March 4, 2010

Gluten-free on the rise

ANN S

— By . KIM

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Wed.,Oct.7 2009. Mary Stefano is the sole proprietor of Gramma Mill's Gluten Free Foods based out of her home in Standish. This is a label from her cake mix.

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Wed.,Oct.7 2009. Mary Stefano is the sole proprietor of Gramma Mill's Gluten Free Foods based out of her home in Standish. She is seen here mixing pizza crust.

Staff Writer

STANDISH — Mary Stefano makes her gluten-free mixes at the counter in her tidy kitchen. She combines dry ingredients in a bin with gloved hands, scoops the mix into plastic bags, weighs each package on a digital scale and squeezes out the excess air.

She'll work at it for hours at a time, sometimes with help from her family. She does it during her days off from her job as a nurse, and in the hours between shifts.

''I'll come home, shower, go to sleep, wake up and make more,'' she said.

She now produces enough of Gramma Mill's Gluten Free Foods mixes to supply 170 Hannaford stores and another 90 accounts, said her husband, Joe Stefano, a veteran of the food industry.

That's pretty much the maximum output they can expect from the kitchen counter, so the Stefanos are planning to find a production facility -- and investors -- and eventually add eight to 10 employees to the operation.

Gramma Mill's is among an increasing number of Maine-based businesses that are banking on the growing popularity of gluten-free products.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye. It may also be in products ranging from luncheon meats to sauces to beer to candy.

People may avoid gluten because of celiac disease, a condition in which gluten can damage the small intestine, or because of an intolerance to the protein. Others may avoid gluten because someone in their household is sensitive to it, or they think it's beneficial to avoid it.

The gluten-free market has grown an average of 33 percent in each of the past four years, according to Packaged Facts, a market research publisher. Last year, 1,182 new gluten-free food and beverage products were introduced in the United States and 225 marketers began selling products.

''It's been building for some time,'' Michael Norton, a spokesman for Hannaford Bros., said of the trend. ''I think it's really catalyzed in the last few years.''

Gramma Mill's Gluten Free Foods began in January 2007. It now offers 16 products -- mixes for baked goods including bread, brownies and pizza crust, and a mix that can be used as a seafood batter or crumb coating. The business is not yet profitable, but the Stefanos are optimistic about its potential.

The products were developed because of the Stefanos' need to remove gluten from the diet of their son Marco.

Five years ago, when he was 15, he started suffering from depression and anxiety. A cousin with similar issues had responded well when gluten was removed from his diet. The Stefanos followed suit and Marco's well-being improved.

Gluten-free products were often a disappointment. Pizza crusts, for example, might have the consistency of strawberry shortcake or a kitchen counter, but nothing close to the real thing.

So Mary Stefano went to work with potato starch, tapioca and brown rice flour to make better versions. Co-workers and friends told her they couldn't tell the foods were gluten-free.

Like the Stefanos, Kelley Hughes learned about gluten-free foods out of necessity. Four years ago, she found that her skin problems and joint pain went away when she took gluten out of her diet.

Hughes, who had a gardening business, started baking at home. The idea for her current business, Wildflours Gluten-Free Market and Bakery, was born.

Hughes opened the business in downtown Brunswick in November. She didn't expect it to be very close to profitable at this point, but she said it is.

''It's a bit of a surprise, given the economy. The goal was to survive,'' said Hughes, who is adding employees.

Tracey Tolson, a chef, and her husband, Walter, were thinking about gluten when they started Cielo Sauce Works in their home in Gorham.

In February, he started giving away samples of his wife's pasta sauce. The first would-be recipient, a woman with celiac disease, told him she didn't know whether she could eat it. Some quick research proved that she could.

''It's a great niche for the business,'' said Walter Tolson, who works in insurance. ''We didn't plan on going that way.''

Chris Roberts makes 5,000 dog biscuits a day in the bakery and production facility in the basement of his home in Stockton Springs.

He and his partner, Renée Johnson, started Barkwheats Dog Biscuits about a year ago, after learning about dogs with sensitivities to grain products. The biscuits are flavored with products like chamomile, ginger and parsley, which are meant to provide health benefits.

He believes that some customers are motivated by their dogs' food allergies while others like supporting a Maine business that is supplied by Maine growers.

Sometimes customers turn to his dog biscuits because of their own health issues.

''In some instances, where it's not the dog that has the gluten intolerance, but the owner is celiac,'' he said, ''they don't have to have a sock on their hand when they feed their dog a treat.''

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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