A bacon butty in the morning, a sandwich for lunch and a slice of toast and Marmite for supper. We love our daily bread – but we take it for granted. Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne is a cookery writer who discovered that many people in Britain simply could not stomach bread and this omission consigned them to dietary purgatory. As a mother of three young children, she persevered for 18 months to find out how she could concoct a healthy loaf for those who are intolerant to wheat. But a chance conversation at the primary school gates in Edinburgh between Lucinda and Janice Gammell, the wife of Sir Bill Gammell, the head of oil giant Cairn Energy, helped turn her culinary search into a £10m-a-year business making gluten-free bread that is now changing lives.
“Bread is a staple, that’s what people do, they eat bread,” says Lucinda, the founder and innovator behind Genius foods. “Yet, if you had a gluten allergy you were stuffed. When you can’t eat bread it is a real handicap.” It was the needs of Lucinda’s first two youngsters that turned her professional interest into “Mmm … Genius”, an outstanding entrepreneurial success story for Scotland. Angus, her first child, had a dairy intolerance, but the realisation that second son, Robin, was allergic to wheat and flour led to a transformation.
“For Angus it was OK because a dairy-free diet wasn’t too bad,” says Lucinda, sitting in the meeting room of her converted townhouse office tucked away in a New Town lane. “But for Robin it was a nightmare. We just could not buy gluten-free bread that was any good.
“The stuff you could get was stuck together with gums, stabilisers and preservatives. I couldn’t believe these companies were calling their product bread.” Lucinda, now 39, is a foodie to her core, but to build a business she needed other qualities, which meant bringing in financial help to raise funding and retail expertise to ensure there was a market for her new bread. Janice Gammell recalls her conversation with Lucinda.
“Robin was five and my Harry was four and we were trying to organise a play session for the boys,” she says. “Lucinda started to explain to me about Robin’s allergy and how he was coeliac [a condition of the intestines where sensitivity to gluten prevents the proper absorption of nutrients].
“I said, ‘he’s safe with me, I know all about it because my husband Bill is coeliac’.” Janice, who is now a non executive director of Genius, says: “Lucinda’s uniqueness is her inventiveness and her deep knowledge of food but she has allowed experienced business people to come in and help her build the business.
“It can be very difficult for entrepreneurs to let go of their ideas, but Lucinda is really good at seeking help and advice from those around her. It’s an entrepreneurial trait she shares with Bill.” The Genius story is a heartening one. Lucinda grew up in Buckinghamshire as part of the Lyon’s family famed for its tea shops and Swiss rolls. Her dad worked as an executive in the business. Every Sunday was a roast lunch with granny, the stone-deaf matriarch, maiden aunts, rotund uncles and lots of children running around.
“Food is a very big thing in my family,” she says. “They were Jewish and in true Jewish tradition we met with all the extended family for big meals. “It was very entrenched in our family history and, because of the way I was brought up, I always wanted to cook properly. I always wanted to eat with my family and give them really good food.” Lucinda was interested in science and studied physiology at Queen Mary and Westfield, part of the University of London. “I didn’t know what to do afterwards, so I thought I’d do a quick course at Leiths School of Food & Wine just to get the cooking bug out of my system, then I’d go and do something serious,” she says. From the moment she crossed the threshold at Wendell Road in 1993, she was besotted.
“I loved it,” she says. “The best thing I’ve ever done. People talked about food all day, and then sit in the pub next door and talked about it all night until we were thrown out at closing time.” She knew she loved cooking and decided to get frontline experience in a reputable London restaurant.
She landed a job in Terence Conran’s Bibendum as chef de partie under the legendary Simon Hopkinson. “I had a fascinating year there and learned so much. But I didn’t enjoy it all,” she admits. Lucinda was still in her mid 20s, petite and fit but the constant physical bending and the lifting of heavy, often scalding, pots 16 hours a day, seven days a week began to give her back problems.
