Parents offered new choices in allergen-free food

May 21

Enjoy Life is by now a well-known brand, and one that many of us have grown used to seeing in our grocery stores if not in our cupboards. This is a great story of a couple of guys who wanted to help out the growing population of allergy sufferers.

An idea that started as a class project between two friends is big business in the booming food allergy and intolerance market that one research firm estimates will reach $3.9 billion this year.

Scott Mandell and Bert Cohen, classmates at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in 2000, founded their allergen-free food company, Enjoy Life Natural Brands LLC, in 2001. The pair drafted their initial business plan for a school assignment in their last class before graduation. Their idea for an allergen-free food company was inspired by Cohen’s mother, who had multiple sclerosis and serious dietary restrictions.

“Quite frankly, we didn’t have a better idea at the time,” President and Chief Executive Officer Mandell admitted. “Once we got into it and got behind the numbers, we saw an amazing opportunity.” 

Mandell and Cohen continued working on a business plan after the class ended in the spring of 2000. About six months later, Mandell quit his job as a commercial lender to focus entirely on Enjoy Life. Within 21 months of Mandell quitting his job, Enjoy Life products were on shelves for sale. 

The pair hit upon a growing industry. The market for allergen-free foods nearly doubled between 1999 and 2003, growing to $1.8 billion from $947 million in retail sales in the U.S., according to New York research firm Packaged Facts, a division of Market Research Group LLC. Nearly 12 million Americans have food allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 

Food allergies and people’s awareness of them are also on the rise. The number of children diagnosed with the peanut allergy has doubled in the past decade, and the prevalence of food allergies in children under the age of 18 has increased by 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the academy. 

Enjoy Life started in a 6,000-square-foot “shoebox” on Chicago’s West side with help from friends and family who Mandell dubbed “angel investors.” In the beginning the company’s main distributor was Mandell, who would load products into the back of his car and sell them to natural foods stores throughout the Midwest. 

These days Enjoy Life products are carried in more than 50 grocery and natural food stores such as Whole Foods Market Inc., SUPERVALU Inc.’s Jewel-Osco, and Publix Super Markets Inc. Enjoy Life has gone from selling its products only in the Midwest to 85 percent of its sales coming from the U.S. and 15 percent from Canada. 

The company recorded $10 million in sales in 2008 and $8 million in 2007. Mandell declined to estimate what the company’s sales might be this year. “This year I’m expecting the worst and hoping for the best,” he said. 

Enjoy Life started to feel the effects of the economy in the fourth quarter, but Mandell said sales have picked up “substantially during the last six weeks,” something he attributed in part to slightly improving consumer confidence. Mandell attributed some of the sales softness in the fourth quarter to distributors taking their inventory levels down to three weeks from eight to 12 weeks. “Now I’m feeling it go back the other way,” he said. “I think they cut too deep.” 

Mandell attributes research done by the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center and Children’s Memorial Hospital in helping raise awareness about the increase in food allergies. 

“Is there something different in our genetic make-up? Is there something different in the environment? Yes,” said Christine Szychlinski, manager of the Bunning Food Allergy Program at Children’s Memorial Hospital. 

Researchers at Children’s Memorial are in the midst of a two-year study on 500 Chicago families to learn more about potential reasons for the increase in childhood food allergies. “We know from the children we are seeing here at our clinic that food allergy is on the rise, definitely,” Szychlinski said. 

As the number of people diagnosed with food allergies continues to rise, grocery stores have seen a growing customer base for allergen-free products. Whole Foods is one of the national retailers that has Enjoy Life products. The demand for allergen-free products has “definitely been a growing trend in the last decade,” said spokeswoman Kristen Kaza. 

Enjoy Life is one of the few companies producing food free of the eight most common allergens. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shell fish, soy and wheat cause 90 percent of allergic reactions, according to the nonprofit organization Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Most of Enjoy Life’s competitors’ products are just gluten-free, meaning no wheat, rye or barley, Mandell said. “We have taken that big additional step in being free of all common allergens so that makes us very unique,” he said. 

The allergen-free movement started to take off in the past two years when then Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. introduced a gluten-free beer in 2006 and General Mills Cereals LLC converted its half-century old Rice Chex brand into a gluten-free product in 2008, said Tatjana Meerman, publisher at Packaged Facts. “Heavy hitters have jumped into the market and that has spurred a lot of awareness and marketing activities,” Meerman said. 

Greg and Jenifer Herskowitz own The Allergy-Free Shop in Miami and carry more than 250 brands that offer an array of gluten-free, dairy-free or peanut-free products. Enjoy Life is the only brand they carry that is entirely free of all eight common allergens. During the last three years the selection of allergen-free foods “has grown exponentially,” said Jenifer Herskowitz. 

Denise Bunning of Lake Forest knows how limited the selection of allergen-free foods can be. Her sons Bryan, 15, and Daniel, 12, have allergic reactions to milk, eggs, tree nuts, shell fish, and beef. Bunning and her husband discovered that Daniel was allergic to milk the first time he took a sip of it. 

“He couldn’t breathe and his little face started turning purple. He literally almost died,” said Bunning, who co-founded the Bunning Food Allergy Project with her husband. 

The current economic climate has made Mandell rethink some aspects of Enjoy Life’s operations. The company had planned to introduce a line of crackers to come this spring, but Mandell decided to push back the launch until later in the year. 

Keeping inventory levels low at the warehouse, adjusting the quantities of supplies, and using social marketing platforms like Facebook and Twitter are all tactics Mandell has implemented in recent months. “With the economy the way it is, cash flow is always a more important consideration so we want to make sure we are managing our cash properly,” he said. 

Denise Bunning can’t afford to stop buying allergen-free products. She is still an Enjoy Life customer and said her son Bryan was a big fan of the company’s granola bar line for awhile. “It’s getting easier because companies are finally realizing that food allergies are unfortunately here to stay,” she said.  

via Parents offered new choices in allergen-free food .