We’re living through the great gluten-free boom. U.S. sales doubled from 2012 to 2014, and are projected to exceed $2 billion in the next few years—with much of that activity in snack foods and bakery. And while analysts have suggested this meteoric growth will likely slow over the next several years, this segment isn’t going anywhere.

Along the way, countless companies latched onto this trend. But a select few have been there all along.

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Bakery on Main, East Hartford, CT, is one such stalwart pioneer. It didn’t conform to the trend. It is the trend. And when other companies shift their focus back to a new flavor of the month, Bakery on Main continues baking premium, nutritious, non-GMO, gluten-free foods for the faithful.

In the beginning

In 1994, Michael Smulders, president, founded a retail natural foods market and bakery, Garden of Light Natural Foods in Glastonbury, CT, that grew to specialize in gluten-free baked goods. “Many customers would come in complaining about the taste, quality and lack of available options in their gluten-free diets,” he says. “I didn’t believe that anyone should have to suffer due to a food allergy or special dietary need. From that point on, I decided to make it my mission to create products that would taste great and be made with the highest quality, so that my customers could live a gluten-free lifestyle and truly be happy.”

Business grew. And in 2003, Bakery on Main was born in the back of that natural-foods retail bakery with the mission to provide healthful, natural, gluten-free baked goods to a wider community. By 2006, the bakery’s granola had achieved national distribution, and the business expanded into a 33,000-square-foot plant.

The next few years saw Bakery on Main grow its product lineup beyond granola to include oatmeal, as well two lines of bars. The roots of the business were firmly established.

Spreading the happiness

Growth continued, and within a few years, the bakery hit is production capacity. In December 2014, Bakery on Main invested more than $10 million into its current 111,000-square-foot dedicated gluten-free, non-GMO, Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 3 facility.

Today, Bakery on Main distributes its products throughout the U.S. and Canada, and into Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean. Domestically, the products are carried by various grocery chains, including Whole Foods Market, as well as mass merchandisers like Target.

“The gluten-free industry has become very competitive over the past few years,” says Smulders. “The expectations of consumers have shifted to wanting gluten-free products that are not only safe for those who live a gluten-free lifestyle, but also want gluten-free products that overall are healthier and more nutritious.”

Gluten-free consumers have seen a notable level of evolution over the past few years. Initially, it was just a matter of plugging holes in their diets. But many first-generation gluten-free products were nutritionally lacking, so health and wellness gradually factored into the equation. This process has also transformed many gluten-free consumers into natural-foods consumers.

Smulders notes an increased interest in ancient grains, super foods, super seeds, low-glycemic sweeteners, increased fiber and increased protein, as well as organic and non-GMO. “Bakery on Main is proud to utilize many of these ingredients, and use only Non-GMO Project Verified ingredients in all of our products,” he says. “People are becoming more health-conscious and want to consume foods that are produced with quality and better ingredients. It challenges us to maximize the quality of our products and continually develop new products that are great-tasting and great for you.”

Fostering innovation

Bakery on Main strode into new territory this past year with its new line of Nut Crunch snacks. The products, all based on a core ingredient lineup of cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans and certified gluten-free oats, are available in Original, Maple Vanilla, Chocolate, Chocolate Orange, Chocolate Peppermint and Blueberry Cobbler. The granola-styled cluster snacks come in resealable, stand-up pouches.

In the first quarter of 2016, Bakery on Main will expand its snacking options with the introduction of a Bunches of Crunches snack line. This new snack line will be available in two varieties, Dark Chocolate Sea Salt with Chia and Coconut Cacao. Featured ingredients include amaranth, millet, chia seeds, and cacao, along with gluten-free oats.

The bar lineup also saw reformulation. “We are in the process of relaunching our granola bars,” says Smulders. “Based on consumer feedback, we saw a push for higher protein, higher fiber and lower sugar, which led us to our 4-4-8 Granola Bars. These new bars are the best of both worlds, giving excellent taste and catering to the consumer’s desires by offering 4 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and only 8 grams of sugar.” Varieties will include Double Chocolate, Peanut Butter & Chocolate, Peanut Butter & Jelly and Oat & Honey.

“We did a lot of research into protein levels, fiber levels and sugar levels—what people really want,” says Smulders. “We looked at some of the bars that were out with 10 grams of protein, and they weren’t selling. We looked at most of the snack bars that are out there, and you see 2 grams of protein, 2 or 3 grams of fiber—and maybe 9, 10, 11 grams of sugar.” They found that people want more protein and more fiber, but less sugar—something that adults and kids alike would enjoy.

Other Bakery on Main bar products include a Soft & Chewy line in Apple Cinnamon, Chocolate Almond and Peanut Butter & Jelly. Its Truebar products all include chia seeds with a strong fruit and nut profile, available in varieties like Apricot Almond Chai, Coconut Cashew, Fruit & Nut, Hazelnut Chocolate Cherry, Raspberry Chocolate Almond and Walnut Cappuccino.

