Louis Rotella III knows how tough it is to say “no” to foods you loved as a kid but now can't consume because of the terror it'll cause on the inside.
And each day, he smells agony in the form of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread baking just outside his office door — bread he can't eat because he's gluten intolerant.
The chief operating officer for Rotella's Italian Bakery based in La Vista hasn't tasted a piece of bread, or any food with gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, since 1996.
It's quite the curse for someone whose great-grandparents came from Italy and in 1921 started a business that's grown into one of the largest specialty bakeries in the country, one that has been passed from generation to generation. Louis Rotella III and his brother John Rotella are the fifth generation to be involved in the business.
Knowing that he wasn't alone, Rotella, John Rotella and a company team set out to offer a solution to the gluten problem. What they came up with are two recipes for gluten-free bread to be made inside a recently completed gluten-free manufacturing plant that is located next to Rotella's main facility near 108th and Harrison Streets.
The 55,000-square-foot bakery is one of the largest gluten-free manufacturing facilities in the U.S, and the Rotellas believe it will have one of the highest speeds. Another gluten-free manufacturer, Schar USA, opened a 60,000-square-foot facility in New Jersey in June 2012.
“We were really motivated to create something that is hopefully going to be seen as the best in class,” Louis Rotella III said.
Final testing of the products will be completed in mid-January, and you can expect to see the products in grocery stores before the end of the first quarter of 2013.
It's been a 3½-year project in the making, he said. In April, after years of research and development, the company started to transform a former Shopko Distribution Center just east of the main facility into a high-speed, gluten-free plant.
Rotella's personal stake in the project wasn't its only driver. His first cousin Helena Anderson, who is the bakery's office manager, and John Rotella's fiancee also have celiac disease. But a projected boom in the gluten-free food and beverage market convinced Rotella that the project was necessary if the company was to continue its steady growth and competitiveness.
An estimated 21 million Americans battle celiac disease — a diagnosed autoimmune disorder triggered by ingesting gluten — or some kind of gluten sensitivity, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.
Gluten-free product sales were $12.4 billion between August 2011 and August 2012, which was an 18 percent increase from the year before, according to SPINS Inc., a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.
The gluten-free diet popped up on the radar of market researcher the NPD Group about four years ago, said Harry Balzer, an industry analyst who tracks food trends.
NPD's research shows that today about 28 percent of adults say they're trying to avoid or cut back on gluten in their diets.
“That's a fascinating number to me,” Balzer said, “because about 20 percent of us are on a diet of any kind. We talk more about dieting than gluten-free, yet more people are interested in this subject.”
The reason consumers are interested varies, said Shelly Asplin, director of nutrition programs for the Celiac Sprue Association. In addition to people who are diagnosed with celiac disease and people who have a wheat allergy, there are people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
“We're just scratching the surface to really understand the non-celiac gluten sensitivity people,” Asplin said.
Others — an estimated 1.6 million Americans, according to a Mayo Clinic study in July — eat gluten-free because they say it makes them feel better.
Gluten can trigger more than 300 symptoms, Asplin said, including fatigue, headache and joint pain. More severely, it can cause gastrointestinal issues, small intestine damage and increased risk for other autoimmune diseases and cancer.
With that in mind, Rotella and his team went to the drawing board. They dreamed up recipes and, with an ice cream scoop and KitchenAid mixer, tested recipes — or formulas, as Rotella fondly calls the family secrets.
“I have five binders full of formulas,” Rotella said. “We were doing one a day for at least a year — and that doesn't take into consideration the years previous to that.”
He'll admit they made mistakes. Some recipes were similar to products already on the market. Others didn't have the texture, appearance or taste they wanted.
“Bread is very difficult because when it goes through the fermentation process, the carbon dioxide bubbles attach themselves to gluten to rise,” he said, noting that problem doesn't exist for other baked goods, like cookies, cakes and muffins. “We had to figure out a blend of different flours and starches and some other products to help compensate for that.”
Literally a thousand recipes later, he found that perfect blend. The end product was just what was wanted: Bread that was not crumbly or dense, was ready to eat without toasting and had a similar appearance and feel to typical bread.
Rotella's then took the products to consumers. At an October “battle of the breads” competition at the Linden Market Hy-Vee Store near 132nd Street and West Dodge Road, customers tasted Rotella's two gluten-free options and samples from seven other national gluten-free bread brands.
