Getting on the shelves at a major grocery chain is a coup for any food entrepreneur.
Kathie Schwarz has scored one even better than that.
When you walk in the door of the brand new ShopRite in the Cedar Knolls section of Hanover Township, her line of gluten-free products — manufactured under the brand name Gluten Free Gloriously — is right at the front, in a case of food items hand-selected by the store's in-house dietician.
Schwarz landed in ShopRite about a year ago — a significant boost to her 7-year-old business that prompted her to add a delivery truck to help support her storefront in Stirling and her warehouse in Berkeley Heights.
And it has helped keep her company at an annual growth rate of around 25 percent, with sales in the "hundreds of thousands" of dollars, she said.
"I knew there was a huge population of people who needed gluten-free food, but I didn't understand the magnitude," she said. "A lot of Celiacs, they want their basics … they want what everyone else is having and they can't have."
And Schwarz should know: She too is gluten-intolerant.
Shortly after Schwarz had her first child, she started having severe muscle pain and weakness.
That pain escalated to the point where she relied on a cane and even a wheelchair for several months just to move around.
She was tested for all manner of illnesses over the course of eight years, and even when she told her doctors she felt like her food was poisoning her, no one made the connection.
Turns out, the culprit was gluten.
A gluten-intolerant diagnosis — or even one indicating full-blown Celiac disease — isn't in itself life-threatening or even life-shortening, but it did require a complete transformation of the way Schwarz ate — and nothing about her new, gluten-free diet was delicious.
"There was nothing at that point," she said. "It was pretty much rice cakes."
"And Fritos," one of her longtime employees, Elaine Murphy, chimed in.
"The food was awful," Schwarz continued. "And I thought, 'OK, I can't live a life like this. I'll be too unhappy? So I started cooking and baking."
After three years working out of the kitchen of her home in the Millington section of Long Hill Township, she graduated to the storefront on Main Avenue and added a staff of eight part-time employees.
Now she has a full line of gluten-free products. Her pizza is her best-seller by far, but she also offers everything from loaves of Italian bread and sandwich wraps to cupcakes and tiramisu. Some of those recipes took months of testing to perfect; for others, it may have been as easy as four batches.
"It has to taste good, the texture has to be right, and it has to be able to freeze and defrost," she said.
The freezing part is critical, she said, because gluten-free food tends to go stale much quicker than normal, gluten-full products. So those with a gluten intolerance — as many as 18 million people in the U.S., according to the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment — inevitably end up freezing most of their food. If the food can't stand up to those conditions, that constitutes money wasted.
And eating gluten-free isn't cheap to begin with, Schwarz said. She struggles with pricing because, although the cost for her ingredients is high, she's reluctant to pass that along to customers, for fear of punishing them for a condition that's beyond their control.
"That's the mother in me, I think," she said. "It's not like you're choosing to eat that way. It's mandatory."
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