A STRUGGLE to find nut-free foods for Angela Russell’s two-year-old daughter Kirsty, following her diagnosis with a serious allergy, led to the formation of her own nut-free food manufacturing firm.
Nearly a decade later, the company is going from strength to strength as it looks set to see new lines introduced with hotel group De Vere.
It’s Nut Free specialises in manufacturing nut free products for those with a nut allergy and its range includes flapjacks, cereal, cakes, biscuits and confectionery.
Its client base includes Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, the National Trust, NHS hospitals and De Vere – its biggest customer.
It’s Nut Free, based in Northallerton, has seen its sales increase by an average of 187 per cent year-on-year over the last two years and it is expecting this growth to continue into the foreseeable future, said its founder Mrs Russell, as she revealed the company has struck a new agreement with De Vere Venues – one De Vere’s key brands.
She said that from February It’s Nut Free will supply its conference centres across the UK with three new lines.
Mrs Russell said: “We currently supply De Vere Venues. There are 29 venues set in beautiful grounds with dedicated business and leisure facilities. They currently take a minimum of 300,000 bespoke De Vere Blueberry and Cherry Energy Bars from us.”
She added that with the three new products going into De Vere Venues, the total energy bars it will take from It’s Nut Free per year will double.
Mrs Russell said: “I am delighted. It increases the number of products they are taking from us, it increases the range and choice for customers and obviously increases sales as well.”
For 2012, there are three “significant” new contracts in the pipeline, said Mrs Russell.
She also said: “We have some big plans for growth and we are always expanding. The factory we are in has room for a mezzanine level and we currently only operate on one shift although that may be changing to two shifts in the near future.”
It’s Nut Free, which exports to Dubai and Australia, has also started supplying universities as well. “On the whole it is a recession proof business in terms of sales and demand”, said Mrs Russell, who continued: “We have noticed that supermarkets, for example, are buying little and often rather than placing larger orders and holding stock.”
In her own experience, Mrs Russell said demand has grown particularly in the food service market. She said: “I developed It’s Nut Free’s range to be delicious and appealing to everyone as well as being safe for those with a nut allergy. Caterers have realised that it’s easier to use nut-free products for everyone if they are as good, or better, than their standard range.
“Online sales have increased steadily as social media and the internet in general has changed the way people shop.
“Sadly, the other time we see a significant rise in sales is when somebody dies of an anaphylactic reaction to nuts. I think this is because people who would sometimes take a risk on something labelled ‘may contain traces of nuts’ realise that they are taking a significant risk and turn to free-from suppliers they can trust.”
Mrs Russell said free-from has become “big business” in the dairy-free and gluten-free areas particularly, adding: “This may be as much to do with the ‘celebrity’ diets of people such as Carol Vorderman and Victoria Beckham, with dairy-free diets often also being acceptable to those on a vegan diet, as it is to do with those with intolerances, which can further be split into a few areas – those who are diagnosed as medically intolerant, those who diagnose themselves with home testing kits and those who may experience a few symptoms after a meal and then self diagnose their intolerances based on that.” She said this is not recommended.
But there are still relatively few free-from nut food manufacturers in comparison to the number of dairy-free and gluten-free food manufacturers, she said. This is despite the fact nut allergies have trebled in the last five years in the UK, said Mrs Russell, and are set to double again over the next five years.
But food firms are sometimes reluctant to make a foray into the market for free-from nut products owing to the associated risks, said Mrs Russell.
She said that if someone with a nut allergy came into contact with a nut the effect could be fatal, whereas with gluten or dairy products, she said, nine out of ten times the reaction was not an anaphylactic.
Mrs Russell declined to discuss turnover or profit figures, but she said: “I’m pleased with how we are moving forward.”