WATCH ABOVE: Shaye Ganam takes us on a tour of Kinnikinnick Foods.
GameChangers is a monthly series by Global Edmonton’s Shaye Ganam about people, projects or businesses that have changed the face of the city. If you have a suggestion for the series or feedback for Shaye, please email.
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EDMONTON — When Kinnikinnick Foods opened a tiny storefront operation in Old Strathcona in 1991, there were almost no options for gluten-free food in Edmonton — or anywhere.
So, the bakery, owned by Ted Wolf, quickly found an eager customer base. More than 20 years later, Kinnikinnick is one of the largest gluten-free food manufacturers in the world. The company turns out tons of product every day for markets across North America and in places as far flung as Hong Kong, Venezuela and the Philippines.
Jerry Bigam and his family were frequent visitors to the first little shop.
“My wife is celiac, subsequently my son is celiac, and subsequent to that, my grandkids are celiac,” he explains.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, in which gluten (a protein found in grains such as wheat and barley) damages the surface of the small intestine, preventing the body from absorbing nutrients.
It wasn’t long before the Bigams bought into the fledgling business, and started looking to expand.
“I suppose the critical thing that happened at the time we got involved was my son was a computer guy, geek — whatever you want to call it. He came in when we were looking at getting into the celiac business, and said we should look at the internet.”
It was a perfect move at the perfect time. Kinnikinnick became one of the very first companies in the world to market perishable food online. For $10, customers could have their favourites shipped overnight to any location in North America. Business boomed.
“Those customers started going to the stores saying, ‘You should carry this product because it’s really good,’ and stores started going to distributors and saying,’Where do we get this?’ and that became the next phase of our expansion.”
As demand grew, so did Kinnikinnick, with a new plant in 1997, and another in 2003 that topped 30,000 square feet.
But there was still room for growth, and once again, a perfect opportunity presented itself.
One of the largest commercial cookie bakeries in the world was selling its Edmonton plant, and Bigam got a great deal on the 150,000-square-foot facility.
“This was a world-class conventional facility, and when we bought it, it was like, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ ”
Kinnikinnick now works with dozens of distributors and stocks some 15,000 stores across the continent. Just keeping up with the North American demand has been hard, Bigam says, and Kinnikinnick’s international reach is limited. But the huge plant will allow them to triple sales in the next few years.
“The products we make in gluten free, going into the Pacific Rim market, are a perfect match for the diets they’re used to. There’s no grain; there’s no dairy. In a lot of these off-shore markets, they’re probably stronger than North America because they’re probably where we were 5,6, 8, 9 years ago.”
Offering everything from pizza crusts to donuts, Kinnikinnick can take much of the credit for how far the North American gluten-free market has come in the past ten years. As they look to the future, there’s an appetite for their continued expansion.