Cookie market: Enjoying gluten-free treats
It’s Celiac Awareness month, so we explore Enjoy Life Foods, the first bakery to gain gluten-free certification from the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO). In business 12 years, Enjoy Life’s mission is to make great-tasting, allergy-free, gluten-free cookies, bars and grab-and-go foods that nearly everyone can ‘eat freely’ without worry.
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Bakers and other food companies are rapidly developing new products that cater to consumer demands for foods free of gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts and the rest of the top eight allergens, also known as “free-from” foods.
Eliminating these components from diets isn’t anything new, but searching for foods that are free-from the top eight allergens is relatively new, according to Packaged Facts. That’s why Enjoy Life Foods was created.
Based in Schiller Park, Ill., the privately owned, 12-year-old company produces gluten-free, casein-free snacks, cookies, snack bars, baking chocolate chips, lentil snack chips (appropriately called Plentils), cereal/granola, a no-nut trail mix and other foods formulated to be non-allergic in a dedicated gluten-free, allergen-free facility.
Initially, Enjoy Life launched about a dozen items. It has since expanded to some 43 different stock-keeping units (SKUs) across eight product categories. If kept sealed, the cookies, snack bars, granola, trail mix and chocolate chips are shelf-stable for six months. Everything is free of wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, fish and shellfish. No peanuts or tree nuts enter the production facility, and for extra security, Enjoy Life performs peanut rapid tests (tests that provide quick results ) to ensure the highest levels of safety and quality.
Everything is also free of dairy sugars (lactose) and dairy protein (casein), so people with lactose or the casein allergies/intolerances can “eat freely,” which is a ubiquitous tagline across all of the product packaging.
The chocolate chips and chunks the company uses in its cookies and bars and now markets (they were launched in October 2013) are produced offsite, but also in a dedicated gluten-free and nut-free facility. “We take allergens very seriously,” notes Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer. “We test down to 2.5 parts per million for dairy.” What’s incredible is that even though Enjoy Life’s products contain no artificial ingredients, they taste really good.
“Things have really changed in 12 years with gluten-free products,” Warady points out. “That’s why our company is growing dramatically. Our products taste delicious, but they’re rather difficult to make. In fact, it takes about two years to develop each item because it has to taste good. That’s the most difficult thing, especially as the taste bar has been raised significantly over the last few years. Also, the nutrition demand is much higher now than ever before.”
Cofounded in 2001 by CEO Scott Mandell, Enjoy Life bakes and sells its products through a network of natural food and conventional supermarkets, natural food stores, grocery stores and online in the U.S., Canada and internationally. Enjoy Life also recently expanded to selling the products in mass-merchandise stores and clubstores.
The company is certified gluten-free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), is audited annually by Silliker and also has kosher, vegan-friendly and halal-certifications. In addition to its products, Enjoy Life Foods also offers resources, such as a list of support organizations for consumers to live a gluten-free and casein-free lifestyle.
“The GFCO certifies that our products contain less than 10 ppm gluten, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard allows 20 ppm,” Warady says. “We were the first company certified by the GFCO, which sets the standards for all of the GF companies around the world.”
From banking to baking
Mandell, a former banker, and his colleague, Bert Cohen, started Enjoy Life after writing a company business plan as part of a class assignment for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Inspiring the plan was the notion that people with dietary restrictions must frequently sacrifice good taste and nutrition to find allergy-friendly, gluten-free foods. Another driver was Cohen’s mom, who had dietary restrictions. Soon, Mandell’s vision of a baking company that could offer great-tasting, nutritious treats for people on restricted diets became a reality.
“The brand name is positive,” says Mandell of the happy moniker.
After he traded in his business suit for an apron so-to-speak, Mandell found a baker who could work with allergen-free products, and the company began developing cookies, bars and other items. “Early on, a lot of the products were created out of trial and error,” he says. “So it was tough at first. It was a real challenge to make these products the way we wanted them, and convince retailers to take them on. And no question, it was a whole different world for me. I was a commercial lender for a number of years and had some experience with middle-market food manufacturers, but this was really a new market and a new field back then.”
Before starting the company, Mandell didn’t have extensive consumer product experience, and Warady was in the toothbrush business. “We knew some about retail sales and how to run a business, but not too much about how to produce gluten-free foods,” Warady explains. “But early on, Scott made very sound decisions to make it unique. One is that it’s totally gluten-free; another is that it’s free of the top eight allergens. The third is the name: Enjoy Life. While other gluten-free brands have names that speak mainly about the condition [of having a gluten intolerance], ours has a positive message that’s about how you should live life—and a solution.”
Warady says Enjoy Life Foods quickly became number-one in a product category that didn’t exist or wasn’t defined at the time.
Safe production environment
Almost all of products, except the chocolate items and Plentils, are produced in-house. The company ensured that everything within the production facility would be allergen-free, so that people with food intolerances and celiac disease could be comfortable in the fact that all Enjoy Life products are made in a safe environment, Mandell says.
“We want to earn the trust of consumers, so we dedicated our facility to producing these products,” Warady adds. “We produce 70% of the products here. Our chocolate is made at a facility on equipment we own, and our chips are copacked in special rooms. We test all of our products to make sure they measure up to our specifications.”
In January 2006, Enjoy Life moved from Chicago to its present production facility in Schiller Park, which is twice the size of its original bakery. “All of the products have been free of all the common allergens from day one,” Mandell says. “People can trust that we’ve never wavered from that and made a universal brand promise from the start.”
