Gluten-Free and Organic Kitchens for Food Manufacturers Open in Berkeley
By Vic Dolcourt
Certified Kitchens helps gluten-free entrepreneurs with a difficult question: Where can I make my stuff? Vic Dolcourt spoke to Marie Banis, co-owner of Certified Kitchens about their exciting new gluten-free and organic facility in Berkeley where people with gluten-free food companies can rent space to make their products.
Vic Dolcourt: What inspired the concept of “Certified Kitchens”?
Marie Banis: It’s a little complicated. My husband, Thomas, designs commercial kitchens professionally and has done so for 35 years. I am one of the founders and continuing partners of Thoughtful Food, the manufacturer of Giddy Up & Go Granola. The connection is that it was necessary for Thoughtful Food to lease a commercial kitchen full-time to make our space dedicated gluten free and organic.
Leasing a commercial kitchen full-time for a startup is very expensive, so Tom and I thought it would be a service to the gluten-free and organic communities if we created food preparation spaces that could be effectively shared. We wanted to lower the startup cost barrier for fresh gluten-free and/or organic baked goods, shelf stable or refrigerated food products, and caterers. We’re also innovators. We have the only Northern California rentable dedicated gluten-free and organic commercial kitchens. The kitchens are first class and state of the art.
Vic: Do you maintain a gluten-free lifestyle?
Marie: Oh yes, I have to. Both my husband and I have a medical necessity to eat gluten free. It is our preference to eat organic food. I have always had a passion for cooking and eating healthy. We are sustaining members of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), our local organic certifying organization. I also support the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) through the GFCO certification of Giddy Up & Go Granola.
Vic: Can you connect the dots for me? How does all of this fit together?
Marie: Giddy Up & Go Granola is both certified organic and certified gluten free. I know what it takes as a commercial kitchen user to make products, gain certification, and ultimately sell nationwide at stores like Whole Foods. From that standpoint I am an experienced user, and Thomas is an expert commercial kitchen designer. Together we conceived of a business with two completely independent and stand-alone commercial kitchens.
Through our contract process I can assure compliance so that our food preparation customers have the confidence that they are working in clean spaces. For example, our two kitchen modules have separate ventilation systems and separate entries, so there is no airborne cross contact in the gluten-free kitchen from any gluten ingredients that are used in the organic kitchen. Both modules are walled off behind their separate digitally key coded doors.
As an added bonus to our customers, I can help them become certified organic and/or certified gluten free because I’ve done it.
Vic: You spoke of GFCO certification for the granola product. What was involved?
Marie: GIG was both very helpful and very quick. We had an opportunity to sell at Whole Foods, and we needed gluten-free certification. GIG helped us through the certification process, and flew a certifier from Pennsylvania. In addition to the onsite inspection, the certifier required that we provide a very detailed list of ingredients, their source, and the provider’s statement of content.
Vic: How about the process for organic certification?
Marie: Organic certification is both simpler and yet more difficult at the same time. First of all, you don’t have to be 100% organic. You state the percentage of organic ingredients used. But this is where the complication sets in. Each organic ingredient must be certified organic, and you have to provide a copy of the organic certification for every ingredient. You have to get this certification statement from where you buy your ingredients, and you have to maintain documentation.
Vic: Does someone who uses Certified Kitchens for gluten free have to use organic ingredients as well?
Marie: Of course, we would like them to be 100% organic, but that is not always possible. Organic is not a requirement for the gluten-free kitchen. But if they don’t use 100% organic ingredients which are naturally free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they must use GMO-free ingredients and provide that certification under our contract with them. Our kitchens need to remain free of GMOs. This actually is not difficult because there are lots of non-GMO wholesale products on the market. Many can be found on http://www.nongmoproject.org.
Vic: Do people who use Certified Kitchens need to be certified gluten free?
Marie: No. Beyond GMO-free our only requirement for the gluten-free kitchen is all ingredients must immediately conform to the new FDA gluten-free labeling rule, even though the FDA gives manufacturers until August 2014 to comply. We do not want products with 20 ppm or more of gluten in our gluten-free kitchens.
Vic: I’m naïve about how commercial kitchens work. For example, is there session schlep – does the user have to bring in all of their ingredients for each session and then take them home, or is there some type of storage? What about refrigeration, preparation implements – knives, mixing bowls, etc. – and cleanup? What is expected, and how is it enforced?
Marie: First of all, we have a contract with our customers, and the contract sets the terms and rules for things like acceptable ingredients (I have to review the lists), cleanliness standards, and bringing in outside food, such as lunches (you can’t). Our kitchens are open 24 X 7, and they are under video surveillance. Our customers contract for a certain number of hours and schedule time in two-hour blocks via the Internet. We provide secured walk-in cooler space as well as dedicated roll-around carts that are locked up. There is also additional non-refrigerated storage for reasonable quantities of goods and their preparation equipment, like knives, extra bowls, etc. We provide cleanup instructions as well as cleanup supplies. Our plan was to make it easy for people to operate. You can take a quick photo tour of our two identical kitchen modules. Both the organic and gluten-free kitchen are identically equipped. We want our customers to be successful.
Vic: Do you have advice for someone who has an innovative food idea?
Marie: Yes. My experience is that you will go much farther faster if you have certification. It makes your product easier to place at retail locations, and the certification makes your product much easier to sell to the public. This is true for both organic and gluten free. Also, you need to offer something unique, and be able to explain what make your product unique.
Vic: When does Certified Kitchens go live?
Marie: Within weeks and we have our first customers lined up. We’re nearly ready to start up.