Whole Foods Markets announced Monday the opening of its first dedicated gluten-free baking facility. Distributing to nine Whole Foods and Harry's Farmers Market stores in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the bakery in suburban Raleigh, N.C., produces 27 kinds of baked goods in the new 8,000-square-foot facility. The Austin, Texas-based company expects to expand distribution to Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., by November.
The new line of gluten-free goods includes breads, cookies, scones, biscuits, pizza crusts, whole pies and brownies developed by a Whole Foods team dedicated to experimenting with recipes without wheat, rye, barley and other grains to which customers, especially those with celiac disease, might be sensitive.
Elaine Monarch, founder and executive director of the Celiac Disease Foundation, said opening the new bakery was a good move for Whole Foods, but said she is now hoping for another one to be opened on the West Coast.
"It's a burgeoning market," said Monarch. "According to recent studies, as many as one out of every 133 people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease. That's 2 million people."
Indeed, Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com, released a report last month that noted, "In 2003, retail sales of baked goods, flour and pasta that were marketed as 'free from' wheat, soy, gluten or other common allergens reached $336 million, up nearly 27 percent from 2002 and more than double the $150 million in sales registered in 1999." The overall market for food allergy and intolerance products could reach $3.9 billion by 2008, up from an estimated $2 billion now, the company projected in its report, "The U.S. Market for Food Allergy and Intolerance Products."
Whole Foods carries gluten-free products from other companies in addition to its private-label line. But, Monarch said, "How many manufacturers are there now? Few."
Steve Warnert, director of sales and marketing for Amy's Kitchen, which produces some gluten-free products, said Whole Foods' growth in the gluten-free category won't threaten his company. "We see this as completely good news for everyone," he said.
Whole Foods officials declined to comment, citing a policy of not granting interviews to the trade press.
"We would be very surprised not to see continued expansion of gluten-free products, as well as other solutions for diet-restricted shoppers," said Warnert, adding that demand for gluten-free products is not related to short-term interest, like the demand for low-carb products.