One business’ gluten-free recipe for success

  • Sun Feb 19th, 2012 3:22pm

By Pat Sisneros and Juergen Kniefel

We’ve seen many small businesses struggle in this recession, and pizza chains are no exception.

So when Dwayne Northrup, a Pacific Northwest native, opened his first Garlic Jim’s Pizza storefront in Bellevue in 2004, it was anyone’s guess how the entrepreneur would fare in a crowded and competitive industry.

Eight years and 28 stores later, it’s obvious that something about this business is working well. Garlic Jim’s is headquartered in Everett with more than half of its stores in the Western Washington region. There are five company-owned units, and the rest are franchise operations.

We know from the marketing discipline that small-business success is built on a unique selling proposition: What is it that sets your business apart with regard to price, product, place and promotion? Getting the marketing mix just right is as essential as getting the right mix of ingredients in food preparation.

Initially, the plan to set Garlic Jim’s apart was to use the best local ingredients and focus on a robust delivery force to ensure an excellent customer service experience. It’s a business that is modeled for take-out or delivery rather than a traditional pizza restaurant.

“Garlic Jim’s maintained a limited menu selection all along, which provided greater efficiency for preparation and baking,” said Ross Marzolf, director of marketing and public relations.

We’ve seen many entrepreneurs make the mistake of trying to be too many things to too many customers, and then fail because they are experts at nothing.

The Garlic Jim’s in Vancouver, Wash., started toying with the concept of a gluten-free pizza. In 2008, it became a pilot site for testing the feasibility of a product that appealed to the health-conscious and those with gluten allergies, while also serving the traditional wheat flour crust. The concept had been tried by other businesses, but many were turned off by the complex cross-contamination challenges in a commercial kitchen along with the higher cost of ingredients.

“Garlic Jim’s has always been seen as healthier-than-most delivered pizzas because of our emphasis on high quality ingredients and local ingredients when possible,” Northrup said. “Within that customer base we had a number of folks inquire about gluten-free. In 2008, there was no one making and delivering a gluten-free pizza. Our goal was to have people taste the pizza and tell us they loved it. Only then would we tell them, to their surprise, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s gluten-free.’ Once we achieved that goal, we knew we had a winner.”

In most pizza kitchens, wheat flour and dust flies everywhere as the dough is pounded and tossed, Marzolf said. The solution for Garlic Jim’s was to convert the kitchen workstations to use a corn and rice flour mix, thereby removing the wheat dust from the preparation tables. The interest for Garlic Jim’s was more than simply about health and wellness; Garlic Jim’s needed to learn if consumers were willing to pay the higher cost for gluten-free pizza. Turns out they were willing.

Another hurdle was system-wide roll out.

“It didn’t happen overnight; in fact the conversion took about a year,” Marzolf said.

Marzolf also knew it would be important to legitimize the chain’s gluten-free pizza, so he arranged to meet with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, which analyzes and evaluate processes, ingredients and nutritional claims by food chains and provides a certification process. He’s proud to note that Garlic Jim’s was the first pizza chain in the U.S. to receive the group’s certification.

The sales of gluten-free pizza fluctuate between locations. The demand is particularly high at the store in Seattle’s University District. Marzolf said this does not necessarily mean there are more folks with food allergies in that area, but perhaps these are consumers who are heeding the advice of health experts who are advocating for a gluten-free diet.

Garlic Jim’s has not emphasized business growth in the franchising of new locations because the current recession has taken a toll.

“Although there have been some store closures during this recession, our gluten-free sales have increased, and we’ve expanded the access to our great gluten-free pizzas by adding them to the freezer aisles of over 50 local grocers and natural food stores,” Northrup said.

Locations include local favorites such as Haggen, Puget Consumers Co-op and Metropolitan Market.

Certainly there are hopes of future expansion for Garlic Jim’s when the economy lifts and begins to grow. Meanwhile, the chain is focusing on doing what they do well: delivering a great product and providing a uniquely certified pizza experience.

Pat Sisneros is the vice president of college services at Everett Community College. Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the EvCC business program. Please send your comments to