“It was really full-on and it wasn’t for me in the end,” she says. “Everything in my life had stopped other than work.” She left and set up a catering company called Thyme & Place with a friend from Leiths. It was successful, doing weddings, corporate events, parties and Lucinda met lots of interesting people. But her back pain persisted. She went back to Leiths as a cookery teacher, then director Caroline Waldegrave asked her if she would like to write the Leiths Techniques Bible, a book on methods of cooking. Lucinda, together with Sue Spaull, penned the best-selling tome. Using her scientific background, she was keen to understand why cooks use certain ingredients, and how they blended in cooking. It took four years to complete and it was voted by Waitrose as the sixth most useful cooking book ever, with Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories at number one. While researching her book, Lucinda’s husband Hew Bruce-Gardyne, originally from Scotland, landed a job back in Edinburgh and he brought a pregnant Lucinda with him.
She says: “I was a bit nervous coming to Scotland because all of my family were London-based and I was six months pregnant with Robin, my second baby.” Then Angus turned out to be allergic to dairy products.
He was being breast-fed but Lucinda was struggling late in the evening, so she decided to give him a milky bottle. Angus became deeply distressed and developed a red rash around his mouth. After a check-up, the health visitor noted that he was under weight and advised Lucinda to give him milky snacks.
“I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea. I thought he might be allergic to dairy. But I wanted to give it a go with a baby yoghurt. I put one spoonful into his mouth and he went mad. Within minutes, there was a red rash and swelling all over his neck, face and arms,” she recalls with anguish. Angus was taken to the doctors where it was obvious he had a contact allergic reaction. Feeding a baby without dairy was hard because there were limited products on the market.
“In the last five years there has been a great increase,” she says. “We had to discover soya milk, rice milk and dairy-free yoghurts. We tried all sorts of different products.
“It can be a lot to get your head around because you simply can’t pick something up. You need to be organised. Because I was a chef and I’d written a book about cooking and ingredients, it gave me the background to deal with this. I was aware I was lucky because I could experiment and work out ways of feeding my family. I had the confidence to try out different styles of cooking.” She also realised that unless people cooked from scratch, the diet would be extremely limited. This was the genesis of Lucinda’s second book in 2008, How To Cook For Food Allergies, which was a fresh look at favourite recipes. It was also dedicated to her mum Margie Monbiot, who passed away several years ago.
Lucinda says: “Her health would have benefited hugely from the improved understanding and wealth of information on food allergies that we have today.” While Lucinda had been trained with easy-to-find and robust ingredients such as wheat, flour, butter, eggs and nuts, her challenge now was to cook delicious food without these staples.
“The benchmark was that the recipes would only make the book if they were as good – or even better – than the mainstream alternative,” she explains.
“It comes naturally to me to do my own thing.” Some recipes were easy, with a dash of other ingredients, but she found that bread – which was 50% flour – a tough one to crack. How do you do it without flour? For the book, the alternative ingredients had to be familiar and bought in a good supermarket or a decent health food shop. Bread became the Everest to climb; it took 18 months to get the bread ready for the book. Meantime, Robin had arrived.
“By the time I got into the book, I discovered I had two sons who had food problems,” she says. When Robin was a baby he could eat anything. Then when he was two he looked grey around his eyes and developed dry skin. He wasn’t growing healthily and was tired and always cold.
“He was a pretty miserable young chap nd had constant diarrhoea,” says Lucinda. “It was really awful to see and I didn’t know what it was.
“He didn’t want a biscuit or a cake, which is unusual for a child. He didn’t want a sandwich and he would play around with his food.” Anything with gluten in it, such as toast and pasta, hurt his tummy and he would dash off to the loo. The doctors diagnosed a number of things but said they could only be certain about his coeliac condition with tests that would cause more upset to Robin but recommended that Lucinda remove gluten from his diet.
