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In parents' quest, an opportunity

Bakers rush to fill need for allergy-free foods

Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Globe Correspondent / November 19, 2007

Kyle Wanda was almost 3 years old when he had an allergic reaction to a pistachio that he ate. He broke out in hives and his voice became "froggy" because his throat was swelling, his mother, Alane, recalled. "It became very apparent that something really bad was happening."

Six years later, Alane Wanda still carries two doses of epinephrine with her in case Kyle's allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, coconut, and sesame are triggered. The Northborough mother of three also watches everything that he eats - a task she says has become easier in the last couple years thanks to the expanding "free-of" foods market.

"When I go to Hannaford Supermarkets or Stop & Shop I see products that years ago I could only find online," she said.

With more than 12 million Americans afflicted by food allergies, business is booming for specialty food manufacturers who have perfected such products as egg-free cakes and frosting, gluten-free cookies, and nut-free trail mix.

In January 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act came into effect, requiring manufacturers to state whether their products may contain any of the more common food allergens. For companies already producing "free of" foods, this was a business opportunity.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, located in New York City, estimates that 200 of its 2,500 members now offer products that are noallergenic, accounting for approximately 7,000 items.

"Looking back five years, we had about 50 companies that offered those products equaling about 2,000 items," said Ron Tanner, NAASF vice president for communications and education. "As specialty food manufacturers and importers look at what is being demanded by consumers, they are adapting their products to allow people to have full taste and flavor while following a restricted diet."

Cherrybrook Kitchen, with headquarters in Burlington, saw the allergen labeling law as a boost to its business. Its line of baking mixes includes gluten-free, nut-free, and dairy-free cakes, and egg-free brownies and pancakes. Chief executive Chip Rosenberg, 39, said first-year sales for 2005 were $600,000, and revenue the second year increased by 200 percent.

"When we started, our five-year plan was to hit $6 million in sales," said Rosenberg. "And we're on target to reach that." Wife Patsy, 37, does all of the company's product development and marketing.

Cherrybrook Kitchen really began seven years ago, when Patsy started experimenting in her Weston kitchen after developing allergies to tree nuts, seafood, eggs, and dairy. In 2004, feeling that they were on to something big, the couple attended Expo East, a food trade show held in Baltimore. They brought 40 cakes and 300 cookies that they had made by hand for retailers to sample.

"We came away with several interested retailers who placed orders once we had some distributors in place," said Rosenberg. They were picked up by United Natural Foods, the largest publicly traded wholesale distributor to the natural and organic foods industry, and Kehe Food Distributors Inc. located in the Chicago area.

Patsy said it took her about one year to perfect the chocolate cake recipe, and another six months to get the other five products in their original line to where she wanted them. Soon after, their mixes were being sold at Whole Foods in New England, and SuperTarget stores; Chip left his job as a real estate developer and an overnight camp director. By August of 2005 their products were available nationwide.

"In March of 2008 our products will also be sold in 1,000 Pier 1 Imports locations, which will put our store count at over 6,500 in the United States," said Chip. Their products are also available in parts of Australia, the Netherlands, and England, and can be found at cherrybrookkitchen.com online.

The couple's plant in Brockton produces about 1,000 cases of product per day. Staff mix the raw ingredients, then take samples in the beginning, middle, and end of each run to test for allergens, which are sent to an outside lab. All products are held in the warehouse until the results come back negative, which all have so far, according to Patsy.

Cherrybrook is one of many producers of specialty foods for the allergen-avoiding in the region. Ian's Natural Foods Inc. in Revere makes wheat-free, gluten-free chicken nuggets, fish sticks, and corn dogs, and also soy cheese french bread pizza. Jill Robbins of Windham, N.H., started baking safe treats for her son when she realized he was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and dairy. In 2005, she turned her project into a business, producing and distributing Gak's Snacks, a line of cookies and coffee cakes that are safe for people with allergies.

Each year food allergies cause roughly 30,000 episodes of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction which can cut off a victim's ability to breathe. Such episodes account for between 100 and 200 deaths per year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Deb Scherrer, director of educational programs at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, said that between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies in children have doubled. Membership in the network has also increased, from 17,000 in 1997 to 30,000 today .

Scott Mandell, cofounder of Enjoy Life Foods, saw the opening in the niche market while working toward his MBA in 2000. The other cofounder, whom he met in class, echoed the challenges that his mother had in finding allergy-free foods.

"We took it on as a class project, but the more we got behind the numbers and saw the opportunity, it really made sense," said Mandell; in 2001 he left his job as a commercial banker in Chicago. Mandell said that in 2003 Enjoy Life Foods, based in Chicago, had $450,000 worth of revenue; in 2005 they took in $2.2 million, and this year Mandell estimates he should be in the neighborhood of $8 million by the end of December.

According to Mintel, a market research firm in Chicago that specializes in the food industry, gluten-free foods and beverages in the United States were worth roughly $700 million in 2006. Annual growth estimates of 15 percent to 25 percent are reasonable, they say, projecting approximately $1.3 billion in sales by 2010.

Indigo Rabbit offers gluten-free cookies along with its other nonallergic products. Founder Sandy Foster, 38, began her business, which specializes in vegetable-infused treats, two years ago out of her Northborough kitchen. She's moved twice to larger spaces, and is now at a baking facility in Boston.

"We launched August 2005," said Robbins. "At the end of 2005, we were in four stores. Now at the end of 2007, we have 15 active stores." Robbins said she also gets a lot of traffic on her website, indigorabbit.com.

"When kids are really little you can kind of turn your back when the birthday cake is served or at a playgroup, when the doughnuts and muffins come out," said Robbins. "But after a while, everything social revolves around food."

Boston Globe correspondent Elizabeth Flock contributed to this report. Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

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