Bella Gluten Free is on a mission to bring joy and health back to those that follow a restricted diet. “Bella” means beautiful in Italian, which is both a link to the founder’s heritage and her belief that restoring health and taste is truly a beautiful thing. I got to meet Bella Gluten-Free’s founder, Mary Capone, at this years’ Natural Products Expo West trade show in California. In this post, she shares about what drives her as an entrepreneur – and how the natural food sector’s focus on high quality, healthy ingredients could be an opportunity to work more closely with farmers.
Tell me about your company — what is your origin story – why did you decide to launch a company?
Mary Capone: I’m a trained pastry chef and was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2003. It was a big change for me. It inspired me to learn how to make high-quality gluten-free and allergen-friendly food that tasted great. Nothing less would do.
In 2005, I started an allergen-friendly cooking school. It started off as a gluten-free gourmet cooking school. After teaching a little while, I found out that people with gluten issues typically have more than one allergy. It soon became a school for everyone, in other words allergen-free academy. I taught school for 5 years and wrote a cookbook entitled The Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook.
The idea for Bella Gluten-Free came from working with students who would always ask me, “When are you going to come up with a pre-made mix we can use to make it even easier.”
One of the things that drove me to start my company was a strong desire to bring happiness and joy back to people on restricted diets at a larger scale than the cooking school could achieve. Bella Gluten Free shifts the focus away from what we can’t eat, to what we can.
I started Bella Gluten Free in 2010 with a soft launch in a few specialty stores in the Colorado Rocky Mountain area and we have been growing steadily ever since.
Tell me about your products – and how have you evolved them to meet consumer needs?
We launched the first product Bella Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Mix, in 2010. I wanted to create a perfect allergen-free cup-for-cup substitution flour for everyone to enjoy. Since I am a pastry chef, I designed it to be a gluten-free pastry flour alternative. Bella Gluten-Free All Purpose Baking Mix became widely popular in the Rocky Mountain region and is still our number one seller. Next we launched our new line Cup-to-Table in minutes line. They are truly mixes for baking made easy. Our brownies, cookies, pizza crusts, scones, biscuits and dinner rolls are designed for the busy mom, grandparent that wants to bake with their grand kids and busy people which is all of us. It truly offers fresh baked in minutes. Instead of having people purchase a large bag or box and deal with the left-overs, we introduced a single use cup that creates a full batch of yummy fresh baked treats.
And the mixes are allergen free. People simply pour it in a bowl, add 2-3 ingredients that are in their diets. For example you could add milk or butter if you don’t have a problem with dairy, or you could choose your favorite alternative milk or butter alternative. Consumers also have the option of using an egg or egg alternative. Just like in my cooking school, I wanted to make the food available for everyone to eat. The customer gets to decide if the cookies become vegan or not and are able to avoid multiple allergies if they need to using the same mix.
The focus is really on family – being able to bake something that is safe and high quality together and quickly. You get a large batch of hot gooey treats from the oven that you can enjoy on the spot. Baking with Bella Gluten-Free is a great experience for the whole family. So fun that they are going to want to do it again and again.
The primary beneficiaries of my products are those with food allergies – but more and more schools have allergy restrictions on what can be brought in – and my products offer a hassle-free way for mom’s to bake treats for class without worrying about triggering a classmate’s allergy.
Ingredient selection seems to be very important to your company. How did you decide on the ingredients themselves and where to source them?
I concentrate on sourcing most of the ingredients from within the U.S. because we have rules and regulations that others don’t have and we have some traceability here.
One of the main ingredients I work with is whole grain brown rice – and I have a number of requirements for the rice I use. For example, I source rice from Northern CA because other rice-growing areas such as the southern regions can have higher than average levels of arsenic in the water – which gets into the rice. For those on a gluten-free diet, rice is a key staple that they often eat more of than others without that restriction – so it was important to me to find the healthiest source of one of my main ingredients.
I also care about the way the rice is processed. Stone ground rice allows for more capture of minerals, so I prefer that approach.
Sorghum is another key ingredient – and from my research. We grow a lot of sorghum in the US with the best of it coming from the Midwest, so I source from there.
One of the things that really grabbed my attention about your company is that you have a really detailed and holistic focus on healthier ingredients – extending even into the minor ingredients. Tell me more about that.
With gluten-free flour blends and mixes, you often benefit from using multiple different starches to build texture in your product – ingredients like tapioca and potato starch blended with rice and sorghum for example.
These starches come in both modified and unmodified forms. Unmodified or native starches are in their natural form. Modified starches are those that apply a chemical treatment to alter the molecular structure of the starch to enable it to create more moisture in a food product. The problem is that this process creates a whole different product that the body isn’t used to eating, so it is harder for the body to digest it. Unmodified starch, on the other hand, can help restore healthy gut bacteria. For that reason, I only source high quality unmodified or native starches.
I investigated and found that I could increase the taste, texture and nutrition in my products by using different ingredients. It is more expensive, but I feel it’s worth it. One of the reasons I’m so passionate is that I had Hodgkins Lymphoma from untreated celiac disease. Luckily, I recovered quickly and the gluten-free diet was a great aid in recovery.
Tell me about what your company is doing on sustainability. Do you measure the triple bottom line (environmental, social, economic performance and outcomes)?
A big part of our sustainability comes from sourcing ingredients carefully and from places that we feel good about as we talked about. The traceability piece is very important – especially to people with severe food allergies. We have our non-GMO certification, vegan certification as well as gluten-free certification and our product is produced in a fully-dedicated allergen-free facility. Because of this, our customers can be assured that there is no cross-contamination – and that allows us to be a trusted brand for our consumers and the retail partners that carry us – which adds to our long-term business sustainability.
We are just about to start implementing a traceability by code program which will allow people to look up a code on of our boxes or cups and be able to enter it into a page on our website to see our particular batch testing for gluten. We always test less than 5 parts per million.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that our company has never had one return because someone got sick.
Additionally, all our packaging – including the outer packaging, is made from recycled paper – we call it renewable resource paper.
On the social side of sustainability, we do a lot of donations to celiac camps, conferences and other local charities. I’ve started making gluten-free food donations to shelters as well since there are people needing a special diet as well.
On environmental side, we do everything digital – newsletters, sale sheets and coupons – so we are saving on what can be a significant use of paper.
Where can folks find your products and learn more from you?
We are in a number of stores in the Rocky Mountain Region– King Soopers, Natural Grocers, Safeway, Whole Foods, Alfalfas, Lucky’s Market to name a few. And we are expanding outside our home region. In the east we are in Wegmans, in Texas; HEB, in NoCal; Railey’s and New Seasons and World Market gives us a national presence. We also have a store locator on our website where you can find grocery stores and restaurants that carry our products. We also have an online store where people can order directly from us.
If folks would like to learn more, we have a recipe newsletter they can sign up for or they can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. I also write articles for Living Without magazine which is now called Gluten-Free and More, an allergen-friendly magazine. There is be an article coming out soon about my travel to Italy and sampling the best gluten-free pizzas of Rome.