Lisa Garza's love affair with PCC Natural Markets is one that even Puget Sound can't suppress.
Working in doctors' appointments and other errands to help justify the $26 ferry fare, she travels from her home on Bainbridge Island twice monthly to the nearest store in Seattle. Sure, Garza could fulfill her grocery list closer to home, but other retailers don't understand her needs like PCC. Garza is a celiac consumer.
After being diagnosed with celiac disease six years ago, she spent countless hours researching what she could eat. Back then, gluten-free products were obscure and celiac resources scarce, making for exhaustive grocery missions that took about two hours.
“Some people thought I was a stocker because I'd take forever at each aisle combing through everything,” she told SN.
Today that's all changed, and not just because Garza has done much of the legwork. Retailers too are paying more attention to celiac suffers, expanding their gluten-free selections and refining sets to include more palatable options. Some are even taking cues from celiac support groups like the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, Auburn, Wash.
Last May, PCC became the first retailer to gain gluten-free endorsement from the national non-profit. Lunds & Byerly's, Edina, Minn., will be the next chain that GIG vouches for. Whole Foods Market and Wegmans Food Markets could soon follow since both have expressed interest in the designation. But it's not easily earned.
Before qualifying, PCC worked for a year-and-a-half on a consistent gluten-free identification system, a staff training program that even includes the box boys, and additional consumer resources and education.
It was motivated by the opportunity to help shoppers like Garza, but the endorsement is also impacting the natural food cooperative's bottom line. Gluten-free item sales grew an astounding 21% in the fourth quarter of 2010 vs. the same period the previous year.
Although she thought PCC did an exceptional job before the changes, Garza — who authors the Gluten Free Foodies blog — has been pleasantly surprised by the improvements.
“It's the kind of grocery store that you can walk into and have the confidence that you're not going to have to consume that two hours that I did in the beginning,” she said. Garza is especially appreciative of themed displays of gluten-free ingredients for holiday baking or Super Bowl snacks.
“It's nice to know that while you're looking at all this stuff that you can't have, there is this wonderful display next to it of things you can have,” she said.
Prepared specialties are also easier to come by now that gluten-free products are highlighted in PCC's grab-and-go case. Quick and easy options are great for any consumer, but a godsend for celiac sufferers who become experts in scratch cooking out of necessity. The task proves especially challenging for celiacs dealing with the common symptom of fatigue. That's why Tops Friendly Markets, Williamsville, N.Y., organizes its gluten-free products with meal planning in mind.
Positioned side by side within its natural and organic section are groups of ingredients that a celiac sufferer can use to prepare breakfast, for instance, or make a pizza for dinner.
“We try to make it easier for those people who might be confused or are just recently diagnosed with celiac so they're not sure what they're looking for,” said Tops spokeswoman Katie McKenna.
Indeed, the demands of a gluten-free lifestyle aren't just physical, but can be emotionally taxing as well.
When re-diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006 (after an initial diagnosis 35 years earlier at age 5), Barbara Mott of Massapequa, N.Y., had to relearn how to shop.
“In the beginning it was very depressing because I'd go into the store but I wouldn't know what to look for,” she said. “It actually sent me into a tailspin.”
Mott took back control, learning how to cope by taking things one step at a time. “I just focused on getting through each day and each individual meal and it made it much easier,” she said.
The A&P Waldbaum's banner where Mott gets her groceries doesn't use shelf tags to highlight gluten-free items, but she's grown accustomed to the store's layout and knows where to find what she needs.
A nearby King Kullen would probably be easier for a newly diagnosed celiac to shop, acknowledged Mott, since it segregates gluten-free products in a special section. But she sticks with Waldbaum's for its price and convenience.
Although she's learned the lay of the store's land, a sheet outlining the gluten-free items that Waldbaum's sells would be invaluable. “A list would be a blessing,” she said. Then there is the issue of cost.
While national-brand baking mixes go on sale for 10 for $10, their gluten-free counterparts seldom do, according to Mott, who shells out more than $4 for a cake mix. Her experience is not unique. No matter where you shop, items that are not naturally gluten-free come at a premium. In fact, Garza became so concerned with the cost of gluten-free foods that she organized a food drive to help celiac sufferers who can't afford their diet.
The value of these items sometimes comes into question when a consumer spends twice as much for a gluten-free loaf of bread only to discover it tastes like cardboard, noted Garza.
“There is nothing worse than spending money on a product that is expensive to begin with and then you taste it and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said.
To help avoid frustration, Schnuck Markets assembled a 10-person gluten-free advisory board and asked each person to list their favorite gluten-free foods.
Not all members shop St. Louis-based Schnucks, so the list included foods purchased online and from direct competitors.
“We were able to say, ‘Hey, we carry those’ or if we didn't, ‘We need to carry them,’” said Larry Maggio, a spokesman for 90-store Schnucks.
Members are sent home with a bag of products to sample after each meeting. Their thumbs up or thumbs down are relayed to a category manager who makes purchase decisions accordingly.
Board member input can help solidify shoppers' confidence in the products available at Schnucks, but before committing to a big purchase some consumers need to taste the item for themselves.
That's true of the celiac consumers who shop Hannaford Supermarkets' Leominster, Mass., store, according to Pat Hunter, its registered dietitian and nutrition coordinator.
Hunter is one of 22 dietitians in 45 Hannaford stores who facilitates tours focusing on the specific health needs of the local community. Recognizing a high concentration of celiac shoppers, Hunter began planning monthly gluten-free classes, store tours and special sampling events two years ago. Her co-host is a store associate who was diagnosed with the disease 13 years ago.
“She's a wealth of knowledge,” Hunter said.
Since the community is far from affluent, gluten-intolerant shoppers repeatedly attend monthly tastings, especially since coupons are distributed. Month after month, Hunter puts out quite a spread.
“People come back because they think it's really fun to try new foods,” she said.
In December, about 40 shoppers tried gluten-free Kettle Cuisine soup, Food Should Taste Good chips, Kinnikinnick English muffins, and cracker and cookies from Hannaford's Nature's Place line.
By separating gluten free demos from day to day tastings, Hunter ensures the products will meet their target audience.
About a dozen new shoppers stick around each month for the gluten-free class and subsequent tour. Hunter stresses the importance of keeping a balanced diet during the educational components.
The lesson is necessary since celiac sufferers typically cut out all grains to make managing their diet easier. But whole grains are still very important, Hunter said.
“They really need to have a diet that's nutrient rich so the villi returns to normal,” she explained.
Villi are tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine that normally allow nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream. When a person who cannot tolerate gluten eats wheat, rye, barley, spelt or other foods containing gluten, the villi is damaged and the person becomes malnourished no matter how much food they eat.
Gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat and teff offer a safe way to keep the villi health, according to Hunter who emphasizes their importance in class.
She even brings in teff wraps filled with chicken salad so shoppers can taste it for themselves.
Little steps like these go a long way toward forging bonds with shoppers.
“It's not just about, ‘Oh, I have a sensitivity to something,’” Garza said. “It's a very serious health condition that can cause all sorts of additional health problems like cancer and diabetes, so it's extremely important to know that the foods you're eating are safe.”