More than 10 years ago, Kim Desch was a nurse practitioner focusing on autoimmune diseases and gluten-sensitivity when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance and learned firsthand how difficult it was to find products and dine out. A pizza fanatic, she became obsessed with reinventing the perfect pizza crust sans gluten and that’s how Wild Flour Bakery based in Longmont, CO was born.
Visiongain calculates that the global gluten-free foods and beverages market will be worth $5.12 billion this year with the increase in the number of people diagnosed with gluten intolerance or celiac disease being the major driving force of the market. In parallel with this, the gluten-free food consumer base is rapidly expanding due to high demand for gluten-free products from non-gluten-sensitive buyers who perceive them as healthier and better-for-you.
For Desch, it’s not simply a numbers game. She wanted to provide chefs with a way to be creative and gluten free at the same time. If a chef can make something with wheat, he or she can now create the same experience in a gluten free version, without compromising on flavor, texture or menu flexibility, she says. The company sells the industry’s only purely yeast-raised, artisan, gluten-free pizza dough ball and sandwich roll portions that bake and taste just like wheat. Wild Flour is primarily focused on white labeling its product, allowing restaurants to create their own gluten free menu items in an artisan environment, with Wild Flour dough. The company distributes nationwide through several channels including Shamrock Foods, Sycso, US Foods, EARP Distributing and Gordon Food Service. Dough is used in a number of restaurants and chains such as Denver Deep Dish and Backcountry Pizza and Tap House in Boulder.
The National Restaurant Association (NRA) recognized Wild Flour Bakery with its prestigious 2017 Food and Beverage (FABI) Award for their Pizza Dough and Hoagie Dough products.
What is your own gluten-intolerance experience?
Personally, it’s been a frustrating path. I still find it difficult to go out and eat a meal with my family. The options are limited, servers are still often incorrectly informed in regards to what gluten is or is not, or how to handle food appropriately. Unless I am going to one of our customers’ restaurants, I still can’t order a ‘family sized’ GF pizza. The upcharge for a gluten free option (our customers excluded of course) is still the equivalent of paying for a first class ticket and being seated in economy (in a non-reclining seat). But that personal frustration has had great professional payoffs. Wild Flour has established a reputation for our focus on product, process, quality and education. In turn, our customers have a reputation for providing a higher quality product and delivering that efficiently, artfully as well as safely.
How does having a career as a nurse practitioner impact your current business?
Being a nurse practitioner (actively licensed, no longer practicing) brings a level of credibility few have in the food industry. I can speak to gluten issues from the food space, but also from the health space; understanding the chemistry, physiology and medical implications of gluten in our bodies as well as on the prep line. This also allows us to address food safety from a very data- and clinically/medically-supported platform so that operators can be confident in both the product as well as their process.
How did you switch gears and become an entrepreneur?
Wild Flour is my third business, so being an entrepreneur was not a new thing for me. Prior to Wild Flour, I had my own integrative medical practice in Encinitas, CA focusing on the use of targeted nutraceuticals, foods, and identifying food allergies to assist in treating chronic and autoimmune diseases. It was that experience, as well as my own GI diagnosis, that really fueled my motivation, passion and desire to acquire further expertise and dive into gluten free food manufacturing.
What does the FABI Award mean to you and the company?
For me, receiving the FABI Award is validation that Wild Flour is achieving our goal – to “raise your expectations.” The FABI Award recognizes product innovation, relevance, and quality, which have all been the focus of Wild Flour from the beginning. We are honored to be recognized for providing products that support the creativity of the chef, the menu flexibility needs of the operator and the quality dining experience that is possible using exceptional gluten free doughs.
What is the process of perfecting your recipes?
A lot of trial and error! Actually, there is a method to our madness based on the healthcare model of isolating variables, understanding chemistry and biology (I love that yeast is living organism!), and of course the environment. But in the end, perfecting a formulation comes down to a lot of tasting and being open to sometimes brutally honest feedback from chefs that love their wheat.
What were some challenges in producing the products?
I think one of my biggest challenges to product development was in understanding our customer, the restaurant owner, who is different from the dining consumer. In order to produce a good product, you really have to know a lot about who is using your product, how they want to use it, and what their understanding is in terms of gluten free foods so they can also handle it safely and successfully. We knew we had a good product, but we also really had to nail down how to make that product easily implemented on the line. We really had to develop a model of product support that ensured success right off the line.
How do you see the product line expanding?
