Interview: Delicious Alchemy

Emma Killilea

Emma Killilea, founder of Delicious Alchemy is diagnosed with wheat-dependant exercise-induced anaphylaxis

Delicious Alchemy’s products have been on our supermarkets’ shelves for a little over 10 years, but recently they’ve been inspiring a whole new set of devotees with their eye-catching rebrand, and exciting new range of baking mixes. Delicious Alchemy’s founder, Emma Killilea, was kind enough to talk to me about what’s ‘behind the brand’ and what motivates her to create ‘gluten free magic’.

Like many companies beloved of the gluten free community, Emma’s reason for being involved in the gluten free market started with a personal health story. She’d been suffering with a gradual onset of stomach and skin problems for some time. In 2003, after a walk in the countryside, she noticed a pain on her ankle – an ear of wheat had found its way into her sock and had caused an allergic reaction. “I remember thinking, if it’s doing that to my skin, what is it doing to my stomach?” she recalls. A series of trips to the doctors followed before being given a diagnosis of ‘wheat-dependant exercise-induced anaphylaxis’. She removed wheat from her diet and saw almost immediate improvement. Tests for coeliac disease also followed, but like many with gluten issues, she was unable to complete the required gluten challenge due to returning symptoms. She never looked back.

“I wanted to do something big scale”

Emma tells me, this was the moment she knew she wanted to create a gluten free company. “10 years ago, the options on the shelves were poor. I thought, ‘I can do better!” But whereas many set up small home-businesses, Emma thought bigger: “I was known for my cooking, but I wanted to do something big scale, not a cottage industry. I knew that would require specialist knowledge, so I decided to retrain”.

It takes considerable dedication to completely change career track. As a film graduate with a fledgling career in computer games design, Emma put herself on a crash course in running a gluten free company, by starting a ‘food marketing management’ degree at  Sheffield, focusing all of her modules on the gluten-free world. ”It was a great course,” she reflects “I was able to learn the market, as well as what was required in nutrition and business management”, but as it happens she never finished the degree. Before she got the chance, the idea for Delicious Alchemy was born, winning the university’s enterprise challenge competition to boot!

The new product range includes a gluten and dairy free sponge mix

The new product range includes a gluten and dairy free sponge mix

“It’s tough to be on a restricted diet”

I ask Emma how the significant market changes in the following 10 years have changed the business from its initial concept: “(Our customers) used to be just a hard core of coeliacs, but now it’s definitely much wider. There are people with other medical issues who are helped by a gluten free diet.” I challenge her a little on this – is there a wider ‘lifestyle’ market she sees Delicious Alchemy addressing? “For sure, you get some ‘dipper inners’, people who might pick a gluten free cereal but then follow it with normal toast” she concedes, “but let’s be clear, it’s tough to be on this kind of diet. I don’t think people would do it if they didn’t have to. We have a motto at Delicious Alchemy: ‘improving the lives of people on a restricted diet every day’. I hope we can make life a little bit easier for those that have to give up wheat.”

You might think with a larger market comes increased competition. Is this something that has been a challenge for the company? “Actually with a bigger market, it has become easier to get dedicated shelf space in supermarkets…and as a consumer of gluten free products I think the more choice the better!” Certainly, since Delicious Alchemy pioneered the introduction of certified gluten free oats to the UK market, there have been improvements in choice, supply, price and product quality. “I’m particularly proud that we have never had to put the price up of our products” says Emma.

“I strongly believe in the product’s ability to improve health”
We put the Delicious Alchemy bread mix to the test in our 'Bread to Bread' challenge

We put the Delicious Alchemy bread mix to the test in our ‘Bread to Bread’ challenge

The introduction of gluten free oats to UK shops is the thing Emma is most proud of. “It was high-risk, and very difficult to find uncontaminated sources,” she recalls, “but I strongly believe in the product’s ability to improve people’s health, by lowering cholesterol, reducing likelihood of heart problems, and also to increase fibre in the diet – something most coeliacs struggle with!”. I ask her about coeliacs who feel that they cannot eat even uncontaminated oats: “initially we faced an older group of consumers who had historically been told to avoid oats, as uncontaminated ones weren’t available, so it did take some time for the mindset to change. There are some people who are also sensitive to oats themselves, and of course, if it doesn’t make you feel good you shouldn’t eat it! But there are so many health benefits to oats, I would encourage people to try a year after diagnosis (under advice from their dietician)”.

The initial difficulty in sourcing uncontaminated grains continues to preoccupy Delicious Alchemy, and it’s 5-strong management team. “Anything to do with a grain, we consider high-risk,” Emma tells me, “We have to know the provenance of the ingredients we are ordering. We know where our grains come from, from field to fork.” The same kind of rigour applies to the ‘dairy free’ label on Delicious Alchemy products. She sees this as one of the key success factors for a gluten free business. “You must know the safety and the science (of gluten free food production). It’s not ‘fine’ to claim your product is gluten free if there ‘is no gluten in your house’, you have to trust suppliers, manage paperwork and take on legal responsibilities”. Something many of us know too well from falling ill from ‘gluten free’ labelled products produced by some well-meaning small businesses.

“Time for a revamp”
The Delicious Alchemy range in its funky new packaging

The Delicious Alchemy range in its funky new packaging

Since founding Delicious Alchemy, Emma’s role has changed. The commercial, legal, clinical, and day to day management of the company are taken care of by a board of directors, leaving Emma free to focus on strategy and special projects, most recently, the rebrand. “It was time for a revamp. When we launched the market was more ‘medical’, we hope this is more current and appeals to our new younger customers”. It comes with new products, including baking mixes, and an expanded online presence. “We definitely want to grow online, but we’re also expanding into new retailers” notably Co-Op have recently started stocking muesli, and a number of independent stores are to follow.

So what next for the brand? Emma isn’t giving too much away “keep an eye out around September”, she teases me, but in time for the colder weather we can expect to see dairy free (hurrah!) porridge pots and sachets. There will also be a stand at the Allergy Show in Liverpool, and at several of the larger Coeliac UK regional shows after a successful Allergy Show in London “the brownies were the winner of the week! And we always enjoy meeting customers and talking to them.” She is also buzzing about the entries submitted so far to the ‘Gluten Free Magic Bakeoff’: “Someone made the most incredible-looking chocolate eclairs… and it’s a really good prize – a weekend away with a meal at a great gluten free restaurant in Leeds”.

As we conclude the conversation, Emma tells me she’s soon off to Paris and will be exploring the gluten free restaurants and patisserie there, and I reflect that the companies I become loyal to are the ones run by people who are just like me, they understand the challenges, and occasional joys, of living a gluten free life.

One response to “Interview: Delicious Alchemy

  1. Pingback: The Gluten Free B 2014 Roundup | gluten free b·

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