“A lot of innovation in the gluten-free and allergy-friendly market is coming out of the cottage industry, people making their own products on a very small scale and then moving into shared facilities,” founder Jamieson Leadbetter told FoodNavigator-USA.
“They are enthusiastic entrepreneurs, but once they start gaining traction they often come up against some big barriers; they don't understand how to scale their products, to change ther formulations to handle that, and they can't certify their products because they are in a shared facility, so they can't get into retailers like Whole Foods.
"I am in the perfect position to help these brands grow. I've got a whole bunch of capacity here that's going to take me a long time to fill, so in the meantime I can take over manufacturing for these smaller businesses, help them scale up and get them certified.
“It makes sense for me because I want to focus on being a baker, not a brand manager,” added Leadbetter, a fourth generation baker who obtained gluten-free certification for his entire 7,000sq ft facility in Dogpatch, San Francisco, from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) earlier this year and is now on the lookout for a larger facility to meet growing demand.
'I want to focus on being a baker, not a brand manager'
“These entrepreneurs want to be out there selling their products, being brand ambassadors, whereas I am responsible for producing the product,” added Leadbetter, who now produces gluten-free products for a range of other brands including gluten-free sourdough brand Bread Srsly, La Onda almond dips, ready to bake, frozen cookie dough Gluten Free Klippy's, Crunch Culture, Mission Heirloom (crackers), as well as his company’s own products – notably a gluten free, buttery egg free pastry dough under the French Picnic brand.
“Bread Srsly was our first client and it is now the #1 selling gluten free bread in Northern California through Whole Foods Market. We’re obviously not trying to be the Nabisco of gluten-free, but our growth curve right now is very steep. Last year (2015) we showed 78% growth over 2014, driven by the gluten-free business.
“Our current site is 7,000 sq ft of which 5,000sq ft is production space [it’s one of just three dedicated gluten-free, allergen-sensitive manufacturing and co-packing facilities on the West Coast] but we’re looking for a 20,000-30,000sq ft facility to meet our growth plans.
"I'd say almost 90% of our business is co-packing for other brands. The rest is our Leadbetter's gluten-free French picnic pastry and white label goods for coffee shops and other businesses."
'I had to think like a food scientist'
Leadbetter, who learned how to bake as a child working in the family business, but successfully pursued multiple careers before he set up Leadbetter's Bake Shop in 2009, admits that transitioning to gluten-free has been a struggle.
“Once I got into gluten free in a big way, I realized I had to abandon all of my instincts as a baker and think like a food scientist, like a chemist, to really think about what’s going on at a molecular level.
“Between our different products we now have eight or nine replacement grains and each recipe has a different proportion of sorghum, or millet or arrowroot or brown rice, amaranth flour or even a pinch of algae flour, but it really comes down to process.
"Everything is different with gluten free. The dough doesn’t behave the same way in depositors and extruders designed for conventional baking, so it’s a lot of trial and error.
'Whoever figures out how to trap gas properly will win'
As to how the quality of gluten-free bakery products today compares with what was on the market a few years ago, he said: “For the gluten free consumer, life is only getting better – the replacement grains are getting better, the blends are better, the emulsifiers. But it depends on the product.
"For cookies and pastries and cupcakes, you can do amazing things [with gluten-free ingredients], but some products still scream that they are gluten free – like baguettes – it’s still really hard to make gluten-free bread with exactly the same texture and volume [of wheat-based bread].
“Whoever figures out how to trap gas properly will win. Right now in gluten free, a lot of the gas in the matrix evaporates and expels from the product because you don’t have the membrane to trap it.
“Xanthan gum tries to replicate what gluten does but it just doesn’t work as well. We also work with psyllium husk powder because a lot of people on a gluten free diet are trying to get away from the gums – xanthan gum, guar gum - but honestly from where I sit right now I don’t know how it’s possible to exactly replicate what gluten does.”