The Big Interview: Genius gluten-free creator Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne
But while the firm claims the title of No 1 gluten-free bakery brand in Britain, whose products are sold as far afield as Australia with target sales worth £65 million this year, its founder, Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, insists: “The journey has only really started.”
Her aim is for the Edinburgh-based business to at least double in size over the next five years, and rise to become the biggest gluten-free bakery brand in Europe, the US and Australia.
The roots of Genius are well-documented, and saw Bruce-Gardyne harness its founder’s encyclopedic knowledge of food, which she gained as both a student and teacher at Leiths School of Food and Wine, co-author of cookery reference book Leiths Techniques Bible and chef de partie for a spell at prestigious restaurant Bibendum.
Her family created the famous Lyons food empire. But she studied physiology at university, planning to become a doctor and wanting to make a difference. However, food had always been her biggest passion, “and I was just desperate to get it out of my system before I went and did something serious”.
It was cooking for her gluten-intolerant son that forced Bruce-Gardyne to take an unorthodox approach to creating food, and she became determined to enable him to enjoy the same things as everybody else, in a world where living without bread is not easy.
Coming up with a solution posed the “ultimate development challenge” that she relished as a scientist and chef, and tapped into her desire to create a business, seeing a real gap in the market.
Formulating the recipe for a loaf was a painstaking and complex process, given that gluten forms a key part of bread’s structure, and her children proved tough critics, taking a long time to give the green light to her efforts, which could exceed a baker’s dozen a day.
But her persistence was encouraged by a fellow parent at the school gates, who would regularly ask how her bread-making was progressing.
He was Sir Bill Gammell, the founder of oil and gas explorer Cairn Energy, who has coeliac disease, which makes him unable to eat gluten in wheat and other grains.
Bruce-Gardyne recounts how after dropping off a loaf at his house, “he rang me really very quickly after to say, ‘Lucinda, you’ve got something really special here and I would really like to help you take this to market quickly, because if you don’t, then someone will go off with this idea.’
“He was brilliant and invested money in the idea, which allowed us to pull a really fantastic team together,” she continues, noting that his involvement enabled the company to negotiate with supermarkets and build a brand around the home-baked loaf she had developed.
The benefits have clearly worked both ways, with Gammell crediting Genius as having changed his life “dramatically, because I can now eat bread in the morning and later in the day without any problems”.
He has also described Bruce-Gardyne as the gluten-free sector’s equivalent of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, and “very humble”. Suitably, the baking pioneer says that without Gammell’s involvement, she would have started a business anyway, but it would have been a “much slower and smaller concern than it turned out to be”.
Scaling up to industrial production proved as hard as formulating the original recipe, but was bolstered by joining forces with a gluten-free bakery, and the first loaves hit Tesco’s shelves in 2009. She singles out that “most incredible moment” as “the beginning of everything, really, as far as Genius was concerned”.
Demand quickly became fierce, with customers reportedly queuing outside supermarkets on delivery days, with the company moving from a standing start to providing stock for 700 stores across the UK, and production quickly hitting 10,000 loaves a week.
Elated consumers contacted Bruce-Gardyne describing, for example, how they had been able to enjoy simple pleasures like a bacon sandwich for the first time in years. “People had given up on the idea of ever being able to eat bread again, and there we were presenting them with a product that really did fill that gap for a soft and fresh loaf.”
The firm’s growth has come in tandem with steeply rising awareness of food allergies and intolerances, as well as many people simply preferring to follow a gluten-free diet, and its customers are split equally between those unable to eat gluten and those opting not to.
While estimates of the global gluten-free market’s potential vary, one study has forecast that it will reach $4.89 billion by 2021.
Furthermore, research from Mintel earlier this year found that in the previous six months, about a fifth of Britons bought or ate gluten-free products, while 12 per cent of new food products launched in the UK in 2015 carried a gluten-free claim, up from 7 per cent in 2011.
Bruce-Gardyne describes Genius’s growth as “immense”, adding that when the firm launched, it saw an opportunity, but “nowhere near the opportunity that we have now lived through over nearly eight years”.
A watershed moment was its £21m acquisition in 2013 of Finsbury’s Free From unit, including a bakery in West Lothian. “I think we were so delighted when we finally bought our bakery in Bathgate because it meant that we were completely in control of our innovation and quality going forward,” says Bruce-Gardyne.
In late 2015 a third manufacturing site was set up, and production of gluten-free filled pastry products brought in-house, following the purchase of Chapel Foods, with 30 staff joining the Genius team operating from a new production facility in Scunthorpe.
Its range, which has extended to more than 20 products, now encompasses croissants and sausage rolls and crumpets, having grown from the original loaf on the back of rapidly broadening customer demand.
“The moment people think something is possible, then the desire becomes overwhelming for other food types,” says Bruce-Gardyne.
While proud of the business’s growth to date, she stresses that it hasn’t been straightforward, requiring constant learning and innovation, “trying to understand at molecular level what will make the difference” given the broad range of competitors that have emerged.
Her own role on the board of Genius as a product director means she remains closely focused on developing all of Genius’s offerings, some of which can take two to three years to evolve, with the firm unafraid to take its time to get something right.
“My passion is creating really challenging products,” she says. “The important thing that we do as a business is aspire to all of our products being as good or better than the mainstream equivalent, because what we want is for people to have complete normality and convenience.”
She works “more than full time”, spending at least three days a week at the bakery, two in the office or in travelling as the firm purses its global growth.
Its products are sold in more than 20,000 distribution points globally. In Europe Genius has become brand-leader in France and the Netherlands. There is also a presence in the United Arab Emirates and North America, and each market “does have a particular taste and texture preference”.
The outlook is “exciting” for the firm, Bruce-Gardyne believes. “I’m determined that we become as available to our consumers in the markets that we’re focused on at the moment as we possibly can with the best possible products. That’s going to keep me busy for a long time yet.
“Fortunately, even today we are still growing at pace, which just shows that there is so much more to do.”
Bruce-Gardyne recently won the Women’s Business Council Enterprise Award as “a fantastic example of how women can start a business from scratch and successfully scale up her business”.
“It’s very nice to be recognised by them as someone they feel is a real model for the women that they’re working with,” she says, stressing the need to provide an accessible example to other women as someone who started a business from her kitchen.
“It is possible. I think it’s really important that if you believe in something strongly enough and are determined enough, you can make great things happen from your home.”