Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne of Edinburgh-based Genius explains how she began selling her range of gluten-free bread to major supermarkets including Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury's
"I'm a professionally trained chef, having worked at Michelin-starred restaurant Bibendum in London under Simon Hopkinson. Later, I co-wrote Leith's Techniques Bible and penned the bestseller How to Cook for Food Allergies.
"While I was writing the latter, I set out to create a truly delicious gluten-free loaf and I was confident I could make much better loaves than those that were available.
"Two of my three children have food allergies and wheat, in particular, caused problems, but I thought: 'why shouldn't they be able to enjoy soldiers with their boiled eggs, like other kids?'
"Making good quality gluten-free, fresh bread isn't easy, because the gluten in wheat flour enables the dough to rise. It also gives bread its chewiness and elasticity. I was determined to create a loaf that everyone would want to eat - whether gluten intolerant or not. It took me about three years to get there. Often my children would come home from school to find different loaves to try. Finally, I was happy with my creation.
"Not long afterwards, I discovered that the father of one of my son's friends had a gluten intolerance, so I gave him one of my loaves. Luckily, he happened to be Sir Bill Gammell [2004 European Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of Cairn Energy] and he was so impressed he put me in touch with Charteredbrands, a brand-management company.
Every little helps
"Following 12 months of intensive product and brand development, I launched my business in 2009. In April, I signed a deal to sell two lines through Tesco, which was fabulous. We were able to contact Tesco through our bakery, who already had a relationship with them. We arranged to meet one of their buyers.
"As soon as Tesco's people tasted my product, they were blown away. They recognised the unique selling point straight away - a lovely, soft, fresh loaf that tasted great yet contained no wheat flour or gluten. They knew, as we did, there would be considerable demand and almost immediately they wanted to put my product in 700 stores nationwide.
"First, they wanted to learn much more about my business, not least of which, whether it could cope with producing that many units. There were also food safety issues they needed to check out, plus, they wanted to find out how we marketed the product. They also carried out some financial due diligence on us, of course.
"To prevent any negative publicity, a big supermarket needs to feel confident your business is run properly. It must also have the necessary infrastructure and support. If it were just me making bread from my kitchen, no supermarket would have been interested.
"By that point, Charteredbrands had helped me to create the Genius brand, which really brought the product to life. A product must have its own identity. And if it was really going to take off, it couldn't just be a supermarket own-brand. Genius also had to be recognised as the brand-leader, which was our aim from the start.
"Tesco really embraced the product and gave us a lot of advice - they were brilliant. We showed them some initial packaging designs and they told us the product would get 'lost' on the shelves. We listened; went away; and came back with new, improved designs. They were right. Soon my product was being stocked in Tesco stores throughout the UK.
"Once you're selling though the likes of Tesco, it's easier to get your foot in the door with others. Because of an exclusivity deal, though, we couldn't launch in another supermarket for six months. Now we sell through Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Selfridges, Whole Foods Market and others. We also launched a sandwich made with Genius bread into Starbucks.
"Crucially, you need to be sure you can cope with growth in demand - success brings many additional challenges. We have a bakery in West Lothian that makes our bread. Growing demand meant we needed to move into a new bay and buy new equipment. About £2m has been invested in these facilities. We started off with a manual process, with 14 people on the line, but now it's completely automated. Either a product manager or myself are onsite four days a week - I'm still closely involved.
"Demand continued to grow rapidly and we bought two more bakeries a few years after launch, growing our staff to more than 350. Our products are now available in many countries including Australia, Canada, Holland, Spain, the USA and the UAE. We've also won industry awards - including the much-coveted UK Bakery Award for Innovation. I'm delighted with the way the business is developing."
Lucinda's three key lessons
- "Do thorough market research. When making your pitch, supermarkets will expect you to know your product and your market very well"
- "Get help from experts with experience of selling to supermarkets. You won't be able to do it all yourself"
- "Be very clear about what margins will keep your business viable, because supermarkets take a cut of the sale price. Also consider the impact of such things as price reductions, for example, when launching your product. Pricing strategy for supermarket items is different"