What is the Role of Gluten-Free Products in a Whole Grain Bread Store?

What is the Role of Gluten-Free Products in a Whole Grain Bread Store?

I could more broadly state the question as “What is the role of non-whole grain products in a whole grain bread store?” Gluten-free just happens to be the current non-wheat flour of choice so it easy to use to illustrate a point.

bread_ordersBefore I get into this, let me be clear about my personal views on the gluten-free movement. I think a small percentage of people truly are harmed by gluten. The overwhelming majority of people that are gluten-free by choice are exactly that.

I think the “gluten-free movement” has taken on extreme views and the main point is being obscured. Which is that most diet choices are choices and most extreme ones are fads. Philly chef Marc Vetri’s recent rant (covered in this blog), while a little extreme for my view, is pretty close. While I don’t agree with most of the gluten-free philosophy, I do believe in serving customers when operating in a customer service business.

Customer Service & Business Adaptation Will Outlast Fads

All businesses face a challenge of how to adapt when they see threats to their core product line. The classic example is what do you do as a horse buggy manufacturer when cars become affordable? But, that is extreme. More realistic examples are what to do when you manufacture records and the Walkman gets invented? And what should the Walkman do when the iPod comes around? By the way, the Walkman is making a comeback and it looks pretty intriguing. 

In our business we have seen decades of challenges that have required us to adapt. Atkins, low carb, paleo and wheat belly were all fad diets that attacked the consumption of bread. Our reaction was to say bread is our, well, bread of business life. And for most of us that is because we love and believe in our product. Our strategy, which is a sound one, was to say we sell bread for a living and do it better than anyone else. We are going to keep doing what we do but do it better and better.

Gluten-free was a game changer for me. It isn’t purely a fad — and make no mistake — all of the other diets are fads. Celiac disease (which is treated with a gluten-free diet) is a serious disease affecting an estimated 1% of Americans. That is different. Yes, most of the people that seek out gluten-free products do so by choice, which makes it also a fad to some extent, but it does have a basis grounded in medicine and science. The others do not. So, what to do?

Branding Considerations When Capitalizing on Trends

Our name is Great Harvest Bread Company. We have built our brand around fresh baked whole grain products made from the flour that each of our bakeries mills fresh daily on site, using only the finest specialized wheat grown only in the world’s best wheat growing area. That absolutely screams whole grains and we love gluten! And that is true. All of us that are part of the Great Harvest family love whole wheat breads. It is about all we eat when we have a choice. But, the name of the company is not Great Harvest Whole Wheat Bread Company.

There is a constant debate about this in the company about how to address the increasing market availability and popularity of non-wheat breads. We do love our Honey Whole Wheat but I love surviving as a business even more. I think that means we need to read our name.

As noted above, I look at this question as a great exercise for any business that has market encroachment from a fad competitor. Fads come and go but if you stay focused on your core, you can address fads and profit from them. The easiest example is the health club industry. Pilates, yoga, Zumba, aerobic dancing, spinning, etc. They all come and go. They are hot for different periods of time but all have a flame for a while.

Yoga_fitness_fadDo health clubs ignore fitness fads? The good ones don’t. When you walk in the door of most health clubs the first things you see are weight machines, free weights and cardio equipment. Those are “must have” business elements. But, if you look around the edges, you will find the trendy stuff. They introduce it, embrace it, make some money riding the wave and move on when the wave reaches shore.

Don't Compromise Quality or Core To Ride a Trend

I think that is what businesses should do more often than not, with one major exception. Offerings should be as broad as possible up to the point they hinder your profitability. If we follow our name and use the health club example, we should always have our base offerings of fabulous whole grain products. And we do. But I see nothing wrong with also offering alternative products like low carb and gluten-free, as long as it is equal in quality to our core products. One of our most profitable stores sells an inordinate amount of low carb breads, and that trend died almost 10 years ago.

The major exception is a truly core-focused store. Take cycling. Spinning is a fairly common offering at most health clubs. As a long time avid cyclist, I can tell you I spin as a last resort. But give me an indoor riding facility like this one at TotalCyclist and I am all in. The difference? Spinning is on a generic bike that isn’t really set up to fit my body or mimic road cycling. It is a workout for sure but it isn’t cycling. TotalCyclist and similar studios are. They are truly specialized and awesome. I am on my bike simulating real conditions. That works for me.

Many of our bread stores are like that. They love whole wheat above all else and stay true to that. I hate conflict so I always like to start conversations with a yes. That means if someone asks do I sell gluten-free, or any other specialty bread/anti-whole wheat fad of the moment, I want to say yes.

There's Room for Difference in the Freedom Franchise

Bread fads come and go and most are not wheat or carb friendly. But, most people still need both to survive and thrive. Those people are our core market and I love them. But, it is a lot easier to make money being a regular health club than TotalCyclist. Luckily we are the Freedom Franchise and our stores can make this choice on an individual basis. We have both examples being followed and I respect those choices.

Thanks for reading.

Read more musings on The Bread Business from our CEO here.

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