Celiac sufferer’s plan to develop tasty food creates business

Failure was never an option for Brenda vanDuinkerken.

Eleven years ago, the Prince Edward Island businessperson set out to do what many before had tried, and failed, to accomplish: create tasty gluten-free food.

She succeeded, and the story of Duinkerken Foods shows what can be accomplished with determination and a strong business plan.

VanDuinkerken was 35 when, in 1994, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, a condition in which gluten in wheat, barley and rye damages the lining of the small intestine and hampers its ability to absorb nutrients. The diagnosis was a shock, and so was the remedy.

“You don’t realize how bad gluten-free foods taste until you eat them,” she said.

“I missed bread the most. The products on the market didn’t have the taste or texture of real bread and you had to toast it just to make it palatable.”

Rather than eat “cardboard,” vanDuinkerken tried to avoid bread and baked goods altogether.

“I tried but I couldn’t stay on a gluten-free diet,” she said.

“By 2001, my health had hit rock bottom. I was down to 94 pounds (30 lb. below normal) and naturally I was feeling pretty lousy. So I decided I would make gluten-free products that were so good people would be wowed when they tried them.”

How she went about that holds a valuable lesson for any farm manager facing a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Take away the big three bread grains — oats are also taboo for most celiacs — and you’re left making flour from potatoes, rice and tapioca, which are hardly a baker’s dream ingredients.

However, vanDuinkerken decided she would explore every possibility that might, even in a small way, get her closer to her goal.

“For three years I just kept baking,” she says.

“I’m sure I baked a thousand or more loaves of bread. And with a lot of it, you’d take one bite and then it was into the garbage. But I was making progress and that encouraged me to keep going.”

Baking wasn’t the only thing on her to-do list. VanDuinkerken and husband Wayne owned a seafood export business, and while on business trips in North America and Europe she visited ingredient makers to see their manufacturing processes first-hand. She went to trade shows, consulted nutritionists, dietitians, bakers and other experts, and collected data on the buying habits of gluten-free consumers and the overall market.

“Right from Day 1, we had a plan,” she said. “That’s what really keeps you going. Our goal was to make gluten-free products taste good and that was our focus all the time.”

Step by step, she got closer to her goal. She discovered that some manufacturing processes produced flour that had a better texture when baked into bread.

She learned how to adjust moisture levels so bread, muffins and cookies weren’t crumbly. She found ways to add vitamins and minerals to fortify her products.

It was three years before the van-Duinkerkens were confident enough to sell their seafood business and launch their new company.

Within two years, most major Canadian grocery chains were selling her products, and they were also distributed south of the border on Walmart’s U.S. website. Sales were soaring.

“We wanted to be unique and we wanted to wow our customers, and that’s what we’ve done,” says vanDuinkerken. “But it all comes back to the plan. It’s so easy to be distracted if you don’t have a plan, a clear focus, and an end goal.”

We all know what dogged effort can accomplish, but it’s easy to be intimidated when confronted with a major challenge.

Many farmers face that situation. Given today’s cost of land and equipment, how could you possibly double in size? How can a young farmer get started without a big inheritance? If you’re looking for change, how do you go about leaving the kind of production you’ve done all your life to take up an entirely new type of farming?

Those are daunting undertakings, but no more than what vanDuinkerken faced.

She said there were other keys to her success, including keeping debt to a minimum and setting realistic revenue targets.

However, the key ingredient in her baking business was a willingness to explore every available option and never stop searching for new ones.

“Every time we tried a new flour, we didn’t know what the end result would be,” vanDuinkerken said.

“But I was determined and I believed that if I stuck with it, I would see results.”

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