On gluten-free products for Holly Von Seggern

Whitson's develops retail line to cater to gluten-, soy- casein-free items.

Whitsons Culinary Group, an Islandia, N.Y.-based foodservice management company, has built its business on contracting with schools, colleges and corporations to manage their foodservice programs. But recently the company got into the retail business with a very specific line of products—foods that are gluten- soy- and casein-free. Holly Von Seggern, vice president of marketing and brand management, talked with FoodService Director about the how and why of this unique venture.

Q. Where did the idea for NuLife start?

It started about two years ago, with a conversation over dinner. One of our principals was having dinner with a friend and they were talking about the friend’s daughter who was suffered from autism, and how they were trying a gluten- and casein-free diet. We were asked to do some research and learn more about that world, and we realized that it was an underserved market. No one was really doing anything to help people with multiple allergens. Certainly, there were plenty of gluten-free options on the market, but if you’re allergic to gluten you’re often also allergic to soy. And there’s also that secondary allergy to casein, which is dairy. So we decided we were going to develop a retail line that would meet the needs of that market. We built a lab in house, and we actually test everything we make here, with a tolerance of 10 parts per million.

Q. How have sales been?

There is a website where customers can order products online. It’s called NuLifefoods.com. We have built a small customer base. We’re also opening it up to schools that we serve as well as other clients that might be interested in offering gluten free products. What we’re finding is that people really are looking for a total packaged solution because they have issues with cross-contamination and training of their staff to handle the customers who may have an allergy [or a gluten intolerance]. One of the things about our line is that you can cook right in the packaging, which is very helpful in school districts where you might have team members who aren’t adept at handling these allergens.

Q. Why create a retail line? Why not just create recipes for these items?

This customer base is such a sensitive group that we had to make sure that all of the products are tested. One of the things that we found that was quite surprising when we were sourcing the ingredients is that there are a lot of people out there who claim their products to be free of these allergens, but when we did our testing they were coming up positive for some of those items. In addition, certain gluten-free flours would come up positive for casein or soy. We also wanted to open up these items to the whole country. For example, we are selling to summer camps, because they can order them family style, in bulk or in individual packages. Everything is delivered frozen.

Q. What has been the hardest part about starting something like this?

I would say there are a few pitfalls. The first is sourcing, finding reliable manufacturers of the ingredients you need to be able to offer these products. And then, of course, the other is in the recipe development itself. For example, we go to our chef, John Koutras, and say, we want you to develop this lasagna and you can’t use gluten products and you can’t use dairy products and soy products—oh, and make it taste just like the original. Also, we actually produce these items in a facility that does handle these other allergens. So what we do is manufacture them only on days when we are not producing any other foods. We do swab tests on the equipment and do air sampling before we begin production. It takes time and precision to make sure the equipment is cleaned properly and all of the allergens are stored properly. The testing of the products also takes time. Everything is put on Q.A. hold until the tests come back. We also do third party testing, so that can delay things.

Q. What are your plans moving forward?

Now that we’ve served the most demanding, highly sensitive market, we’re going to be expanding our product line to things that may be only gluten-free or maybe only casein or soy free. Or we may do products to deal with some of the other top eight allergens. We’re also looking to work with a number of hospitals to prepare and package what we’re making now in foodervice quantities for those folks.

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Communication is key, and [managers] are busy too. One tip I picked up from another director was to label my subject line with the header “action,” “information” or “response” followed by a brief description of the email contents. That way they can filter through their inboxes during their busy days to know which emails need their attention immediately and which they can save to read later.

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