bakery or on those middle aisles. Like me, you quietly grab what works for your family and automatically respond “Yes, thank you” when the checkout clerk asks if you found everything today. Next time, pause for a second and think about your real answer. My real answer is “HECK no, I didn’t find everything I was looking for. I haven’t found THAT since my first visit to the allergist.”
How can you, a single food allergy advocate help drive change? In three simple ways:
- Ask the restaurant or store manager manager to carry food allergy safe products. Your shopper’s request carries 100X the weight of my company sales pitch. Give them specific brands written down on a note. And find that manager again a week later. Ask if any progress has been made on ordering the items you want. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Happen to have noticed the gluten free revolution? Customer driven.
- Buy the products you asked for. I know, I know – they’re expensive. With four kids to feed, I sympathize. But if you don’t purchase regularly, these products will disappear off the shelf. If lots of people like you purchase, manufacturer’s prices can go down. Red Plate saves up to 20% on some raw ingredients as soon as we have the volume to purchase in the pallet load, and we will pass that along to you, the customer.
- Buy online. This supports startup food companies, giving us real sales data to win retail shelf space and money to expand marketing and operations. It also gives you more product selection as a shopper.
If we all work together, you and I will someday pay for our groceries with a smile and honestly say “Yes, I found everything I was looking for today.”