Vermont Nut Free Chocolates expands production, distribution to meet growing needs of allergy-suffers

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By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

An estimated 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including 5.9 million children – or about two per classroom – and while an increasing number of companies offer products that are safe for them, there is still significant room for growth, especially in specialty categories.

To help meet this need, the Vermont Nut Free Chocolates company is expanding production and distribution of its nut-free gourmet chocolates as well as the variety of snacks that it makes which parents can feel confident about sending to school with their children.

“The diagnosis of peanut allergy has more than tripled in the past decade,”​ which means even as more players and products enter the allergen-friendly category, the demand far outpaces what is available, Mark Elvidge, president and CEO of Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, told FoodNavigator-USA at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City this week.

An evolving category

He explained that for the past 20 years Vermont Nut Free Chocolate has strived to help consumers with nut allergies and their families and friends safely enjoy premium chocolates for all occasions, and in that time he has seen the category evolve and continue to grow.

“When we first started out, there wasn’t any labeling in the market. So, if you walked down the grocery aisle to find anything in terms of a raw ingredient or finished product, there wasn’t any warnings about any allergies. So, you really had to call manufacturers and ask what else they made, what else was produced in shared equipment and in the facility and if there was a risk of cross contamination of the allergies you were trying to avoid,”​ he explained.

“Today, there are more ingredients available that meet certain allergen criteria with all the awareness and the food labeling laws and the good manufacturing processes and now currently the preventive controls in the supply chain that are required of manufacturers. So, it is much easier, I think, to find ingredients for sources that are safer than they used to be,”​ he added.

Everything from specialty to everyday items still needed

However, he noted, while there are more products available now than 20 years ago, there are still gaps in the market for allergen-friendly products ranging from the need for specialty items to help mark celebrations and everyday snacks that can be enjoyed in nut-free classrooms.

As such, Elvidge said, Vermont Nut Free Chocolates strives to provide sweets for every occasion and is expanding into snacks that are safe for nut-free classrooms.

“In addition to our great lineup of everyday products from chocolate products to chocolate shapes … we also do the holiday novelty items. So, we have items for Halloween, Christmas, Chanukah, Valentine’s, and Easter. And our seasonal business is quite strong,”​ he said.

Elvidge added that he expects his holiday business to continue to grow consumer awareness expands through campaigns such as the Go Teal movement, which he said is “encouraging people to support food allergy awareness and offer products [at Halloween] that are not necessarily food related, so other items they can give out at Halloween, as well as safe allergen-friendly food.”

The company also recently expanded beyond confections with a line of Tanabar granola bars and trail mix to cover the growing need for every day snacks that are safe.

As the company’s portfolio expands, it is also expanding its production capabilities by moving to a larger facility in September.

Leveraging mail order lists to drive store traffic

It also is expanding its distribution in brick and mortar with a compelling offer to use data from its mail order business to help retail partners increase foot traffic and basket size.

“Our mail order business, which represents 60% of what we do right now, makes for a great retail partnership because we can actually go into a retailer and promise them that they we can deliver customers if they carry our products,”​ he said, explaining, “we can do geo-targeting through Facebook and also our in-house mailing list segmented by zip code, to drive traffic to that store that carriers our products.”

Elvidge also emphasized that while the company’s products are specifically created with allergy-sufferers in mind, they are premium enough that everyone will enjoy them.

“Anyone who likes good chocolate, likes Vermont Nut Free because it is not missing any taste, flavor or texture, even though it has the free-from label on it,”​ he said.

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