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Cup4Cup on growing 'appropriately' in the exploding gluten-free products market

By Maggie Hennessy , 14-Feb-2014
Last updated the 27-Feb-2014 at 17:17 GMT

“One thing we were conscious of from the start was not growing too quickly, which does happen with chef-driven brands," said Lena Kwak, co-founder of Cup4Cup.
“One thing we were conscious of from the start was not growing too quickly, which does happen with chef-driven brands," said Lena Kwak, co-founder of Cup4Cup.

Two years after famed restaurateur Thomas Keller and his R&D chef Lena Kwak launched Cup4Cup (C4C), a multipurpose gluten-free flour blend targeting celiac and gluten-intolerant consumers, the brand is eyeing “controlled” growth into mainstream channels and innovative product lines.

Kwak, who spoke with FoodNavigator-USA as part of our special on gluten-free markets, began tinkering with gluten-free flour blends in the test kitchen at Keller’s famed French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, CA, as patrons increasingly clamored for gluten-free dessert and bread options.

Facilitating family eating for those who can’t have gluten

“Often those with celiac disease have to sacrifice flavor, so we wanted to make gluten-free a product or an experience that’s the same as you would get by producing the product with wheat in terms of taste, texture and performance. I’m not celiac, chef Keller isn’t celiac; so our only comparison is wheat products,” she said.

Kwak spent a year and a half developing the blend, a “cup for cup” replacer for all-purpose wheat flour comprising cornstarch, white rice and brown rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, potato starch and xanthan gum. The multipurpose flour rolled out to Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide in late 2011, initially targeting the “very specific” market of celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitive consumers shopping the gourmet natural channel, Kwak noted.

“We’re trying to attract those with a need of a basic ingredient in the kitchen they might miss if they were celiac,” she said. “A lot of gluten-free products are just fulfilling a need state versus the larger issue of gluten-free for say, an average family of five. If a child is affected or a parent finds out later in life, the whole family will typically eat gluten-free. So we wanted to develop a product that can facilitate family eating again, rather than someone having to worry about cooking two separate meals. Food is very much a social vehicle.”

‘We want to do one thing really well’

When asked about why C4C didn’t launch a dairy-free, gluten-free flour blend to appeal to a wider “free from” audience, Kwak said that the focus of the product has always been most on taste, texture and performance as opposed to sales.

“We could have removed the dairy to service a larger audience, but for us, it’s crucial to make sure we’re doing one thing really well. We don’t want to exclude people just dealing with celiac for a larger sales goal, because the end product might not be as good. Like in restaurants, when you're dining out, if the chef is trying to do too many things, the message gets lost."

Because C4C originated on the West Coast (and is still produced out of a single Northern California facility), that’s where its retail presence is strongest. The brand has since expanded regionally to such natural retailers as Whole Foods and Sprouts, and some conventional supermarket chains like Albertsons. C4C has also been picked up by East Coast supermarket chain Wegmans and plans to continue targeting the Mideast and Midwest for expansion in the coming months.

Keller’s name has also helped the brand gain some foodservice customers, but Kwak noted that retail is the most promising area of growth for the business. “We have some great opportunities within foodservice, but they’re two different beasts. We’re trying to make sure we are more distributed at retail.”

Chef-driven brands tend to grow quickly

Overall, Kwak is treading carefully when it comes to growth, which she says has been a key part of the brand’s early success. “One thing we were conscious of from the start was not growing too quickly, which does happen with chef-driven brands. Suddenly you’re in Target and Costco after day two of launching. We want to stay focused on quality control, which is hard to do if you rapidly volumize.”

C4C just brought on a chief operating officer, who will take over managing day-to-day operations so Kwak can get back into R&D full time, as the brand looks to stay relevant.

“For the future, whether we grow within C4C or have other brands under our umbrella, we’re looking at where we see a need and space for innovation. So often competitors look at each other and say, ‘They made a chocolate cake and so did five other brands. We might as well make one, too.’ We want to look at it as, I don’t see this flavor yet in this space. Let's try it. That’s the beauty of starting a company.”

Snacks, beverages are possible line extensions

So what are the areas that intrigue Kwak at the moment? “Possibly dabbling in larger territories like snacks and beverages,” she replied, adding that whatever the next product line is, the most important piece is control, “to ensure the product you’re making at home is the same one we made and were successful with in our test kitchens.”

As for gluten-free, Kwak says it's here to stay, owing in part to celebrity wheat bashing and subsequent diet fads, but also to growing awareness about the significant population of people suffering from celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

"I do know that while wheat has been vilified in the past, so have milk and eggs. But there are also lots of people who are truly affected by it. I have to admit, the amount of wheat I consume now compared to before this project has decreased, and I feel better. It’s about moderation of what you eat and making sure you have a variety of different foods.”

But something else she gained from the C4C project, she said, is a much deeper appreciation of wheat flour. “For being a single composition, it’s amazing what you can achieve.”   

Don't miss The FoodNavigator-USA Forum: Gluten-free in Perspective

11.30am EST, April 30, 2014.

Find out more about gluten-free market trends and growth opportunities; the science behind celiac disease, gluten intolerance and wheat allergy; the technical challenges of formulating great-tasting gluten-free products; and the latest consumer research.

This LIVE online panel debate moderated by FoodNavigator-USDA editor Elaine Watson brings together world-renowned celiac disease researcher Dr Alessio Fasano; TJ Mcintyre from leading gluten-free manufacturer Boulder Brands (Udis, Glutino);DrDavid Sheluga, director of commercial insights at food and ingredients giant ConAgra Foods; and Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at Datamonitor.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER (IT’S FREE!)

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