Last week, I was lucky enough to have a little interview with Chris Hook, the MD of Warburtons Gluten Free division – the Newburn Bakery. I contacted him because I was curious to find out what was behind the rebrand and have noticed that they are expanding their product range and it all looks rather interesting. He must be a very busy man, so I was impressed that he took the time to speak to me. The insights I gained were fascinating, so I thought I should share them.
Chris has worked in gluten free baking for over 25 years. He was behind the UK launch of the Dietary Specials brand, which he sold in 2010. In that time Chris saw gluten free foods go from being something that was available only on prescription to a product that was becoming more and more mainstream.
Warburtons entered the gluten free market in 2011. They were aware of the demand from their existing customer base, and also the MD Jonathan Warburton, has a niece who has to follow a gluten free diet, so it was a natural development. Chris Hook joined in 2012 as Warburtons were not altogether happy with their start and were looking for someone with more experience. Chris hired a development baker and they spent a lot of time and effort in improving the product.
As someone who has been buying their bread since the launch, I have noticed the improvement – in taste and texture. Like many gluten free foods, I thought it was a bit dusty and incredibly ‘fragile’ before. It definitely holds its form better now and tastes much better.
The recent launch of the Newburn Bakery was to reassure customers that this bread is totally safe from cross contamination as it is produced in a separate bakery. It is in fact a purpose built bakery, solely for the production of the gluten free products, and it is located in Newburn, which is a small suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne.
I asked Chris Hook if he had noticed any regional trends in the popularity of gluten free foods. I was curious because I once read that people who live close to where wheat is grown have a higher propensity to allergy/sensitivity. So I thought that perhaps his sales figures might back it up. Turns out that sales are higher in the South East, but they attribute that to the current ‘trend’ for gluten free eating and the fact that those in the South East tend to have higher disposable income and are less likely to be put off by the price.
Chris feels that the massive surge in sales for gluten free products currently, is as much down to trend and lifestyle as it is Coeliac disease or wheat allergy. Those with confirmed diagnoses receive food on prescription and collect from chemists, so the supermarket sales are probably from those who are intolerant or just curious to try it.
I call it the Gwyneth Paltrow effect. Her new book about cooking and living a dairy free, gluten free life, sounds interesting but is slightly misleading, as people think it will result in weight loss and a figure like hers. Those suffering from conditions that necessitate a restricted diet realise that it is not true and probably find it barmy that anyone would choose to make life so difficult (and expensive) for themselves by going gluten free for no good reason.
No matter what the reasons are there is no denying that the market is growing and you will probably not be surprised to learn that Warburtons have reported huge sales last year and are predicting even more for this year and next.
Heartened by their success they have started innovating with products and have recently broadened their range – the most recent addition is a wrap. They have worked hard at ensuring it is soft and as much like a ‘normal’ wrap as possible. Never an easy task as it is gluten that makes bread stretchy and soft. I also noticed on the packaging that these do contain milk, so not suitable for us sadly, but no doubt this will be a very popular product, as it is always nice to have options for those packed lunches.
Finding the wraps could be a challenge though, as not all supermarkets are stocking them. They were launched in Tesco in March and are not yet in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose. They are available online and soon Warburtons are launching a home delivery service in conjunction with retailers, so keep an eye on their website for more information about that.
In the meantime Warburtons would like customers to get involved. They want to know if the wrap should become a permanent feature on the free-from supermarket shelves. So they have set up a facebook page where you can comment. It is always good to support innovation, so they will get my support, even though Zac can’t eat them. https://www.facebook.com/NewburnBakehouse/app_281827978617848
To finish here is a nice quote from Chris and some interesting facts.
“We are committed to ensuring that those with food intolerances or allergies and those who choose not to eat gluten or wheat as part of their diet can enjoy Warburtons products within the same standards of quality and freshness that families across the UK enjoy with our core product range. “We have set some ambitious targets for the Newburn Bakehouse range and are confident that these can be achieved thanks to our dedicated expert team of free-from bakers, combined with generations of baking passion and commitment to quality synonymous with the Warburtons brand.”
There has been a 30% rise in gluten and wheat free customers since 2010. There has been an 18% sector growth in free-from bakery products alone. Wheat-free and gluten- free products now account for almost 50% of the free-from food market. Warburtons are leading the way in product innovation, doubling in size with sales of £5.7 million in 2012. Despite being in the market only two years, Warburtons represents 22% of the total free-from bakery market.
So here’s hoping that all that success will result in even more new and improved products, appearing on the supermarket shelves sooner rather than later. Well done Warburtons and thanks Chris.
 Mintel, Meat-free and Free-from Foods – UK – September 2012
 The Nielsen Company, Total Coverage value sales 52 w/e 13.10.12
 Mintel, Meat-free and Free-from Foods – UK – September 2012
 The Nielsen Company, Total Coverage value sales 52 w/e 13.10.12 – Warburtons free-from range grew by 143%
 Kantar WorldPanel, Value sales 52 w/e 30.09.12