Friday, August 20, 2010

A Look at the Whole Foods GF Bakehouse

Let me begin by saying that I am obviously in no position to be offering professional business advice to Whole Foods, and that these observations merely come from many years of experience in the gluten free world, both online and in reality. As well, I love shopping at Whole Foods. I have had nothing but great experiences with their company, products, and shopping environment as a whole. They stock many gluten free products that I cannot find anywhere else, and some locations even offer local support groups for Celiacs. I have happily spent a small fortune in their stores, and will continue to do so. With that being said, I believe that Whole Foods' Gluten Free Bakehouse products need a drastic overhaul.
The bakehouse operation is incredible. Their website ( details the attention to detail and just how intensely they value creating a safe and tested gluten free product. A separate bakery, an onsite testing lab, and protective gear for employees all protect their products from cross-contamination, which is a level of dedication not found in many companies. Despite this level of care, I feel that their product is outdated in the current state of the gluten free market.

In 1996, when the product line was first developed, there was very little available for Celiacs. Gluten free products were few and far between, and when they were found, they crumbled in your hands. They had to be stored in the freezer. They tasted like cardboard (the foundation for all of the "gluten free, not taste free!" style advertisements out there).
This was 14 years ago. Even within the past five years, the gluten free market has exploded. Having witnessed the dramatic transformation in availability, quality, and commonality firsthand, I can vouch for just how much has changed. What was a revolutionary product then has the potential to become archaic. Sadly, this is what has happened to Whole Foods' bakehouse products. I am not critiquing the taste or quality of most of the bakehouse products, as both are fantastic. There are also a wide variety of products available, from pie shells to muffins to croutons.

However, much about the product could use revamping.

For one, all are sold from frozen. With many new gluten free brands (including cult favorite Udi's) being sold as a regular on-the-shelf bread, it is strange to see that their breads must still be stored frozen. Even muffins and cookies are sold from the freezer. It makes their home storage and usage more difficult, and there's the potential for freezer burn, as well as crystallization of the bread, and disruption of taste and texture. If other companies can manufacture bread products and distribute them without freezing, there must be a way for Whole Foods to do so as well.

The products are also heavy in carbohydrates, calories, and sodium. They are notably dense in texture. Other brands make a lighter product that is easier on the gut to digest, easier to cook with, and better on the waistline.

Products are expensive, and sometimes, the cost is not justified by the portions. Frozen products just will not fare better than their non-frozen counterparts, especially if they are overpriced as well.

As well, their products are unable to be shipped directly to customers' homes. This should be an obvious given in the digital age, when everything is readily available online and can be there within days. Instead, customers must travel to a Whole Foods location and make their purchases there. I would imagine this has something to do with the fact that the products are sold frozen, as well as a way to draw more customers into the store (and create a higher sale).

Times are changing, and if you're eating gluten free, this is great news. Better products on the market are making our lives much easier and much more normalized. If Whole Foods wants its specialized line to remain relevant to the GF scene, it will want to make some serious changes to its product, specifically selling fresh, not frozen, and reworking some of its recipes to reflect the new market.

That being said, thanks for being there, Whole Foods! You provided for a community when no one else was interested in the market. Now please keep up; we don't want to see you go!

note: all photos taken from the Whole Foods Market site.

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