Small business: Catering to the gluten-free market

By Aimee Shaw

The New Zealand economy is dominated by small firms, and the Business Herald is putting the spotlight on some of them in a regular feature. Today: GFTreets' Jo Williamson explains how her business works.
GFTreets managing director Jo Williamson.
GFTreets managing director Jo Williamson.

What does your business do?

GFTreets specialises in gluten-free battered products, so we do gluten-free tempura battered fish, southern style coated chicken (a bit like you-know-what), hot dogs and doughnuts. We sell to supermarkets and food service distributors throughout the country.

What gave you the idea for the business?

We'd only just purchased a small food manufacturing business when our son developed an auto-immune disease.

After doing some research we adopted a gluten- and dairy-free diet to help control the inflammation in his body.

We've run cafes in the past and always had gluten-free items on the menu, but now we had a family member who was gluten-free, we realised how difficult it was to enjoy a traditional fish and chip experience together.

So our range is very much about social inclusion and being able to share that experience with your family and friends.

What is a typical day in the office for you?

It's very varied. I'm travelling quite a bit at the moment presenting our pre-Christmas catering range to customers, but when I'm in the office it can be anything from liaising with suppliers, setting up promotional programmes with customers, deciding what new product will be next to bring into our new product development stream and a lot of time on administrative and compliance work.

What are the biggest business challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

The Christchurch earthquakes are without doubt that most challenging time we have had in 25 years of being self-employed.

We hadn't long bought the business and had developed a growth strategy that we had just starting implementing.

The core of our business is our food service distribution network and at that time the business was still very strongly reliant on Christchurch. Some of our customers lost more then 250 of their customers, and some of our big accounts like AMI Stadium were wiped out.

GFTreets managing director Jo Williamson and operations manager Brent Williamson.
GFTreets managing director Jo Williamson and operations manager Brent Williamson.

We were also only four kilometres from the epicentre of the February quake, so even in a physical sense we were very lucky to survive.

We were one of three buildings in a line-up of industrial buildings and are the only ones left standing on the site.

One of our fryers which holds 200 kilograms of hot fat [180C] was running at the time and half of the fat came out as a wave onto the factory floor.

Organisations like the local chamber of commerce and some of the big accounting firms came out with some good material after the quakes to support businesses.

We developed a three phase recovery plan: survive, revive, thrive.

That plan has served us well, even though, like most things, it's taken a lot longer than we had originally anticipated.

We've got one foot in revive and one in thrive at the moment with some awesome projects coming on-stream.

What has been the best thing you have accomplished with your business?

It's really the social inclusion. We get the most amazing emails from people.

We even had a woman in tears at one of the Gluten Free Food & Allergy Shows after she tried one of our doughnuts.

GFTreets products.
GFTreets products.

She hadn't had one in 20 years. It's quite humbling.

What product is your best seller?

The cinnamon sugar doughnuts and hot dogs are by far the most popular, and are sold equally to cafes and restaurants as well as supermarkets.

What advice would you give to other small businesses operators?

Don't hesitate to spend money on upfront market research. It can save a lot of money in the long run.

I'm a big fan of market validation. I don't think a lot of people understand what other choices consumers have to spend on alternatives to the new product they are developing.

It's really important to know how many people are prepared to put their hand in their pocket and pay cold hard cash for what you have, and that the size of this market is enough to give you a viable business.

- NZ Herald

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