Growth of Gillian's Foods mirrors gluten-free market surge

by Jeff Gelski
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Gillian's Foods is a family business.

The gluten-free market has evolved since the early 1990s when Susan Otolo had trouble ordering a hamburger for her daughter Gillian. Restaurant workers had no idea why they needed to take off the buns. Celiac disease, which Gillian has, and gluten-free products were hardly known back then.

Bob Otolo, Gillian’s father, started developing food items for his daughter, which led to the creation of Gillian’s Foods. Today the gluten-free bakery delivers to retailers nationwide. In August the company will double its production space by moving to a facility at the Shetland Park area in Salem, Mass., 20 miles northwest of Boston, from its current facility in Lynn, Mass. Bob Otolo serves as company president while son Robert is vice-president, daughter Gillian Sideri is office manager and son-in-law Nick Sideri is operations manager.

Milling & Baking News this month interviewed Bob Otolo and his daughter about the growth of their company and the gluten-free market.

Milling & Baking News: How old was your daughter Gillian when she was diagnosed with celiac disease?

Bob Otolo: She was diagnosed when she was 6 years old. It took us about two years to get the diagnosis right. No one had any idea what was going on. It was a tough go to find out what was really wrong with her.

MBN: What did you know about celiac disease and gluten-free foods at that time?

Bob Otolo: All I did know was when we found out she needed a gluten-free diet and we explored her options — I was an executive chef by trade at the time — there was nothing for her to eat. She was basically on a steak and rice diet at that time. We couldn’t find bread or anything for her. She asked me, ‘Am I going to eat steak and rice for the rest of my life?’

I started playing with different grains and flour, and I came up with the original French roll, which actually started my company.

MBN: Gillian, how difficult was it to switch to a gluten-free diet as a 6-year-old.

Gillian Sideri: I guess I really don’t remember. This is the only way of life that I know. I do remember going to parties and not being able to eat the pizza or my mother would have to bring a special cake. It was always a spectacle.

MBN: How has the gluten-free market evolved in such areas as consumer awareness and product quality?

Gillian's Foods offers gluten-free cupcakes.

Gillian Sideri: Tremendously, from awareness to the variety of products, to the labeling of gluten-free items. Going into a restaurant and feeling confident that you are going to eat something and not feel sick. Walking into a grocery store and walking down the aisle and seeing all these wonderful products.

MBN: How has Gillian’s Foods changed over the years?

Bob Otolo: We’ve developed through the years 32 s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units), where we only started off with 3. Every time we turned around, we were asked about desserts. We were asked about making pies, cakes, cupcakes and so forth. All this demand came about.

We like to be like a one-stop shop. You can have bread crumbs. You can have pizza dough. You can have desserts. You can have bread. We are national. We are nationally based. We do land, sea and air.

MBN: Why are you moving to a facility in Salem from the current facility in Lynn?

Bob Otolo: We’ve been in this building (in Lynn) for 10 years. We started out with 5,000 square feet. About four years later we added another 5,000. We seem to be expanding every three to five years. In our expansion we actually out grew this building (in Lynn). We’re going over to Salem now, which is doubling our capacity. Now we’ll be at 20,000 square feet.

What we need as a company now and what we’re going to need as we grow later, we think that Shetland Park will be a good fit for us. We are constantly growing, and they have plenty of room there.

MBN: What are some of the raw materials you use that are gluten-free?

Bob Otolo: We use a lot of rice flour. We do a lot of product with tapioca starch, potato starch. We work with a lot of gums. We try to get a blend of those items so that it’s not gritty, and we found out that by using more starches versus rice basically you get a better taste and texture profile.

MBN: Going forward, how could gluten-free products still be improved?

Gillian Sideri: There’s a big void in the bakery department of grocery stores. They don’t have any (gluten-free) fresh baked cupcakes or pies — cakes that somebody can go to the grocery store and pick up for a birthday party that night. So we’re strongly targeting those markets for individual cupcakes, mini cupcakes all the way to occasion cakes for the holidays.

Bob Otolo: And it’s getting to be accepted (at grocery stores) as well. Years ago, they wouldn’t even think about bringing anything into the bakery department, anything ambient temperature. Now, all the buyers are starting to get on board and feel they need that for the customer base.

MBN: How is Gillian doing today?

Bob Otolo: She’s wonderful.

Gillian Sideri: I’m doing great.

— Jeff Gelski

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