NCtrend: Flour power

 In 2015-03

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by Courtney Price

Many food fads tend to be short-lived, lasting only until the latest nutritional study is published. But growing demand for gluten-free products is a trend that’s here to stay, says Kathy Milner, CEO of Dover Foods Inc. Her Mills River-based company makes the Ardenne Farm brand of gluten-free cake, cookie and muffin mixes, which launched last year in some western North Carolina grocery stores. It didn’t take long for the mixes to attract interest, bolstered by an award for the most inventive gluten-free product in September at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. “I don’t believe it’s a fad. It’s more of a lifestyle choice,” she says. Plus, she has plans for more products to come. “It won’t just be gluten-free. We’ll continue to expand into many other specialty desserts.”

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat that can cause health problems for people who have an intolerance or Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder tied to gluten. But 82% of consumers who eat gluten-free products have not been diagnosed with either, according to a November study by London-based market research firm Mintel Group Ltd. Global gluten-free sales were estimated to reach $8.8 billion for 2014, a 63% increase from 2012. the study says.

That’s why Milner is investing more than $1 million in a 17,000- square-foot expansion, which will double the plant’s size when it opens in late summer. She also plans to add 15 people over the next 18 months to her current staff of 45. Market tests are underway in a few Lowes Foods LLC stores, and Ardenne Farm products may be on shelves at all of the Winston-Salem-based supermarket chain’s stores later this year.

Milner and her husband, Joe McKay, started Dover in 1994 in Vermont after she left a job as an engineering manager for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont. They moved the business to the Asheville region in 2000. Initially, Dover made low- and no-sugar foods for the food service and corporate dining industries, serving more than 6,000 customers, including hospitals and colleges. About three years ago, some began asking for gluten-free cake mixes, which were so successful they prompted the move into retail sales in 2014. Dover also makes products for other companies to sell under their own brands.

Most of Dover’s expansion relates to Ardenne Farm products, but the rest of the business is also growing. “We are a fairly established entity in the food service industry, and I’d like to double the size of the business in the next three to five years. My idea is to expand into different markets with different products.”

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