Pamela's founder reflects on evolution of gluten-free

by Monica Watrous
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Pamela's makes all gluten-free products.

BALTIMORE — Pamela Giusto-Sorrells was making gluten-free products long before it was trendy. In 1988, the founder and chief executive officer of Pamela’s Products developed a line of gluten-free cookies and a gluten-free pancake mix because, she said, “anything that was available that was gluten-free was really atrocious.”

Today, that’s hardly the case. Hundreds of new products showcased at Natural Products Expo East served as testaments to the strides made in gluten-free innovation. At the show, held Sept. 16-19 in Baltimore, Pamela’s debuted two snack bars made with gluten-free whole grain oats and a line of gluten-free graham crackers. The Ukiah, Calif.-based company also offers gluten-free baking mixes, cookies and fig bars made with organic or non-bioengineered ingredients.

“I just want to make great food that resonates with everybody,” Ms. Giusto-Sorrells told Food Business News. “I never wanted to be a ‘gluten-free company.’”

Growing up, Ms. Giusto-Sorrells spent her summers in her family’s health food store and bakery, packing rice and soy cookies for those with dietary needs.

Pamela Giusto-Sorrells

“They were kind of the joke of the bakery because it was like, ‘Who would eat this stuff?’” she said. “In 1988, absolutely nobody was making gluten-free products except my family. When I became aware of gluten-free and all these horrible things my family made, for me, it was, ‘Those poor kids who have to eat this!’”

During an interview with Food Business News prior to Expo East, Ms. Giusto-Sorrells discussed how the gluten-free market and her brand have changed in the past three decades.

Food Business News: How has your business changed since the gluten-free boom?

Pamela Giusto-Sorrells: I went to my first natural foods show in Anaheim in 1989. The retailers kept coming up to me and saying, “These (cookies) are really great!” And I’d say, “And they’re gluten-free, too!” And their answer was, “Well, we don’t care about that.”

That was the whole point of what I wanted to do, was to put out food that really tasted great but also had those benefits that would help those poor kids who were stuck eating soy cookies. That’s how I have always approached this, unlike so many companies who today are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, or they are people who were celiac who decided to start a food company. I do not have that reasoning behind starting Pamela’s at all.

Have you changed your packaging since then to emphasize your products are gluten-free?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: We’ve always had “gluten-free” on the packaging, but my thought process was I’d put it little on packaging, so if you’re looking for it, you’ll see it, and if you’re not looking for it, it won’t scare you away. Because before … I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “Oh, gluten-free? That’s that stuff that doesn’t taste good.” There was a whole stigma attached to gluten-free foods.

Now that you’ve got the likes of Kraft and Kellogg and Betty Crocker advertising gluten-free, I think it’s okay for Pamela’s to also say, “We’ve always been gluten-free.” We’re just going to put it on our package larger so that when you’re looking for something it’s easier for you to see that it’s also a gluten-free product.

What are your thoughts on the future of gluten free?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: I think that gluten-free will become for the grocery business the same thing that yogurt and soy milk have. Those are two items that when they first came to market, they were bizarre foods. People didn’t trust them. Why would you have soy milk or eat yogurt or tofu and other products? Now the public completely accepts them.

Have your formulations changed at all as more gluten-free ingredients become available?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: Oh, yes. Things like sorghum flour were not on the radar in the ‘80s. If you did gluten-free products, you used rice flours and tapioca starch. We’re in better spot today because there have been so many demands for upping the nutrition level in gluten-free products, so we are seeing a lot more whole grain flours coming out and a lot of the farmers are meeting that demand.

I’m always looking at my own products to see if they could be better. Every year something new comes out. There’s different ingredients, different products you can incorporate. I’m always looking at that because it really is about wanting to have the best products possible out on the market.

Pamela's products are in the baking mix and cookie aisles.

What other categories do you see the business entering?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: We look at it in terms of what would be advantageous for Pamela’s to get into. If you talk divisions, where is there to go, the freezer section, the cracker aisle. We’re already in the baking mix section and the cookie section.

For me it’s more about figuring out what are those foods I would want in my life every day that I can depend on, that I snack on, that I don’t buy once a year but all the time.

As a mom, as a wife, as a food shopper, what are the foods I go to constantly? What intrigues me? I’m always analyzing what I do and buy. Why did I pick up that package? Was it because of what it looked like? Is it because of the name? Was it because of what I think it represents? Is it a feel-good food or a craving food? That is how I approach product development.

Is your company limited in innovation because of your commitment to gluten-free?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: At this moment in my life, I like being a gluten-free company and being very definite about the direction we’re going in. I’ve always had the option to come out with things that have wheat, but we are a dedicated facility. The fact is that the consumers who need gluten-free products need better and better gluten-free products on the market.

Most of your product line is sweet. Is there space for savory or salty snacks?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: Absolutely. That’s something I’m definitely looking at now, is expanding in the savory category. And my consumers ask me all the time to do that.

The whole point of my being is to put out really great food to satisfy people and make them happy. I solely own the company. I don’t have investors or partners. I like that I’m able to push my agenda because I don’t have to follow somebody else’s desires, and I can be really true to committing to my consumers.

So if a buyer did come along, you don’t intend to sell?

Ms. Giusto-Sorrells: I have been asked repeatedly for the last 10 years, and I really don’t want to. I love what I’m doing. I have an amazing staff. It’s a lot of fun. For me, there’s certainly challenges and hard work, but when you have such a great staff and support system, it makes life so much more enjoyable. We’re all in this together as a big team, and we’re riding this all together. I like that. I love these people I work with and I have no desire to quit or retire at this point.
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