When all was said and done, 2015 proved a strong year of innovation for Bakery on Main, with 10 new products launched, including a “farm-to-table” brand of oats dubbed Happy Oats. The bakery manufactures a wide range of granola and oatmeal products.

While the branded side of the business is Bakery on Main’s focus, it does have a number of private label customers, and is actively seeking more such partnerships with retailers now that the business has carved its niche and has the requisite production space. “I could see that there was going to be a need for substantial capacity and state-of-the art food safety for the private label side of the business,” says Smulders, noting that many larger brands working in private label would find it very difficult to convert to a dedicated gluten-free, non-GMO facility.

Operational details

In the new bakery, food safety is top of mind. “As part of SQF Level 3 initiatives, everything has to be segregated by different allergens,” says Melissa Carducci-Brooks, operations manager, as we walk through the ingredient storage area. “You can’t have a non-allergen next to an allergen.”

Carducci-Brooks also notes that the bakery does not allow any wood to pass beyond ingredient receiving. “We have pallet flipper that takes the wood pallet off of the ingredients and puts a plastic pallet on,” she says. “The plastic pallets are much cleaner, and they can go through our washer.”

Bakery on Main operates lines dedicated to extrusion, baked cereal and snacks, granola bars and hot cereals. Select processes have gained new levels of automation in the new plant, but all still employ some degree of hands-on labor. “During the construction of our new plant, we installed a large amount of new machinery and equipment to make sure our production processes were the most efficient to yield the best-quality products,” says Smulders. Additional automation is anticipated in the future.

Gluten-free certification goes through the third-party Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), and all ingredient suppliers are required to test upstream. Any high-risk ingredients—such as rice syrup made in a plant that also produces barley malt, or rice milled in a facility that also mills gluten-containing grains—are randomly tested upon reception. Smulders notes that he has the highest confidence in the bakery’s certified gluten-free oat supplier. The bakery also tests every lot of finished product before it goes out.

While the gluten-free supply chain has grown significantly more sophisticated over the past few years, Smulders notes finding reliable sources of non-GMO corn is still a regular challenge.

“For the celiac, the trust part is very important,” says Lisa Brown, director of marketing. “That third-party certification is huge. They have to know, without a doubt, that the products don’t contain gluten.”

Traceability is also a top priority. “We track every lot number on its way in, we assign an internal number, and that number goes through the entire process,” says Smulders. “Then we track the lot number for each product we sell, so we can fully trace either way.”

Operations staff continually seeks to boost plant efficiency. “Our business focuses on Lean Manufacturing,” says Smulders. “Bakery on Main is a learning organization, engaged in kaizen, meaning continuing improvement. We make sure to involve everyone in the plant in the effort to measure, learn and improve our processes every day.” Each production area features a dashboard where team leaders note key data points for ongoing analysis to streamline throughput and efficiency.

The design of the new plant was handled by The Dennis Group, Springfield, MA. “They’re a top-shelf food plant design and engineering firm,” says Smulders. “Every engineering discipline is handled in-house, all the way to environmental and SQF practitioners, so they can design a food plant that’s at the top level of food safety and operations.” The State of Connecticut, via its Department of Economic and Community Development, contributed funding for the project tied to an incentive to create new jobs at the plant.

aagAn eye on the future

“Bakery on Main is entering into a five-year phase of dramatic growth,” suggests Smulders. “We have a large amount of capacity in our plant, and we are looking to fill it as quickly as possible. In terms of marketing, we intend to become a top-of-mind brand among health-conscious consumers. With our operations, we intend to achieve world-class quality in all that we do.”

The entrance to the operations area of the new Bakery on Main facility features a prominently hung banner declaring, “It’s Our Time!” This daily affirmation reflects the current level of success that the bakery has achieved and points to the future.

“We have so many wonderful stories of the dedicated people that make up Bakery on Main,” says Smulders. Some employees have been with the company for more than a decade. “We also have one young man who works with us who came from Haiti after he lost his father in an earthquake,” he says. The young man completed the Goodwin College Certified Production Technician Program that the bakery supports, which led to his promotion to assistant team leader.

Another team leader, who started at an entry-level position and has been with the bakery for more than a decade, was brought into the fold via her father. “Her father actually worked for me at the original bakery washing dishes,” says Smulders. “He worked two jobs in order to, one by one, bring his family here to the U.S. from Peru. Now, since being brought here and becoming one of our team leaders, she has proven that she absolutely has her father’s dedicated work ethic and she plays a crucial role in our business running successfully.”

After all, a business is only as strong as its leaders, a fact keenly understood by Smulders. “I am so proud of the amazing people that make Bakery on Main run so successfully every day.”