In the 1980s, “low-calorie” foods were all the rage. In the 1990s, “fat-free” snacks became popular. The following decade, people discovered “South Beach,” “The Zone” and “low-carb” diets, but immediately ditched Dr. Atkins for the most recent “anti-transfat” movement.
What’s next, you ask?
Based on industry forecasts, “gluten-free” may be the next hot thing. OK, it doesn’t sound as catchy as the South Beach Diet, but it could be very profitable. Gluten is a protein component of wheat, rye, oats, barley and other hybrid grains. More than 3 million people in the United States reportedly suffer from wheat, or gluten allergies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates gluten-free foods will be a $1.7 billion industry by 2010. That’s up from $210 million in 2001.
Marie Cassel, a Kauai entrepreneur, is banking on those numbers. Her company, Sweet Marie’s, is the first gluten-free bakery in the state. Cassel uses rice-based flour to make Chocolate Coconut Macaroons, Double Chocolate Fudge Brownies, Sour Cream Coffee Cake and other confections. Her gluten-free wedding cakes have caught the attention of Mainland brides who choose Kauai as a destination wedding. “When you Google ‘gluten-free’ and ‘Kauai,’ my bakery is one of the first to pop up,” Cassel says.
Cassel felt inspired to open her store two years ago after an extended vacation in South-east Asia, where she dined on rice noodles, fresh vegetables and papaya salad. She fell ill after returning to the U.S. and later realized it was because she had returned to her standard American diet of pasta, breads and cereals.
Then she put her money and resourcefulness behind the idea. To start Sweet Marie’s tiny 144-square-foot operation in Kapaa, she charged the $22,000 startup fee to her credit card. Everything except the $2,000 oven is second-hand. Cassel has ambitious dreams for her business, including moving to a larger location and publishing a gluten-free cookbook in the next year. “I want to be the next Mrs. Fields,” she says. Minus the wheat, of course.