Tuesday 27 June 2017

BFree success means crumbly old gluten-free bread is toast

60 second pitch: Why you should invest in BFree foods

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE: Alex Murphy, managing director of BFree Foods, which has developed a range of gluten-free breads and wraps. Photo: David Conachy
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE: Alex Murphy, managing director of BFree Foods, which has developed a range of gluten-free breads and wraps. Photo: David Conachy
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Anyone who bought gluten-free bread when it first came out will probably remember paying a fortune for bread that you had to toast before you ate – and which invariably crumbled to pieces after your first bite.

This is something that Wexford woman Alex Murphy, the managing director of BFree Foods, was determined to change when she was taken on by Ronan McNamee about three years ago.

McNamee, the co-founder of Cuisine de France, set up BFree Foods – a company that develops gluten-free breads – in 2011. The company had worked with a research team in University College Cork that specialises in gluten-free baking to help develop the bread range.

Around that time, McNamee approached Murphy and asked her to help promote the brand. Murphy had previously worked as a brand manager with Cuisine de France.

"A few years ago, most gluten-free bread was disgusting," said Murphy. "It was gas-packed and had a long shelf-life. We wanted to make a gluten-free bread which people could eat as normal – and which didn't crumble."

The company succeeded in doing just that. BFree has developed a range of fresh bread, rolls, bagels and wraps, which are free of gluten and wheat. "We made fresh bread so people could eat gluten-free bread like a normal sliced pan, without having to toast it," said Murphy.

Some of the company's main products include its gluten-free soft white loaf, brown-seeded loaf and rolls, multi-seed bagels and multigrain wraps.

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is therefore often in bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, beer, pizza and many manufactured foods. Those who have an intolerance or allergy to gluten – or who suffer from Coeliac disease – can experience problems such as indigestion, bloating, chronic tiredness, eczema and anaemia after eating it.

Last summer, the company launched a low-fat wrap, which is free of wheat, gluten, egg and dairy. It developed the product after hearing that those suffering from Coeliac disease found it particularly hard to find gluten-free wraps.

"We went to a Coeliac show in Britain and a lot of the people there said they missed wraps," said Murphy.

Almost 400 Asda stores across Britain now sell its wraps. You can also pick up BFree breads and wraps in the main Irish supermarkets, including Tesco, Dunnes Stores, SuperValu and Centra.

On top of that, BFree has developed burger buns that are free of wheat, gluten and dairy. These buns are used by the burger restaurant chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen across Britain. O'Brien's Sandwich Cafe recently took on the brand and you can now buy gluten-free sandwiches in the chain.

"We're trying to make life as normal as possible for people who have any food intolerances," said Murphy.

"Years ago, if a Coeliac went into a restaurant, they'd have to bring their own roll."

The company, however, has a major challenge – the price of gluten-free bread.

You can pick up a normal sliced pan in the supermarket for less than a euro – head to the gluten-free bread shelves, however, and you can expect to pay about €3 for a sliced pan.

So what's behind the price difference?

"In normal bread, you have four ingredients," explains Murphy. "There are about 16 ingredients in gluten-free bread, including things like apple fibre and pea protein.

"We have to try to replicate the same structure as normal bread – so gluten-free bread is naturally going to be more expensive. I think pricing will improve, however," she said.

The market for gluten-free bread is still quite small and niche – but the company expects it to increase. Murphy believes BFree bread doesn't just appeal to those with food intolerances or allergies but that there is a growing number of people who wish to avoid wheat and gluten as part of a healthy diet.

"People are far more aware of how they feel after they eat," said Murphy. "Weight-conscious people are buying our breads. In Britain, there is a €149m market for free-from foods – and 80 per cent of this market is gluten-free. The market for gluten-free products grew by 39 per cent in Britain last year. I'd say the growth rates are very similar in Ireland."

The jump in the company's turnover since it was first launched certainly proves there is a market for its breads. It made a turnover of €0.5m in 2011. By 2012, this had increased to €2m. "We expect our turnover to double this year," said Murphy.

Earlier this year, BFree Foods stepped into the US market.

"It's a big jump for us," said Murphy. "Finding out how to get into the US was a huge maze. We researched the market, took a chance and went to a trade fair in the US to see how they rated our brand.

BFree Foods is now selling its bread range in Michigan, Detroit and Chicago and hopes to launch into even bigger supermarkets in New Jersey this summer.

Later this month, it will launch into Woolworths in Australia.

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