01 Dec 2014
Day 2 of the Free-from, allergy and intolerance seminar programme at the inaugural Food Matters Live event began with a session on Delivering free-from products in the foodservice sector , and featured speakers from two providers at opposite ends of the size spectrum – a small independent, and a full-scale national casual dining restaurant.
Disappointed in the “grainy, unpleasant, nasty texture” of the products available on the market, and as a newly diagnosed coeliac, David Scrace founded what was to eventually become the WAGfree Bakery, Café and Deli around six years ago while living in Dubai, by selling home-cooked gluten-free meals to expats.
Back in the UK, he recruited a friend with catering experience to launch his business in a Brixton unit which “we designed, built and decorated ourselves in four months”.
In his talk – The WAGfree Experience: an Independent Foodservice Outlet’s Experience of Meeting Free-from Demand – Scrace explained how WAGfree became a key destination for London coeliacs, providing breads, rolls, buns, flat breads, cakes, sponges, savoury pies and quiches, all formulated by the self-confessed “accidental baker” himself.
Eventually outgrowing the premises, he moved the business to a Battersea industrial estate – but the retail element of WAGfree in Brixton lives on, thanks to a joint venture with Martin Vozar and Nick McNally of CELIA Lager and Vozar’s restaurant – which is now on the site – who are charged with maintaining it.
Unfortunately, this has not been as successful as he first hoped, and has also lost Scrace much of the close client contact he cherished; he clearly found it deeply rewarding and moving when customers expressed their thanks and gratitude for catering to their needs so well. Not surprisingly, financial concerns loom large over the operation, and remain a huge difficulty for small companies such as his.
“You need business skills – which I don’t have,” he said. “I have the products, but no backing. It frustrates me to see bakeries and cafés opening in the West End who don’t have good products. Non-coeliacs have spotted a gap in the market and fill it with foods they do not have to eat. They don’t know what it means to people who have to eat sub-standard products. It’s heartbreaking.”
In Meeting the Needs of the Loyal Coeliac Customer, ASK Italian’s Marketing Director Catherine Salloux echoed the sentiments of Scrace: the relief and gratitude expressed by customers on restricted diets makes working in the free-from food arena an inevitably emotional experience from time to time.
Salloux began by outlining ASK Italian’s approach to allergy catering: flagged on menus are dishes unsuited to nut-allergy sufferers, those suitable for vegetarians, and dishes accredited as NGCI (non-gluten containing ingredients) by Coeliac UK. There is a separate ‘no gluten’ menu, and plans are being reviewed to move from NGCI to Gluten Free accreditation in 2015 – Salloux explained that it was decided, after much discussion, that the ‘stepping stone’ stage of NGCI was more economically prudent for the company, initially.
Further, allergy training modules are incorporated into the company’s staff training programme, and are compulsory across the staff hierarchy. Cross-contamination control measures across kitchens include separate sealed and labelled cooking equipment, separate sealed and labelled ingredients, separate work areas which are cleaned down prior to every order being prepared, separate serving dishes, and clean aprons for the chefs – and the dish is labelled throughout the preparation process. ‘How to’ cards are available for staff to refer to, to steer them through procedures for specific requests, step-by-step.
“Gluten-free products – such as pizza bases and pastas – cost more money, and catering gluten-free leads to complexity in the kitchen,” said Salloux, emphasising that extra costs were not passed on to the customer. “We have had to do a lot of audit work to prepare for accreditation, and we have to pay for the license.”
But, she added: “We can honestly say after 18 months of having these dishes on the menu that the value and opportunity in offering them – and the increased options for engaged, vocal and loyal coeliacs – far outweighs the additional investment for our business.”