When you have an intolerant child, or allergies of your own, you can spend what feels like a huge part of your life constantly looking out for new and interesting – and safe – foods to try. One of the brands that has caught my eye many times is Isabel’s www.isabelsfreefrom.co.uk
The range seems to be expanding and looks very interesting, but is mostly gluten free and not dairy free, so I decided to make contact with Isabel Gordon – the founder of Isabel’s Cuisine and see if I could find out more about her, her products and the potential for any new dairy free products to be added to her line. I love supporting independent ‘free from’ brands and am always keen to know how they got started and what their plans are. So we had ‘a little interview’ and here it is. Hope you find it interesting.
1) Where are you from/based?
I’ve moved to the UK from Brazil in 1990’s, some 24 years ago, initially to London, but fell in love with Yorkshire and decided to set some roots up here. That was in 1996. Isabel’s Cuisine was established in 2005 producing naturally gluten-free pre-mixes in the UK. (Formerly Brazilian Flavours Ltd to reflect the origin of the main ingredients used to create my products.)
2) How old are you/where do you live?
I’m now 46 years old and live in a small village between Bradford and Leeds with my husband and our three children.
3) What did you do before you launched the business?
I used to work with computers, inputting research data and administration. But before I started my business I was looking after my young family. I was beginning to consider going back to work and was wondering what else I could do. Whilst searching for ideas, I recognised that I had a long standing love for cooking and food science and decided to explore that general area. I am an enthusiastic person and thought that perhaps I could share some of my knowledge of little-known foods, ingredients and recipes.
4) What made you decide to produce gluten free food?
Producing gluten free food just happened naturally – I didn’t choose this area specifically, but naturally ‘landed’ in it because of the knowledge I had of using certain ingredients through a series of coincidences, random events and circumstances! For example, the first product I decided to produce was by chance naturally gluten free. I set up my brand new factory and I started making the product, then came across a major obstacle – the product was frozen ready to bake, and the freezer isles in the supermarkets were in decline and I could not sell the product in enough volume to make the business viable. So I was forced to look closer at the products unique selling points and its format to find another way into the market. Meanwhile, I was approached by Salvos a very well-known Italian restaurant in Leeds. They were looking for help to create the ultimate gluten free pizza base and so I came up with my second and most popular product. Similar things happened to some of the other products in Isabel’s range such as our Yorkshire puds mix, which initially was developed at the request a household name manufacturer. But it was attending Coeliac UK Group’s food fairs around the country and meeting many of the people who use or potentially would use my products that really gave some real purpose. I feel personally involved with the gluten free community and truly enjoy coming up with new product ideas that made difference. My main objective is to create gluten free foods that are easy to prepare and therefore convenient, 100 percent natural and so tasty, shareable by the whole family, and helping to avoid cross-contamination and anyone being ‘glutened’.
5) Do you or any of your family suffer with coeliac disease or intolerance?
Isabel’s brand of foods was not inspired by personal food allergies or intolerance in my own family. The reason I started to develop gluten free products was more to do with my background. I am originally from South America, and South Americans are less dependent on wheat flours, preferring to use many varieties of gluten free flours to create everyday foods such as breads, biscuit, cakes and so on, because of their lightness or special flavours. Flours such as corn meal, cassava flour, cornflour, arrowroot are some of the favourites. Foremost, my enthusiasm for developing recipes, knowledge of unusual ingredients and love for natural foods led me into producing gluten free foods.
6) Did you produce any non GF foods first, or did you go straight into gluten free?
My first product was our Pizza Express-style dough balls, which is naturally gluten free and of course, it isn’t just people with gluten intolerance who enjoy these tasty snacks. They are very moreish Brazilian speciality snack breads which can be enjoyed by non coeliacs also.
7) When did you decide to do that and how long did it take to get to the point where you had a product to launch in stores?
Getting our foot in the door was nearly impossible, and everyone who’s been successful knows that more often than not the success comes down to a combination of hard work and good luck. It took 3 years of hard work until I had a product which potentially could be successfully launched into the market. So I just kept knocking on those doors.
8) Which was the first store to stock your products?
The first store to stock our products was Waitrose – I was so pleased when I received the call from their buyer! It was like a dream about a buyer searching for the best products in the land to place on their supermarket shelves for their customers to find.
9) How easy/difficult was it to get the first ‘deals’?
Securing our first order was not so easy at all. At the time when the Waitrose’s buyer got in touch, the product they were looking for was not quite ready and I had not one sample I could send for him to consider. I ended up missing his deadline and it took a further 2 years and a half to actually get the product onto Waitrose shelves. Securing our first deal was a real turning point for the company and was just what we needed to help the business to grow.
10) How did you persuade them to give him the shelf space? Were the sales good from the outset?
Isabel’s products have always been about innovation, and bring fresh ideas to the gluten free market. Product development and innovation are an essential component of our business success. I think that wasn’t so much what we did to persuade them to give us shelf space, but that particular Waitrose buyer at the time had a wonderful open and eclectic attitude to bringing in as many innovative gluten free products as possible. I don’t think it happens very often, I personally haven’t come across a buyer like him before or after that.
11) What have been the biggest challenges to date?
When I started out my business I didn’t know what I was doing. I had some skills, a lot of enthusiasm and I had a dream: to work for myself. It was a massive learning curve and I went through a lot of trial and error situations. In the early days progress was more like an arrested development, I made a lot mistakes. The challenges were many, but the ones that were and still are the biggest hurdles of running the business are: navigating the business through a recession, trying to secure funding (almost impossible for small businesses) and placing the products into retailers where consumer can easily buy them. Getting listed with the multiples is a lengthy process, expensive, requires a great amount of tenacity and a good measure of luck. It is not enough to have good products – consumer support and involvement has been essential to Isabel’s throughout our 8 years in business.
12) What are your hopes for the future of the brand?
Thanks to consumer pressure, some of the multiples and online retailers are starting to see potential, making more gluten free foods widely available. And that’s very encouraging for a brand such as Isabel’s which has a lot to offer and can deliver innovation in abundance. My goal has always been to help revive gluten free home-baking, offering coeliacs more exciting and convenient home-bake products that are quick and easy to use, healthier and tastier than the usual offerings. I believe we’ll continue to grow and do just that.
13) What is your general opinion of the free from food market?
The ‘Free-from’ food market is growing rapidly as over half of all Brits claim to have food intolerances, and all the major food manufacturer are looking to gain a slice of this fastest growing sector. This can only be good for consumers who have been waiting for a long time to have more variety of products available.
Isabel’s brand is evolving to reflect the company’s new positioning within the competitive ‘free from’ sector. The modern, fresh packaging and striking new colours have been created to clearly highlight the nutritional benefits of the products and aim to target consumers wanting better, more natural gluten free solutions.
14) Are any of your products dairy free? If not, are you considering creating dairy free products?
Since attending the Allergy Show in London last year I realised that there is a big call to produce more foods which are dairy free. We currently have only two products in our range which are free from dairy; however we have received many requests to produce some of our flours blends dairy free. I’m constantly developing new products and coming with new ideas – and there will be some exciting new products free from dairy and gluten coming up in 2014.
So thanks Isabel – for speaking to me and bringing your products to market. Best of luck with future innovations.