Genius breaks into France

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Bruce-Gardyne says she sees huge opportunities in the gluten-free sector
Bruce-Gardyne says she sees huge opportunities in the gluten-free sector

Related tags Wheat Bread

Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne tells Nicholas Robinson about her plans for Genius

Key points

When it comes to gluten-free (GF) bread, Genius has got it sussed. Not only is the company selling more than 1M loaves a year in the UK, it’s making inroads to sell baguettes to the French.

While it might appear to be an impossible feat for some, it isn’t for Genius founder Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, who has successfully used a rise in demand for GF to tap into a market that is otherwise closely guarded by French bakers. “We’re already selling GF brioche to the French, as well as croissants and pain au chocolate,”​ she says at the company’s Edinburgh headquarters.

Yet plans to launch GF baguettes into France’s multi-million pound GF market have been delayed by technical and contamination issues. Baguettes must have a crisp and crusty exterior and maintaining that in a sealed bag is near impossible. But, without it being sealed, it is also impossible to guarantee they are GF, she says.

Unlike the UK’s GF market, which is set to rise to £561M by 2017, France’s GF sector isn’t as mature and will only reach £160M by 2018, according to Genius. However, Bruce-Gardyne expects it to rise faster once complications surrounding GF baguettes are solved.

Getting a GF baguette onto the shelves of France’s hypermarkets, as Genius has recently done with its croissants and pain au chocolate, is just one of a few challenges she will have to face in the coming years, Bruce-Gardyne admits.

In the past, the GF sector had come under fire from critics, despite having high-profile celebrity advocates including the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the pop star Miley Cyrus, the tennis champion Novak Djokovic – and even his dog.

Autoimmune disease (Return to top)

One in a hundred (1%) people in the UK are coeliacs. They suffer from an autoimmune disease caused by an intolerance to gluten. As a result, they cannot consume gluten-containing food and drink, which would otherwise damage the lining of their gut and result in bloating, diarrhoea, nausea or other symptoms.

However, it’s widely reported that it is not only coeliac sufferers who stick to a GF diet. Figures suggest that as many as 8% of consumers in the UK are avoiding gluten as they believe it is either bad for them, is causing them to gain weight or is even affecting their moods.

Some critics, such as the dietitian and newspaper columnist Juliette Kellow, however, claim those who unnecessarily avoid gluten could risk becoming deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, as they are skipping whole food groups. Others have also claimed GF foods are unhealthy for other reasons.

Compared with their non-GF alternatives, GF products are usually higher in salt, fat and sugar. This is because the starches used in GF products, such as potato and tapioca starches, are very bland, explains Bruce-Gardyne.

Bland or boring is something all food manufacturers want to avoid, she says, which is why GF foods tend to have higher levels of salt, sugar and fat in them.

Too much sugar and salt (Return to top)

“We’ve certainly been guilty of it​ [having too much salt, sugar and fat] as well,”​ she admits. “I think some of our products are a little too sweet and could be less sweet and we are very aware of salt levels as well as sugar levels and we are trying to keep them both as low as possible.”

Higher levels of salt, sugar and fat are not only present in the GF foods consumers might expect them to be in, such as croissants and pain au chocolate, but in staple foods, like sliced bread.

For instance, Genius’s original white loaf has nearly 4g more fat per slice than a slice of Hovis’s soft small white loaf. Salt levels in Genius's bread are also higher at 1.25g per 100g, compared with Hovis's 0.9g per 100g. However, Genius’s bread does contain only 0.6g of sugar per slice, compared with Hovis’s 0.9g per slice.

“GF is very hard to get that lovely softness and fat helps you to do that,”​ Bruce-Gardyne explains. “It’s a balance and we don't want people to feel disappointed when they eat our products, so we’re scouring for new innovative ingredients that can help us reduce our fat levels.”

Yet, the criticism from lobby groups that usually follows foods with higher salt, fat and sugar in them doesn’t appear to have affected her business. Genius has a £40M turnover, 73% year-on-year growth, 450 staff and 20 products on the market, with more to be launched next year, says Bruce-Gardyne.

Consumers are also becoming more attuned to GF diets, which she attributes to the growth of her business. “We spurred that movement and interest in GF. We were the first to market with a fresh GF bread and we have a very loyal consumer base,”​ she adds.

It was when Bruce-Gardyne’s son was diagnosed with a severe gluten intolerance that she was inspired to create a fresh GF loaf, because of a lack of what she called high quality GF loaves on the market. After finding the recipe, Genius bread was born in 2009. “Bread is a big, big product for us,”​ she says.

Genius claims 52% of the GF bread market, outselling brands such as Udis, Warburtons and DS Gluten-Free. Yet, Bruce-Gardyne has exciting plans to improve Genius’s range of bread further, she lets on.

Fortification (Return to top)

In response to critics and consumer demand, Genius is preparing to fortify its bread with the same vitamins and minerals used in wheat flour, such as iron, calcium and vitamin B1 (thiamin).

“I chose not to originally because I wanted the ingredients deck to be as short as possible,”​ she says and holds her arms out wide to show how sick she was of reading very long lists of ingredients on GF bread.

“We are beginning to think about fortifiers, because it can only be a good thing. Particularly as coeliacs and gluten-intolerant people are often low in particular vitamins and minerals.”

Adding fortifiers would, undoubtedly, increase the length of the ingredients list on GF bread, she admits, but the market and consumers have changed. They are now more aware of why GF ingredients lists are longer, she believes.

There may be 20 or so ingredients in a loaf of GF bread, compared with just five or six in a normal wheat loaf, but they are all necessary because a structure has to be created from nothing.

In wheat bread, gluten is essential. It maintains the air bubbles created by the yeast for the baking process. “But if you add water to GF starches, then you could drink the mixture it’s so thin. To create GF bread you have to use a whole bunch of different ingredients together in different blends to try to create that structure.”

It’s not all about bread, however. Genius also holds more than a quarter (26%) of the UK’s total GF market and Bruce-Gardyne says she will be growing that percentage next year, following investment in the two factories Genius bought from Finsbury for £21M last year.

“We have already spent millions on upgrading the factories and we will be spending further millions over the next six months to a year on new equipment, highly-skilled people and marketing campaigns,”​ she says.

New product launches (Return to top)

Although she refuses to disclose any details about the company’s detailed plans, she does say there will be many new product launches in the coming year.

Investment in the company’s Bathgate and Hull factories and new products is also an indication that Bruce-Gardyne views the sector as one with further potential to grow. “I don’t think we at Genius will be slowing down, we’ve only just scratched the surface, there are huge inroads to be made for those who don’t want to eat gluten.

“Two thirds of all foods created industrially in the UK contain wheat. It’s massive. The opportunity is huge – we’ve got lots more work to do.”

However, a focused approach is needed, she stresses. It’s tempting for GF businesses to seize as many opportunities as they can. “We don’t want to have a scatter-gun approach.

“It’s very easy in this market, where the opportunities are vast, to get carried away and to try to do everything at the same time. So it’s much better to focus on one area at a time.”

For now Bruce-Gardyne will maintain her focus on Genius’s sales in Europe and improving its products in the UK. But she is also inspired by Novak Djokovic’s decision to feed his dog a GF diet. “GF pet food hasn’t been on the radar at Genius yet, but we could think about it,”​ she laughs.

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