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    PG Web Extra: Cool to be Gluten-free

    Mikey’s Muffins’ founder/CEO on what it takes to create a BFY frozen product

    By Bridget Goldschmidt, EnsembleIQ
    Right: Michael Tierney,founder and CEO of JMT Foods Inc., maker of gluten-free Mikey's Muffins

    "A common assumption is that gluten-free bread is kept frozen because it is organic or low in preservatives," notes Michael Tierney, founder and CEO of Manhasset, N.Y.-based JMT Foods Inc., manufacturer of the gluten-free Mikey's Muffins product line, which launched this past May. "However, some of the biggest gluten-free breads on the market contain more preservatives than regular mass-market white bread. The reason gluten-free bread is stored in the freezer is because of turnover rates."

    Continues Tierney: "At the beginning of the trend, gluten-free breads were so slow-moving that retailers needed to keep them in the freezer to preserve shelf stability for months on end. Now gluten-free breads have become so popular that most of them probably don't need to be stored frozen anymore; most retailers are keeping them in their freezer aisles due to the fact consumers are accustomed to looking there for the brands they regularly purchase."

    With Mikey's, however, which Tierney describes as "a wholesome and healthy product that contains a very short list of ingredients" -– six, to be exact –- "we had to turn to frozen storage in order to give the produce the shelf stability needed to sell at the retail level. Without frozen storage, our products only last a few days, but with frozen storage, we have shelf stability up to a year."

    Embracing Frozen

    But rather than play down this method of preservation, "we embrace being a frozen product," asserts Tierney. "The reality is that since the vast majority of gluten-free breads are kept frozen, distributors are welcoming when we tell them that Mikey's Muffins needs to be stored frozen. This is the same for consumers; most expect to find us in the frozen aisle. The key is to get consumers to recognize that Mikey's Muffins need to be frozen because they do not contain the typical laundry list of compounds and preservatives that our competitors have. We stress how wholesome and clean are products are, and how, thanks to frozen storage, we are able to deliver our products to the masses without concerns of spoilage or diminished nutrition."

    Unique packaging was another key consideration. For the product's boxes, the company opted to go with "top-drawer packaging in comparison to the market," says Tierney. "Bright and high-quality packaging is not a new thing, but it is a concept that is rarely used in the gluten-free market."

    In fact, he notes that the 4-count, 8.8-ounce boxes' striking colors and close-up product shots make them "jump through the freezer door. They stack nicely, and when next to each other, it creates the image of a full toasted Mikey's Muffin. Frankly, it's the best advertising we do. This branding carries over with the consumer all the way to their home freezer. Due to our packaging, retailers have been giving us prime placements in their freezers. … [T]hey enjoy seeing something like our product, which is driving consumers to open the door a little more frequently in the gluten-free section."

    'Aggressive' Promotions

    To promote the line, the company has embarked on "a concentrated effort of media outlet reach, which includes radio, TV and Internet, to convey the benefits of Mikey's Muffins as a conveniently frozen product," says Tierney.

    This all-in approach extends to store level. "At retail, we have tried to be very aggressive with the promotions and discounts we offer," he observes of the muffins, which normally retail for $6.99-$7.49 per box. "Freezer space is extremely limited, costly and forces vendors to get aggressive to ensure they have a chance of being able to be brought in by the retailers. We believe in our products and their potential longevity, knowing that once we are on the shelf we will not be a fly-by-night product. It is very important to us to make sure the retailers know we are willing to support their marketing plans and needs."

    Mikey's in-store playbook also includes giveaways in which a shopper who buys a certain number of boxes at one time receives a T-shirt, banners and signage for smaller retailers, punch-card loyalty programs, and what Tierney calls "lots and lots of sampling."

    Expanding on the last item in that list, he adds: "We really think sampling is key. … [T]he gluten free market isn't saturated with overly great-tasting breads. There is this predisposition to think they all lack flavor. We want to get the product into the consumer's hands and have them taste the difference."

    As well as being gluten-free, Mikey's, available in Original, Toasted Onion and Cinnamon Raisin varieties, offers "paleo-friendly, low-calorie, multipurpose English muffins for those who can't, or choose not to, eat gluten, dairy, soy or grain," explains Tierney. "We hope to roll out a frozen pizza late next year under the brand's name, using the dough/batter from Mikey's Muffins as the crust."

    And what does he see on the horizon for the frozen dough, bread and roll category as a whole? "With … an overall push towards healthier eating on the rapid rise, the market is exploding," he affirms. “Consumers' demand for higher-quality products is going to force manufactures to step up and stop cutting corners. More and more companies are going to create breads and baked goods that contain [fewer] preservatives, which will only expand the variety and selection in the frozen bakery market."

    Getting it Right

    When Jen & Joe's Cookie Dough was developing its most recent flavor, Oatmeal Toffee, which was introduced at the beginning of the year, the company ran into some problems sourcing ingredients that were up to its high standards.

    "We couldn't find [toffee] that was truly all natural," recounts Jen Laska, president of Los Angeles-based Gourmet Frozen Cookies Inc., which makes Jen & Joe's. "So we have our toffee custom-made by a small company in Texas. And we add crisped rice in the dough to lighten up the density of the oatmeal. It gives the cookie a nice balance between chewy and airy."

    Available in 12, 1-ounce portions of cookie dough per box, the item retails for a suggested $5.99.

    By Bridget Goldschmidt, EnsembleIQ
    • About Bridget Goldschmidt In addition to serving as Progressive Grocer’s Managing Editor, Bridget writes many print and digital features encompassing a range of grocery and fresh categories across the store. Bridget also enjoys on-site reporting assignments at such key industry events as the New York Fancy Food Show and the International Boston Seafood Show, in addition to visiting stores for PG’s prestigious Store of the Month feature. In her years with the magazine, she has developed into a knowledgeable voice on grocery industry trends, sought by such distinguished publications as The New York Times. Follow her at www.twitter.com/BGoldschmidtPG.

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