Two weeks in a row I find myself having to tell you about Gluten Free (GF)/Allergy Free or Friendly (AF) places closing. Here, at ODC, we just celebrated the 4th year of our Cafe, Deli and Bakery and 6.5 years for our frozen line of food and I feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to do what I love for the communities that I am a part of. It is so upsetting to have to share this news with you. Another one bit the dust on 9/30/16. What is even sadder to me is that I am the only one talking about it closing!
I wish there was a social media blitz when these places close so we could have a wake up call for the GF/AF community. Occasionally, we may hear about a dedicated GF/AF place opening up; unfortunately, we mainly hear about mainstream places that get customers sick; that news travels around social media like a virus! I wish this type of intense social media attention would be given when a place opens up so that our community would/could support them so they stay open.
Here is an example: My Facebook/blog post on Sept 13, 2016 about “Cheeri-Oh-Nos” making people sick had 120 reactions, reached 24,441 people and had 117 shares. How many shares will this post about this closing have? Whoever emails me by Sat 10/8/16 and guesses closest in the above categories, will win a ODC t-shirt. I will wait a week to see what the response rate is!
Well, I am here to give it to you straight. Ali’s Market Place by Gluten Free Zone, in Murrysville, PA (outside of Pittsburgh) closed after 4.5 years. This was a completely GF (gluten-free) cafe and the store carried all GF/AF products. I referred so many people there. What a shame; this store was awesome and they had a cafe too. Here is what they had to say:
It is with great sadness that we announce the closing of Ali’s Marketplace by Gluten Free Zone. Your patronage of Ali’s Marketplace by Gluten Free Zone the past 4 ½ years has allowed us to provide to the gluten free community education, specialty products, a certified GF deli and an award winning gluten free bakery. We thank you for the many friendships gained and appreciate the support we provided each other dealing with the somewhat complex health conditions associated with gluten. As we prepare to close our doors, we will be offering 30% off your entire purchase (excluding bakery).
In good health,
Ali, Paul, Melanie
After lasts week’s bad news, many customers asked me to get more specific in my analysis by giving some hard numbers, so I will do this for you. Being a member of the Celiac/Food Allergy communities and owning a GF/AF Cafe, Deli and Bakery makes me qualified to explain the problem to you. It takes courage to say it and I believe that you all want to hear the truth. We hear of people complaining about lack of options while the ones offering the options complain about the lack of customers. Something is not adding up here!
Let’s take an educated guess about what might have caused Ali’s to close. From my research; their prices were higher and they could just not compete with lower prices in Wegman’s, Wal-Mart, Giant, 2 specialty food stores, 2 other dedicated GF Bakeries and all of the gluten filled restaurants that are offering “gf” meals (hopefully safe when you eat the food).
Again, the problem is too much competition and the supply/availability of GF goods outpaced the demand! How can this be? Well, the population of Pittsburgh; 300k, Murrysville; 20k and Monroeville; 28k plus some more sparsely populated areas southeast of Pittsburgh . Their you have it folks..350,000 people = 3,500 Celiacs. They just could not support and keep all of these specialty places afloat. (for ease of illustration I am only using Celiac numbers) Again, distance needed to drive, higher pricing, and not enough customers are probably all factors. If they experienced what we experience….only 3.5% of the Celiac, Food Allergy and Gluten Sensitive community actually supporting them on a regular basis, I can understand it. I have no way to speculate as to what the numbers were for their grocery segment.
Specifics: Here, in Howard County (and Catonsville in Baltimore County), we have approximately 4,101 Celiacs (1.5%); 16,404 Gluten Sensitive (6%) and 32,809 with Food Allergies (12%).
*53,314 local people who need us; only 450 support us each week (this number will increase a bit in winter).
*The average family eats out between 4.2 and 5 times per week and that keeps the mainstream places busy.
*The average local person with Celiac/Food Allergies eats in our establishment less than 1 time per year! This is a dismal statistic for the communities that often complain there is no safe place to eat. I am sure that other specialty establishments have the same problem. Please keep this in mind the next time you have the choice of a completely GF/AF establishment or a mainstream establishment, wherever you are, and support them.
We see the average GF/AF customer about 1 time per year (actually the number works out to be under 1 time per year). In the past month a customer with Celiac told us 2 horror stories of being “glutened” at chains offering GF Meals. Dave and I thank God for our regulars every day, you keep us holding on and we can’t thank you enough for your ongoing support! We are not unique folks; we have the same problems as the others have. Sadly, many close and a few try to re-group and move to a more populated area.
The problem is that when completely GF businesses open, they over estimate the percentage of those who will support their business on a regular basis. I bet you all are shocked that only 3.5 % (of the 19.5%) of those that need us actually supports us on a regular basis. The other 96.5% are not coming out. I must admit, I thought it would be a bit higher; at about 9% or worst case scenario 4.5%. However, the sad reality is that only 3.5% of the population “in need” shows up. I will use this percentage in my next business plan if/when we open up another location.
Now you know why businesses open up to serve the needs of our close knit community and end up closing their doors. Sadly, it will keep happening unless all of us who are “in need” of safe meals step up to the plate by showing up and spreading the word about the ones doing it right. Thanks Ali, Paul and Melanie for a job well done on behalf of the GF/FA community in Pittsburgh, PA!