“I gave him a restricted diet which removed all gluten. Within two weeks all the symptoms had stopped and his skin was much softer. He was three-and-a-half. That confirmed it for me that he might be coeliac.” Lucinda continued her quest to bake bread. She was spending four hours a day getting the gluten-free flours right. It involved blending potato flour and cornflour with a small quantity of tapioca flour, rice flour and ground almonds. Gluten traps air pockets allowing yeast to rise, so she needed an alternative ingredient to capture the bubbles and used a sparing amount of xanthum gum. Batches of two loaves at a time in her domestic oven took its toll and the door fell off. Her book was well received and the bread was now looking and tasting good.
Lucinda went into Sainsbury’s at Blackhall in Edinburgh and spoke to the manageress. She agreed it had potential and suggested Lucinda approach a gluten-free bakery in Bathgate called United Central Bakeries (UCB). Lucinda went to see Paddy Cronin, commercial director at UCB, and over the next year they set about scaling up to find the equipment and inventing a process for making the bread in bulk. The bread had to be baked separately and to qualify as gluten-free it has to have fewer than 20 parts per million of wheat.
“It had to be made very carefully in the bakery and proven very gently,” says Lucinda. “Gluten-free bread isn’t as robust as normal bread, although it does have a shelf-life in the store of eight days.” Her initial thoughts were simply to supply local shops in Edinburgh, but meeting Janice was a turning point. She dropped two loaves in for Janice to give to Bill who rang up saying: “Lucinda, you’ve got something really good here.” He wanted to help – and he did. Lucinda had been expecting to do it all on a shoestring but now a significant investment from Bill changed the game and he was able to suggest heavyweight expertise. Janice and Bill called in Charteredbrands, the brand experts founded by Gervase Cottam, and a business that had been able to revitalised failing brands such as the dishwasher Sqezy and toilet cleaner Frish.
Gervase did some background work looking into the opportunities and, along with Dr Angela Pirrie, they found a major market was ripe for the picking. At a brainstorming session at Chartered brands’ HQ, they arrived at Genius, with Gervase agreeing to join as a full-time chief executive after a period as a consultant. With Edward Murray, the corporate financier and non-executive director of Baxters Foods as chairman, the team was now in place.
Lucinda’s husband, who was very supportive of the early project, stepped back, leaving Lucinda as the innovator and figurehead. There are now ten people working flat out to meet demand and work 24/7 for the bakery. Having Bill, Janice, Gervase, Angela and Edward on board chimes with a key piece of advice Lucinda received from her family before she started out the business.
“When you choose your business partners, look at their motives, values and experience,” she says. “If you trust them and share the same vision, then grasp the opportunity with both hands.
“It has surprised us how big the demand is for Genius bread. There are lots of peoplewho had just given up on bread altogether.
“When we got our first supermarket listing we were delighted. Tesco just jumped on us. We went from nothing to 700 stores nationwide overnight.” As soon as the six-month exclusivity deal with Tesco ended, Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury’s weighed in wanting the bread. This year Morrison, several whole food chains and 350 Co-op stores are taking the bread. But a deal with Starbucks in February this year to supply bread for gluten-free sandwiches has taken the company onto another level on the High Street. To date, they have sold over four million loaves and retail sales turnover is approximately £10 million a year.
“We’ve thought about baking down south, but we’re proud that we have a bakery in Scotland,” Lucinda says proudly. “We’ve managed to meet demand so far. Because it’s a breakthrough product there is no-one to ask, so the best way is to make it ourselves.” Genius sparks customer loyalty with 16,000 people signed up on the website, most thanking Lucinda for her creation. And she says there is a whole tray of products to come. Family life has been transformed too. Lucinda and Hew, with Angus, Robin and young Otto, are much healthier and love catching up in the evening. It’s special if grandmother Dorothy drops by, too.
“We eat together every night as a family at 6:30pm,” says Lucinda. “I don’t want us all eating different stuff – I’m not running a café. It’s much better that we all sit down and have the same food. It means that the children don’t have an opportunity to be fussy and faddy. We all eat the same and nobody notices the difference.” Perhaps somewhere down the line, Genius gluten-free bread might become the target of a take-over – but Lucinda is unlikely to do anything that tarnishes the quality and reputation. In all, it’s an entrepreneurial recipe for continued success.