Controlling the expansion of our product line is more of an issue for us than adding to it. I don’t know if there is a day where I, one of our staff, or a customer doesn’t say, “hey, we could do that gluten free and it would be amazing!” Getting to the point of rolling out the next product – we just can’t get there fast enough. Just wait till you see what’s coming.
What challenges did you face starting your company?
Learning a new industry was a definite challenge, food service is quite different from health care. But the Boulder community is an incubator of food-centric businesses and people that understand there is enough business to go around and sharing information benefits us all. I got a lot of support, information and assistance in learning this new industry from local organizations, events, and individuals in Boulder. I am fortunate to also have had the never-ending support (and often times man-power) of my family. They made any “challenges” manageable.
How did/do you build awareness of the product line?
We were and still are a very organic, personal and relationship-focused company. We work one-on-one with chefs, independent operators, franchises and corporations as well as with our distributors. While the sales potentials are obviously different, the opportunity to establish a relationship is the same, and at the end of the day I believe it is that relationship that builds both brand and product awareness. We also love to compete. We enter pizza competitions at every opportunity. We, as well as some of our customers, have won awards in both the US and Italy, which also helps build awareness around our pizza doughs – still our largest seller.
Why do you feel “pizza is a necessity?”
Let me put it this way – think of a birthday party, an office party, a football game, a happy hour – any time when people are gathering and sharing food. Now think of it without pizza. Now, think of plump, ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, pungent sweet basil, and a perfectly crisp, tangy, yeasty and slightly charred crust. Enough said.
Why is Boulder the “GF capitol of the world?”
Boulder is an incubator and launch pad for GF companies and food entrepreneurs. If you’re going to compete here it better be good, because there are plenty of other options if it isn’t. I think because of that, diners and foodies here have developed very discriminating pallets. I’ve been all over the U.S. with our products, and I don’t think I’ve seen any place with more gluten free food options, businesses, and sophisticated GF diners.
What are some reasons why restaurants should offer gluten-free options?
For starters, 33 percent of diners are eliminating or reducing gluten (not including those with Celiac). Even if GF where just a fad, why would you not offer menu items to that 33 percent to so they could spend their dining dollars in your establishment? Gluten free diners don’t dine alone; they bring their wheat-eating friends with them. They are also the decision-makers in a dining group, so by making your restaurant GF appealing, everyone wins. In addition, companies such as Wild Flour are succeeding in raising the GF diner’s expectations. When you compare a couple of pre-fab, one-size-fits options to a freshly-baked, artisan, GF, soup-to-nuts approach it is a no-brainer. GF customers want, deserve, and will pay for a menu of quality, fresh options – and they will be back.
How important is the fast-casual segment to your business?
The fast-casual segment is where Wild Flour lives and breathes. GF diners are no different than any other diner – they want it baked fresh and customized, not pre-fab. With a dough, you can meet the fast-casual trend of ‘craft,’ ‘artisan,’ ‘freshly prepared,’ and clean-label without compromising on portion size, quality, taste, or visual appeal.
What kind of responses do you receive from customers?
I think the first response we got that really threw us was, “Kim, we have a problem – pizzas are being sent back to the kitchen; the customers can’t believe it’s really gluten free!” That was the best ‘problem’ response ever! Of course, we were happy to help with some verbiage on their menu to stop pies from being returned :).
“I forgot what fresh-baked bread tasted like…I almost cried” – from a women diagnosed with Celiac 15 years ago, after eating a Jersey Mike’s sandwich on a freshly-baked, GF Tuscan Herb Roll.
“Get out! No way this is gluten free!” – from a chef that had refused to offer a GF pizza option because he swore they all tasted like cardboard and he couldn’t bake them at 875F (like we did for him).
But by far, the most common response when people taste our products at shows like NRA or Pizza Expo is “Oh my gosh, THIS is gluten free? And this too (referring to the samples on the tasting table)?” I can’t tell you how many times we have to say “yep, it’s all gluten free, really.”
Why did you hit on the Wild Flour name?
During the R&D phase, there were often results that were, well, hard to explain. I would often joke that this was some “wild flour” based on a few of those early test batches. Being in Boulder, CO I also think you have to get in touch with your inner hippie, and I do take a more rogue/wild approach to life in general; You can’t take yourself too seriously. Wild Flour just made sense. And I love the nod in our logo to a more free-spirited time and sense of optimism. After all, who doesn’t love flowers?!