Friday, February 27, 2009

Interview: Lee Tobin & The Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse

I recently had the privilege of meeting and interviewing a Gluten Free Pioneer - Lee Tobin from the Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse.

Lee's Story
Lee Tobin was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 1996 while he was working as a baker (of all things) for Whole Foods (formerly Wellspring) in Chapel Hill. Fortunately for all of us, his employer decided to let Lee tinker with creating and baking some Gluten Free baked goods. This process began in the Chapel Hill store as a Tuesday 4 hour baking shift with just Lee, his separate Gluten Free equipment and ingredients. The first product was cream biscuits and eventually Lee developed recipes for scones, muffins and sandwich bread. The products became very popular in the Chapel Hill store - Wednesday mornings were flooded with GF shoppers looking for Lee's creations. Eventually, the shifts and products expanded as well as the distribution to Whole Foods Raleigh, Cary and Durham stores.

As the word around North Carolina spread, other Gluten Free consumers began to wonder why they couldn't have Gluten Free items in their stores like those of us in the Triangle were lucky enough to have. The Winston-Salem GIG support group worked with the national GIG organization to bring the annual conference to Winston-Salem, NC in 2002. Lee Tobin was featured at that conference for what he was doing with Whole Foods and as they say "The rest is history".

Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse
Before long, Lee Tobin was granted his dream - a completely Gluten Free dedicated facility to make his Gluten Free baked items full time. Whole Foods opened the Gluten Free Bakehouse in 2004 in Morrisville, NC - just a short drive from Raleigh. The facility is an 8,000 square foot Gluten Free baked-good-making-machine which now employs nearly 30 people and makes 30 different products including pizza crust, bread, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, pies, scones, biscuits, brownies, and much more.

-Click here for the WF GF Bakehouse Web site.
-Click here for a list of products made at the WF GF Bakehouse.
-Click here for the ingredient listing for each product.

I had the opportunity to tour the WF GF Bakehouse with Lee Tobin. I was amazed at the operation underway at the Bakehouse - the day I visited they were making about 3,200 loaves of bread along with numerous other items. Lee also walked me through the Gluten testing done at the facility which has an on site testing lab which is staffed with a full-time Lab Technician and several Lab Assistants. The thorough process included not only testing the finished product using ELISA (5 Parts per Million) but also testing of the ingredients brought into the facility by outside suppliers. Every ingredient is sampled and tested for Gluten (5 PPM) before it is ever considered for use in a product at the facility. You should feel very safe consuming these products.

The Whole Foods Bakehouse is currently supplying the entire Whole Foods chain (about 280 stores) with their Gluten Free products. Amazing to think about if you consider the roots of the operation. Products are shipped to the stores daily and can be found in the store's frozen foods section. I have tried several of their items over the past few months including the bread, pie crusts, pizza crust, scones, muffins, cookies and cupcakes and have never been disappointed.

As a Gluten Free consumer, I give a ton of credit to Lee Tobin and to Whole Foods for branching out into the market and really giving Gluten Free products some serious momentum. We should all thank both Lee and WF for legitimizing the Gluten Free industry and successfully creating excellent tasting safe products for all of us.

A special thanks to Lee Tobin and the staff at the facility for taking the time to meet with me and show me around. I look forward to working with Lee in the future!


marylandceliac said...

The cheddar biscuits are awesome! I enjoyed the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving!
Thanks for doing the interview and sharing this.

Joe V said...

Does anybody know if it is possible to visit and get a tour? Or was that a one of a kind deal and special arrangement?

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