Customers ranked the flavor, taste, texture and their overall likes and dislikes, said Carrie Nielsen, the Hy-Vee dietitian who oversaw the contest. Rotella's products were overwhelming favorites, she said.
They were impressed that it still looked like a typical loaf of bread, she said. They didn't have to toast it before eating and it was light and fluffy, unlike the dense and crumbly gluten-free bread products on the market today.
Taste testers also were happy to see it was a good source of fiber and low in calories and carbohydrates. Those qualities aren't seen in other gluten-free breads on the market today, Nielsen said.
“It'll be a big hit when it hits the store,” she said. “People know the Rotella's brand and love it, and when they can't have it anymore, they're sad.”
Analyst Balzer said the real question, however, will be if the gluten-free lifestyle will be long-lasting. Food fads tend to come around every five to 10 years, he said. Through the 1970s and 1980s, health was about avoiding harmful substances. In the 1990s, it was about consuming fewer calories and sugar.
More recently, health has been defined by adding good things to your diet versus just avoiding bad things. Probiotics, like yogurt, and other methods to creating a better digestive system, like the gluten-free diet, are popular now, he said.
The trend is expanding beyond grocery stores and at-home eating. Looking ahead to 2013, gluten-free was ranked No. 8 on a “What's Hot” survey by the National Restaurant Association.
What's special about what Rotella's is doing is that they're providing consumers with products they are familiar with, Balzer said. “You're not giving me a new product,” he said, “just a new way on things, things I know.”
Project director John Rotella said the bakery was built for automated production, reducing the internal costs passed along to the price paid in the store.
The gluten-free plant is already filled with mixers, pans, conveyer belts, ingredients and an oven nearly half the length of a football field. Its interior looks much like a traditional mass production bakery, but Rotella said nearly each piece of equipment and method is different.
Structurally, it's different, too. Custom air filtration systems similar to those in hospitals were implemented to ensure no cross contamination.
Rotella's purchased mass production bakery equipment and then altered it to do the jobs needed.
The Rotella family recipes have been well-kept secrets for years, and the gluten-free line is no exception. Rotella said a major difference between the two is that gluten-free has more ingredients. Gluten-free products also differ in the dividing process and mixing times.
The gluten-free dough has less elasticity, is more like a batter and has a higher moisture content versus typical bread dough that's firmer, he said.
The process of making the gluten-free bread is more complicated than traditional bread, though the process is generally the same.
Both start in a mixer. The dough is then transferred to a divider. Bread with gluten relaxes in an intermediate proofer, or enclosed chamber, that moves along the fermentation process through high temperatures and controlled humidity, while gluten-free bread goes straight to a proof box.
Next, it's placed into pans. The pan of traditional bread then goes into another proof box to ready for baking.
After it's removed from the oven, the bread is automatically depanned and rides a conveyer belt. Both the traditional facility and the gluten-free one have a spiral cooling system that soars some 20 feet in the air and can hold the equivalent of about 9,000 buns, plant manager Ted Boro said.
The system turns slowly to cool the products before they're sliced, bagged, clipped and boxed.
The venture into the gluten-free market is a step that, in a way, signals a new generation of Rotella family members leading the company, Louis Rotella III said. After all, when Alessandro and Maria Rotella — Louis III and John Rotella's great-grandparents — founded the bakery 91 years ago, gluten sensitivity wasn't a known condition.
The first gluten-free products they'll roll out are soft white deli and multi-ancient-grain bread. Each are also free of dairy, wheat and nuts. The multi-ancient one has a unique blend of amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff grains, Rotella said.
Though change has been frequent through the years, each change of management keeps constant the morals, business practices and coveted Old World secret recipes that started Rotella's Italian Bakery.
And though today a large-scale manufacturer, Rotella's still is a family business.
Louis Rotella III said they don't even really have titles or specific job descriptions. Each does what needs to be done, whether that's running a big project like the gluten-free one or taking out the trash.
The Rotellas believe their hard work has paid off, and their next venture will be successful, too.
Already, Rotella said, they're seeing people have emotional experiences when sampling the bread in grocery stores because it's the first time they have tasted bread in years. The experience represents fewer empty moments at family gatherings where everyone else enjoys a sandwich.
It's a good feeling to bring a product back into people's lives that they miss so much, he said. “You see their eyes well up. It becomes so profound.”
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