The Tomato

25 Years of Kinnikinnick Foods: gluten-free excellence

Gluten-free excellence

by Mary Bailey
All photos Curtis Comeau Photography

Jerry Bigam

Jerry Bigam, Kinnikinnick Foods

Ted Wolff Von Selzam was a gluten-free pioneer who started selling gluten-free baked goods at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market in 1989. He named the company Kinnikinnick loving the local bearberry legends, and thinking the name was unforgettable, if not easy to spell.

Lynne Bigam was celiac and a loyal customer. Like Victor Kiam, who loved the product so much he bought the company, the Bigams bought into Kinnikinnick in 1997, and became sole owners when Ted retired in 2005. Lynne left her law practice to work for the family business as does son Jay; Kinnikinnick’s early adoption of online sales was spearheaded by Jay.

The family has continued to build Kinnikinnick into a major global supplier of high-quality gluten-free foods. They have grown from four employees to 160. They are North America’s second biggest producer of gluten-free baked goods. Kinnikinick products are distributed though 65 warehouses and 15,000 grocery stores.

Lynne Bigam is watching trumpeter swans fly across Buffalo Lake when I reach her by phone on Thanksgiving weekend.

“It all began when I was diagnosed 30 years ago,” says Lynne. “I was very ill. When I was told all I have to do is change my diet that was no problem for me. The diet is great, it’s healthy. It was hard only in the respect that what I could purchase then was awful. It was frustrating to find something to eat.

“I was active in the Canadian Celiac Association and Ted would provide things for our meetings. Then he got this little store. We were an interesting trio — Ted is quite a character, I was a lawyer and my husband was a businessmen and very active.

“Ted kept saying, ‘you need to join me, you need to buy in.’ It was just one of those things. By then Jerry had sold his business and was trying out retirement. He hated retirement, so we became partners with Ted and in 1997 we bought out Ted when he retired. We had to keep moving plants as we were growing so fast and developing so many new products.

“I wasn’t active in Kinnickinnik to begin with. I taste tested, but didn’t get fully involved until 2002 when I became in-house legal council, a position I kept until 2015. Now I’m a director and work part time on special projects, wherever I’m needed — annual reviews, birthday parties, staff events.

“We have a stable staff. Over 70 per cent of our people have been with us for more that five years. They are our most important assets and we appreciate what they do. We try very hard to treat them well.”

One of those employees is Mindu Sandhu. Mindhu started when the company had four employees, cleaning up, working the till, making the pancake mix. She became a baker, then a bakery supervisor. In 2010 Mindhu started in the lab and is now a certified quality assurance lab tech.

Long-time employee Mindu Sandhu

Mindu Sandhu, Kinnikinnick Foods

“Kinnikinnick is just like a family,” says Mindhu. “The owners don’t act like owners. We have monthly meetings where we get together to celebrate birthdays and employee of the month. Lynne reads letters from customers.

“My husband asks if I’m bored; same place, same job. I’m not. There is a lot of variety in my job, testing for allergens, sensory tests every day, checking sample on the production line every hour. It’s a good job and I’m contributing to something that makes people happy.”

“We are making food that makes a huge difference for people,” says Jerry. “Our focus lately had been to remove all allergens from our products, not just wheat — soy, sesame, dairy, peanuts. Except eggs. We can’t do without eggs.”

The root of their business was in health food stores, smaller family businesses and online sales.

“The internet built our business. We were the first food site in North America in 1999. When we started out on the internet, people said you can’t ship overnight for $10, but we did. Customers then went into stores asking for Kinnikinnick.”

A few of Kinnikinnick’s best selling items

A few of Kinnikinnick’s best selling items

Kinnikinnick grew by being innovative.

The whole idea of gluten-free has expanded and we have to continue to be flexible,” says Lynn.

“Jerry is very good at creative things. He is always asking, ‘where can we do better, where can we expand, where can we go with this?’

“We are creating food products that are free from preservatives, artificial colours, allergens, dairy, trans fats and gluten, that are tasty and nutritional and healthy,” says Jerry. “Our goal is to develop products that look and taste just like conventional products. At least as good and hopefully better. We remember how awful gluten-free bread was in the beginning. We don’t use dough conditioners and all that stuff,” he says.

“You have to figure out how to grow your business, it’s easy to get bumped off. We are probably the most disadvantaged from a freight perspective being in Edmonton. We ship to Europe, and the UK is a big market. We are in the Middle East and are moving into Central America. The demand in China is great but we have to figure out how to service that market. It is good to be in markets that aren’t vulnerable to NAFTA.”

I asked Jerry where the ingredients come from, especially pulses.

“We pioneered the use of pea protein 20 years ago. We’ve been the largest consumer of these products. The second major local ingredient is a pulse product, a Canadian innovation from Manitoba and part of our supply chain for almost 20 years. Supply was tight a few years ago, but a new plant is being built in Manitoba.

“Alberta is tragic,” says Jerry, referring to the lack of processing facilities in the province. “I buy eggs from Manitoba and BC; pulses, potato starch and flax from Manitoba; I have to buy canola from Manitoba as the only plant is there. I am able to buy shortening from Alberta, it’s made in Edmonton.

“Manitoba had no choice, they didn’t have oil, they had to push processing. Finally, there is a new egg plant in Alberta, built three years ago, a cracking plant.

“No one wants to take the risk, to build more processing capacity here. It’s now being built in Manitoba by the largest pulse manufacturing outfit in Europe. I’m happy to see this new supply, but it’s annoying that we didn’t do it in Alberta.”

Kinnikinnick doughnuts

I ask Jerry what would success look like to Kinnikinnick in 20 years.

“If I live that long,” he says. “Our objective is to build a strong retail brand. The world needs companies like ours, strong, medium-sized, in touch with their customer. People are still going to have special dietary issues, so we need to be committed to our culture. Building a strong brand means food safety is paramount. Food safety is such a big deal in our industry and we have an incredible track record.

“Our standards are the highest of any manufacturer — two parts per million, that is the lowest you can test for and we do that. We test every ingredient that comes to us. That’s how we found a problem with gluten-contaminated dried egg. We stopped using dried egg immediately. If you want to use egg, put an egg in it.

Mary Bailey is the editor of The Tomato.

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