Simply 7’s Gluten Free Exploration

Gary Murphy plans to take his pocket-size packets of gluten-free soy sauce nationwide this spring with a rollout in 1,000 grocery stores.

Last year, Randi Markowitz sold more than $400,000 worth of baked goods for people who are allergic to gluten, the wheat-based protein, or avoid it for other health reasons.

And Paul Albrecht, brand manager for Simply 7, says the company hopes to triple its business this year with a line of gluten-free chips it introduced in 2010.

“Business is so good it’s exciting,” Albrecht said.

These Houstonians are part of a growing number of “natural and specialty” food dealers profiting from Americans’ demand for gluten-free goods. A record $6.1 billion in gluten-free food and beverages were sold nationwide last year, up 16.9 percent from 2010, the Spins market-research firm reports. Mintel’s Gluten Free Foods Report projects those sales to exceed $7 billion in 2012.

Murphy came to the gluten-free niche as owner of Arisa Global, which he ran in Las Vegas. In 2008, he says, a business client showed him a picture of a fish-shaped plastic container and told Murphy if he could find a soy sauce to fill it up, he would buy it.

He started bringing in the sauce and struck his first deal with Caesars Palace, for a $50,000 order.

To keep up with consumer demands, Murphy switched to a lower-sodium soy sauce and, eventually, to gluten-free.

By 2009, Murphy had returned to Houston and raised $500,000 from 14 investors to get his Little Soya Premium Soy Sauce into grocery stores.

He now reports that the gluten-free Little Soya will be carried by a national grocery chain beginning in May.

Source of inspiration

Markowitz says she nearly died after getting dehydrated because of undiagnosed celiac disease, a condition that prevents her body from digesting the gluten protein. It is believed to afflict 1 percent of Americans.

But Markowitz found business inspiration in the experience. She borrowed money from personal sources three years ago to start Gluten Free Houston and invited members of the Houston Celiac Support Group to her home to sample eight or nine gluten-free items she had taught herself to bake.

To her surprise, 60 people showed up.

“I collected their comment cards and their email addresses at the open house and started marketing my food items to that list,” Markowitz said, “and that’s how Gluten Free Houston got started.”

It has grown 200 percent.

Lots of chips

Simply 7 exceeded its sales projections last year with its chips, which Albrecht described as a “healthier, cleaner, better-for-you product.”

The company focused on building its brand in the natural and specialty food market.

“We wanted to play in that marketplace,” Albrecht said. “To be successful in that market, you must be gluten-free.”

It now makes 100,000 bags of chips each day at its Houston production warehouse. The products are sold in 750 stores worldwide, and Albrecht said Simply 7 is “experiencing incredible growth” and working to extend the brand with more flavors and concepts.

“Gluten-free is a buzzword,” Albrecht said. “Outside of that, it’s healthy.”


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