2 academics take on the gluten-free pizza market

Workers gather up pizzas from the assembly line at Against the Grain, the Brattleboro gluten-free frozen foods company. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — With sales of her company’s products dropping at the Publix supermarket chain, Nancy Cain, co-founder of Against the Grain in Brattleboro, decided to travel down to Florida to see for herself what was going on.

Cain, whose company’s gluten-free frozen pizzas are sold in 15,000 stores nationwide, toured 31 Florida Publix stores in mid-November and found that the frozen pizza category overall had been shaved down to a fraction of its former size.

“Of all the products that were in there with us 18 months ago, we were the only survivors,” said Cain of frozen pizzas, including gluten-free, natural and organic. “They are shrinking the category. I saw freezer doors devoted to meat alternatives that weren’t there before.”

That development didn’t surprise Cain, a former college professor and investment banker who now owns — with her husband — a $20 million-a-year company with 100 employees in Brattleboro. For as long as she’s been in business, she said, gluten-free baked goods have moved in one direction or another in response to nonstop competitive innovation and ever-changing trends.

Cain, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology, spends a large part of each day studying food industry websites and mainstream media for clues about who is inventing what in the world of gluten-free baked goods. Lately she’s been hearing from stores looking for products that are paleo or ketogenic, both eating plans based on low-carb diets. She has saved a page from a mainstream food distributor catalogue that shows several types of insect protein available for sale.

“There are new startups every single day of the year, and they could be making crackers made of cheese, insect protein, the weird fringe things, high-protein muffins,” she said.

Another big disrupter is pizza with a cauliflower crust — a development that annoys her.

“It just slays me, because they still have more carbs than our crusts,” she said. “It has become a sensation. It’s a ruse; it’s not different. When you put dried cauliflower powder in something it’s not adding much to the nutrition of it.”

That said, Cain relishes the constant market disruptions, because her favorite part of the job is going into the test kitchen and trying out new recipes. Cain, 69, loves a challenge.

“The biggest regret I have is, I don’t have a lifetime to build this,” she said. “I wish to hell I had started it not at age 55, which we did; I wish I had started it at 30. This world is so much more interesting than academia. Every single day you learn about something new.” Cain wrote an animal science behavior book in her prior career and a gluten-free cookbook available in hardcover, paperback and on Kindle.

“I had no idea my biggest talent was developing recipes,” she said. “It’s really fun.”

A gluten-free pioneer

Cain and her husbandTom — a writer who has a doctorate in music composition and worked at Goldman Sachs — started Against the Grain in 2006 after she came up with gluten-free recipes for Tom and one of their sons, both of whom have celiac, an immune disorder that requires people to avoid gluten or risk damaging their small intestine.

The timing was perfect. Interest in gluten-free products was rising rapidly around the country at that moment as people became more aware of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Against the Grain took off, and is still growing. It has appeared on Vermont Business Magazine’s list of fastest-growing companies — often at the No. 1 or No. 2 spot – every year since 2014.

Worker loads pizzas onto the sauce conveyor belt at Against the Grain in Brattleboro. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Pizzas are by far the company’s largest category; Against the Grain produces 20,000 a week at its Brattleboro factory. The company also makes bagels, rolls, bread and other items. And Cain likes to experiment with desserts and other baked goods that the company sells in its factory store, which does a brisk business from its spot next to the manufacturing plant in a Brattleboro industrial park.

As food companies turn out new gluten-free products for the $17 billion industry, Cain constantly experiments in her test kitchen.

“We do a lot of R & D with Beyond Meat (a meat substitute), with jackfruit, coconut, pea protein, tiger nuts,” she said. “We constantly play around with new ingredients. The most recent one I just got was defatted sunflower flour — basically the hulls that come from processing sunflower seeds. It was really interesting stuff. I read about it and ordered a sample from New Jersey.”

‘I’ve made my peace with Walmart

Cain has a mildly subversive bent; the company used to sell T-shirts proclaiming “GF yourself” and recently commissioned a Colchester artist to paint a huge mural on the side of their building showing an arcadian Parisian bakery scene with tapioca plants growing outside and the company dog peering out of an upstairs window.

Cain is the rare local business owner who doesn’t complain about Vermont’s high taxes.

“I sound like Elizabeth Warren or something, but you know, I think those of us that make more money need to pay more,” she said. “Who is going to pay for our schools, our infrastructure, everything else? Taxes don’t bother me.”

That sentiment translates to a sustainable mission for the company. Starting pay at Against the Grain is $15 – with medical benefits and paid time off — and the company makes a point of saying on its website that most of the office staff was promoted from the factory floor. The company uses only Vermont eggs and Cabot cheese on its pizzas.