It used to be that when people thought about gluten-free food, they also thought about...cardboard. Such was the taste profile of the industry's earliest products. But then two 20-something Canadians turned a small-town bakery into the multi-million-dollar empire of Glutino. And nothing has been quite the same since.
Steven Singer, the co-founder of Glutino, created the giant gluten-free company on a hunch.
He and his friend, David Miller, had graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Miller went off to become a lawyer, while Singer, with his political science degree, dabbled in real estate and the textile industry.
"In 1998, we started looking for a business to buy," Singer said. "That's when we learned about an import/export gluten-free line of products called Les Importations DeR0Ma."
Les Importations DeR0Ma was founded by a small Italian family in 1983. It was just a tiny bakery at the time — maybe six employees in total, baking 20 breads a day for the local Montreal markets.
"They were doing only $500,000 in sales. They were losing money and were going to close," Singer said. "But there was something intriguing about it. This whole gluten-free movement was alive in the European markets, so how come it wasn't in North America yet?"
Singer and Miller offered to work at the humble bakery for two months for free just to learn the business and decide if it was a viable investment. During his first day exploring the company, Singer saw a stack of unfilled orders sitting on the counter. Confused, he spoke to the man in charge of shipping and asked why nobody was fulfilling the orders. At that point he realized: there wasn't a lack of demand; there just was a lack of supply.
"From the first day, I was convinced it was the right company to buy," Singer said. "It was like love at first sight."
With no business experience, no knowledge of the food industry, no idea what Celiac Disease was, and no real understanding of what gluten-free meant, Miller and Singer decided to buy Les Importations DeR0Ma in 1999. In honor of the "no gluten" promise, and the founding Italian family, they named it Glutino.
Though it was truly a whim, they put in a fair amount of field work. Among other things, they worked closely with a Finnish researcher who predicted Celiac Disease was just the tip of the iceberg for the gluten-free movement.
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestines when sufferers eat foods with gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and more. Once diagnosed, people with Celiac Disease should not eat any foods with gluten, which can be a challenge considering how many foods contain the protein.
"In 1999, nobody knew anyone who didn't eat wheat, never mind anyone who had Celiac Disease," he said. "That was before ADHD, Autism and trendy Chelsea Clinton-type weddings brought awareness to gluten-free diets."
"Literally on the back of a napkin I said, 'There are 270 to 280 million people in America. If 1 in 10,000 buy gluten-free products, what market share would we have?'" he said. "And if we sold a bread a week, well, it's kind of like selling a toothbrush in China. All you have to do is sell it once to every person and you're a billionaire."
EXCEEDING BACK-OF-NAPKIN DREAMS
Glutino was an instant success. Within the first full year, Singer and Miller took the company from $500,000 in sales to $1.2 million.
"It was strictly from getting inventory. We introduced ourselves to the suppliers in Europe, got a logo, website, and that was it," Singer said. "It was really silly. We were just shipping the orders we had."
On Friday afternoons, they were listening to music, drinking beers, having a good time. They were 26, after all. They had just finished backpacking through Europe and struck gold in this so-called gluten-free movement.
"We really wanted to be the gluten-free company. Not just a gluten-free pasta company. Not just a gluten-free cracker company," he said
They sourced vendors around the globe, secured gluten-free certification, and started creating innovative products for the North American market. They launched bagels, cookies, candy bars, breadsticks, crackers and more. They also offer baking mixes, frozen baked goods and frozen entrées.
"Pretzels have always been our star," Singer said. "The sticks and twists are the equivalent of Rold Gold or Snyder's in the gluten-free world."
Of course, a gluten-free company would be incomplete without a delicious gluten-free bread. That's why Glutino partnered with Genius Gluten Free in the UK, which brings White and Multigrain sandwich breads into the product line. They are delightfully soft and fluffy and — unlike any other gluten-free bread on the market — they are full-size loaves.
Glutino produces its baking mixes, Genius by Glutino bread, cereal bars and bagels in a dedicated 65,000-square-foot gluten-free facility in Laval, Quebec. It's the largest and most state-of-the-art gluten-free facility in North America, the company claims.
"We pride ourselves on the fact that we've never had a gluten-free recall," Singer says. "We take quality control and safety first. We have to make sure no one ever gets sick or has contamination issues."
CORPORATE CULTURE SHIFT
In 2005, the founders sold a part of Glutino to the billionaire Bronfman family in Montreal.
"That changed the culture a little bit," said Singer, who is usually resistant to a buttoned-up corporate culture. "It became more serious. The reporting and finances beefed up, and we were taken from an entrepreneurial, natural-foods start-up to a more equitable corporation."
"I loved that touchy-feely, fun, wear-whatever-you-want, but work-hard and play-hard mentality we created at Glutino," Singer said.
Though the culture may be less playful, the shift certainly worked. Smart Balance acquired Glutino in August 2011. More recently, in July 2012, Smart Balance also acquired Udi's, which had been Glutino's biggest competitor. The combination of both individual companies makes Smart Balance a leader across many gluten-free offerings.
The past 13 years have seen a whirlwind of changes, but one thing has always remained constant for Glutino: The products are developed with the same emphasis on high quality, wholesome ingredients and superior taste as originally promised. Thanks to Glutino, and two young entrepreneurs who listened to their gut, being on a gluten-free diet no longer means "missing out" on your favorite foods. It's a lifestyle. And a tasty one at that.