'Warburtons' Free From business is testimony that free from is here to stay'
Chris Hook (60) is Warburton’s Free From business director, a position he has held since January 2012. Its portfolio – which was rebranded Warburtons Gluten Free from Newburn Bakehouse in January this year – includes a retail range (sliced bread, artisan loaves, rolls, wraps, thins and crumpets) and a pharmacy range (specifically designed for celiac disease sufferers).
BAS: Tell us about your job
I am responsible for the global strategic development and growth of the Warburtons Free From business through new product innovation, R&D, how we can enhance the quality of our products and, of course, opening up new sales channels.
It started when Warburtons, a well-established mainstream bakery brand, asked me to get involved. I spent time at the company’s gluten-free and wheat-free bakery in Newcastle and began building a team of dedicated experts to focus on the Free From business.
What is interesting is that we have run it as a completely separate entity, but now that it has enough critical mass from a commercial perspective, we have moved into the main business. We still maintain the dedicated gluten-free production site, but the commercial function now sits within Warburtons’ business.
I think that is testimony to how much the business has grown, but also how the consumer now sees the category – that it is here to stay.
BAS: What is your biggest achievement in your current position?
Getting the business to the point where the parent company certainly believes in its future, and fundamentally from a product perspective, giving consumers the highest quality gluten-free bread on the market. I believe our artisanal crafted range is excellent and the feedback we get is positive, too. I am really proud of the advances we have made.
BAS: What do you see as the biggest challenges in the gluten-free bakery industry?
I think the challenges are numerous. Basically, it is about producing a consistently high quality product for the consumer. Another is to ensure that, when the products reach the consumer, they are the freshest they can be and that means working closely with our retail partners. There, too, are many challenges.
The challenge for the industry as a whole is how get we get products into more channels, where people who follow a gluten free diet are still frustrated in varying degrees about the availability of these products.
BAS: What do you think the next best thing in gluten-free bakery will be?
I think it will be more food-to-go options, more variety. Also, having products that match up to their mainstream counterparts. My aspiration is for somebody to buy a gluten-free bakery product and not realize it is gluten free.
BAS: Where do you see the gluten-free market in five years from now?
I see it much more consolidated, because it is still quite fragmented. I think the picture from a retail perspective looks very busy and quite confusing, so it needs to be simplified, which I think will happen over the next five years. I also think there will be a migration from dedicated gluten free/free from fixtures to more mainstream.
BAS: If there is one thing that you could change about the industry, what would that be?
There are products on the shelves that I think are doing a disservice to gluten free. That is your point of entry to the consumer: to try the product. I am not naming any names, but you can be massively disappointed and underwhelmed by the quality of some of the products out there.
I believe retailers, suppliers and manufacturers need to be a bit more critical about what they are putting onto the shelves rather than grab the earliest opportunity to brand something gluten free and get it on.
BAS: What keeps you busy when you are not focused on your career?
I have a large family – six children – that keeps me busy. I am also very sports-oriented, and love playing golf and walking the dog.
Thank you, Chris.