Maninis Gluten Free

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY JESS THOMSON

 

Jim Collins is a smiley man with Irish charm who talks with his hands and his eyebrows. But his face crumples when he mentions his sister Laurie and her daughter Tracy. “She really had a difficult time finding out what was wrong with Tracy,” he says. “She wasn’t thriving. She was the size of a 3-year-old at age 5. They just wanted to uncover what was going on.”

In 2001, Laurie, who has a mathematics background, and her husband John, a chemical engineer, finally learned that Tracy had celiac disease. She needed to eat gluten-free. In their home in western Pennsylvania, Laurie and John—both natural tinkerers—started milling and blending their own flour mixes for the family from ancient grains that are naturally gluten-free. “They had a hard time with the rice-based products that were on the market,” says Jim. “They thought gee, can we really give her something that’s more high glycemic and has a lower nutritional value [than white bread]?”

Laurie, an avid baker, developed volumes of recipes based on her various flour mixes. Before long, she was selling the mixes to friends and in natural food stores in Pennsylvania, and had learned that she herself was gluten-intolerant, as were the couple’s four other children.

 

Meanwhile, as the economy sagged, the Seattle construction sector fell flat. Jim, who was a contractor at the time, visited Laurie and her family in Pennsylvania. He ate well—impressively well. So when Laurie suggested he take her side business to Seattle and make it grow, he did just that. He brought in Donna, another sister with a sales and marketing background, to help grow the business. (Jim, Laurie, and Donna come from a family of nine children.)

Within months, Jim and Donna transformed the business and Maninis was born. Jim named the flour company “little hands” in Italian for his niece, pluralizing it because it seemed easier for Americans to pronounce. They rebranded the flour mixes and charted a course to sell fresh gluten-free pastas as well. “We really keyed in on the rice-free nature of our product,” says Jim. They started with their all-purpose flour, Multiuso, before adventuring into things like their multigrain bread mix, which contains millet, amaranth, sorghum, teff, quinoa, oat, and flax. “Donna and I were also excited about the non-GMO aspect of our product. We wanted to make sure all of our ingredients were really top quality.”

 

In March of 2011, Maninis joined Seattle’s farmers markets community, selling mixes and pasta and breads at the Broadway and Phinney Ridge markets. There, Jim learned that talking one-on-one with the people who needed gluten-free products was the best way to find out what route the company should take.

Originally, the company’s goal was to provide flexibility for families with food allergies, so they could easily cook things at home. But Jim also heard people telling him that they wanted to buy finished gluten-free products. So he decided to do both, continuing to hone flour mixes and develop new pastas at the same time.

 

In 2011, the foodservice side of his business boomed, as the Seattle restaurant industry began picking up his pasta products. By the summer of 2011, Whole Foods had contacted Maninis to produce pasta and flour mixes for all the stores in the Pacific Northwest. (Whole Foods also invited them to participate in a small business loan program, which helped Maninis finance growth.)
Whole Foods was, naturally, a boon to the company. “We were able to put our mixes on the shelves and put our pasta in the specialty department,” says Jim. “We decided to focus on the grocery sector, even though we were still selling at 11 farmers markets through the fall of 2012.”

Over the course of about three years, Maninis has blossomed from a tiny farmers market stall to a full-on factory, now sprawled across 12,600 square feet in a warehouse in Kent. (It’s telling, perhaps, that Maninis recently took over a space formerly occupied by Otis Spunkmeyer’s line of baked goods.) Jim talks about missing the farmers markets with a wistful smile; it’s clear the rapid rise in business has cost him something he loves.

 

“As it’s always been, our goal today is to get great gluten-free food to the people who need it,” he says. Distributing through much larger channels—in grocery stores from Southern California to British Columbia, and through distributors like Sysco and Food Services of America—achieves that goal. Today, they also sell to larger institutions, like assisted living spaces, universities, and wellness programs at, say, company cafeterias, and to bakeries that use their flours to satisfy a new type of customer.

 

Given their connections to grocers, Maninis has charted a course for huge long-term growth. But what if eating gluten-free is just a trend? “For some people, of course it’s a trend,” admits Jim. “People do it for nutritive reasons or as a diet, but there’s growing evidence in all research that’s being done that there are issues with wheat as an inflammatory agent, and with gluten as an allergen and as a difficult protein to digest. It isn’t a fad in that sense. There’s a need that won’t go away.” The research Maninis trusts shows that 18% of the American population has some sort of issue with digesting gluten, and that’s not a market segment they’re willing to ignore.

But Jim also recognizes that they can’t grow carelessly, which is why they asked Brendan O’Farrell to be their go-to man for all things financial and strategic. “In a business like this, timing is really, really important,” says Brendan. “Our immediate future goal is to lock in on a very specific product—the new ravioli line we’re doing exclusively for Whole Foods—and stick with it, and not be swayed by everyone who comes in and says they need a strawberry gluten-free cake. We need to do what we do and carefully expand the product line when the time is right.”

“Overall, we are hoping to address the food chain so that wellness seekers and people who are gluten free have good choices to make,” says Jim. And, theoretically, that should never change, no matter how large Maninis grows.

 

 

***Look for Maninis gluten-free products in the Seattle area at Metropolitan Markets, Town and Country Markets, PCC, and Whole Foods Markets.

Jess Thomson is a Seattle writer and cookbook author who never thought she’d find delicious gluten-free ravioli. She lives on Phinney Ridge with her family, two animals, and ten thousand different flours.

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