That’s a lot of cookies
Today, with 115 employees, two warehouses and four processing lines generating 47 million cookies a year alone, the 40,050-sq.-ft. production facility is starting to experience growing pains and running out of room to accommodate the company’s rapid growth.
“We’re growing all the time,” Warady says. “In the first nine years, we grew at a steady pace, but then we enhanced our marketing strategies and significantly revamped our packaging graphics to appeal to the conventional retail market and make it easy to find the brand. By 2012, we grew by 41% and in 2013 by another 40%, so we doubled our sales in two years in this difficult economy.” This year, it plans to increase sales by 39%.
Enjoy Life’s top sellers are its cookies, followed by its baking chocolate and snack bars. “Snack bars are a huge category for us, and the salty snack category is doing well,” Warady says. “But we really want to strengthen the salty snack chip category. Plentils chips are unique because three of the flavors are dairy flavors, yet they’re dairy-free. A lot of people like them for their crunch and taste. Many have no idea that Plentils allergen-free.”
Mandell stresses that gluten-free products are now more available than ever before and shouldn’t look like specialty items. “We label ours gluten-free, but not overly so,” he says. “It’s especially important that our products work for kids. The packaging has to look right. We don’t want kids to feel like they’re singled out because they have certain dietary restrictions. That’s very difficult for a child. The whole idea is to get back to normalcy. These taste great and can be enjoyed by everybody.”
Fueled by increased consumer demand, Enjoy Life continues to broaden its distribution into new markets and retail outlets, introducing more line extensions and new products. It recently acquired the Perky’s rice and flax cereal brand, now placing the Perky’s name on the side of the packaging. “Now, when it comes to R&D and new products, we use a third party to help us with product development,” notes Warady. “We produce the ideas and they look at flavor trends and new ingredients. We work hand in hand with them to create things. Perky’s is a great-tasting cereal line, so we know some consumers recognize the name.”
Some of the new flavor trends in Enjoy Life’s lineup include its cheery cobbler dessert bar. “Tart cherries are a trend we wanted to take advantage of,” Warady observes. “We also learned that you just can’t get enough chocolate. The only thing better than chocolate is more chocolate. So we try to include at least two products containing chocolate for every new product variety. Our chocolate granola bar is popular.”
Whole grains and ancient grains are also big sellers, Warady says. “We have reformulated some produtcs to include amaranth, quinoa and some other ancient grains, and want to add protein to a few item,” he explains. “But everything still has to taste good. We might try lentils in new products and are developing things containing rice protein and teff flour.”
Another trend is the acceptance by mass merchants and clubstores. “They are our fastest-growing customer base,” Warady says. “So there’s an expanded awareness of the category.”
Strict ingredient standards
The current production operation combines processing and packaging lines equipped with fully-automatic and semi-automatic equipment. The cookies are loaded by hand into inner trays that are then automatically loaded into cartons.
“Our production is currently partially automated and partially manual,” Mandell explains. “It’s a batch operation. We’re much more automated than we used to be, and with the growth we expect we will continue to automate going forward to have an even more consistent, efficient operation.”
All ingredient suppliers are required to complete noncontamination certificates for every ingredient it purchases. “We carefully evaluate our ingredient suppliers,” says Warady. “For example, we only buy sustainable palm oil and where we can, we make sure the suppliers meet world standards. We also test all of the ingredients we use in-house.”
All production equipment is thoroughly cleaned after every product run, according to good manufacturing procedures. “Every Enjoy Life employee understands the severity of food allergies and intolerances and takes careful precautions to protect our customers,” he adds.
Concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and about preservatives and artificial ingredients have also prompted consumers to look more closely at more “natural” foods and baked goods. “We find the issue of nonGMO products very important and believe that nonGMO-verified will be a driving force,” states Carolyn Wiesemann, marketing associate. “We were recently certified by the Non-GMO Project [a nonprofit organization committed to preserving and building sources of nonGMO products, educating consumers and providing nonGMO-verified choices], and will start applying a new nonGMO statement on our package labels.”
The nonGMO statement is one of the most important for Enjoy Life’s products, Warady says. “NonGMO verification is already huge on the natural food side, but it’s going to be just as critical in the conventional food products market,” he maintains.
“If you build a business around a lifestyle, it can be very risky,” Warady mentions. “We built our brand around the people who have to or want to eat gluten-free because of dietary issues. So gluten-free is not going away; it’s not a fad.”
Raising the bar on taste
Where is Enjoy Life headed? “We keep growing,” Mandell answers. “And we’ll continue to do so. If we stay true to who we are, we’ll have some amazing opportunities going forward. We’ll probably need to increase the size and scope of our production operation to have the capacity we need. We envision having a much bigger facility.”
Warady agrees. “We currently have this one facility and an additional offsite warehouse nearby,” he explains. “We move a lot of our finished goods there, because we need more room.”
At the end of the day, the products are making a lot of people happy and giving them the chance to “enjoy life,” as the brand indicates. “It still comes back to taste,” Mandell adds. “There’s a trust element and a taste element. The taste has to be great. The bar has been raised in the industry on taste. Our goal is to produce products that anyone would love to eat.”
No doubt, Enjoy Life consumers will get more new treat options to, well, enjoy. “We’re most proud of the number of people we’re helping,” Warady concludes. “They don’t tell us, ‘You make a great cookie.’ They say, ‘You’ve changed our lives.’