Delicious Alchemy, gluten-free food from Sheffield
PUBLISHED: 14:47 08 May 2013 | UPDATED: 14:47 08 May 2013
How the search for healthier food led to a tasty business opportunity.
Report by Jo Haywood
Medieval alchemists believed they could turn base metals into gold. Here in modern-day Sheffield, however, it’s a gold standard business that contemporary alchemist Emma Killilea is aiming for.
Her company, Delicious Alchemy, specialises in producing gluten-free food products – porridge, muesli, granola, bread, scones, biscuits – for supermarkets, independent shops, restaurants and events across the country.
The range, which includes wheat-free and dairy-free products too, has already won a slew of awards and is stocked in big-name stores like Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Booths and Holland & Barrett as well as smaller outlets like Fodder at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate.
Its founder is obviously passionate about her business but, as a former computer games developer, she wasn’t an obvious candidate for success in the fierce food industry.
‘The computer games business was ruthless and, because millions and millions ride on the end product, if you mess up it’s massive,’ Emma explained. ‘I worked on football games (she was development director for the Premier League Football Manager series). I felt it was an age-limited, gender-limited sector of the industry and, by the end, I wasn’t enjoying it at all.’
She also wasn’t enjoying good health either. Diagnosed with severe wheat allergy and celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that means she can’t digest gluten, she regular broke out in hives, suffered debilitating cramps and endured unbearable abdominal pain and bloating.
‘My food allergies were becoming worse and worse,’ she said. ‘So I decided to remove wheat from my diet and I was totally transformed. After living wheat-free for a couple of years I could see there was a gap in the market for quality food products. I was looking for a new business opportunity, and this was it.’
You can’t run a food business without a lot of training, so Emma went back to college to refresh her knowledge of chemistry and enrolled at Sheffield Hallam University, where she gained a degree in food marketing management and won £25,000 through a trio of business enterprise challenges – enough to get Delicious Alchemy off the ground.
Since then she has invested time, effort and cash into developing great-tasting, safe products for a growing market.
‘We’re always researching and developing new products to fill the quality gaps in the market,’ she said. ‘We were the first company in the UK to launch gluten-free oats and we’ve got some incredibly exciting new products in development right now that should be on the shelves by the end of the year.’
Delicious Alchemy is currently ten people but, as the product range and reach continues to grow, Emma hopes she will soon be heading up a 16-strong team. But success isn’t achieved by magic (not even if you’re an alchemist); it’s about hard work and a certain amount of hard-headedness.
‘I insist on effectiveness, no time-wasting and concise, targeted communication,’ said Emma. ‘You learn or you leave. It’s simple, but it works and you end up with the best team doing their best work.’
It helps, of course, that the boss has a unique insight into what customers want and, while it’s difficult to spin severe celiac disease into a positive, her condition has certainly helped to propel the business forward.
‘We have other people with celiac disease and allergies on the team and this means we have vital insight when it comes to product development,’ she said. ‘We also have good communication with our customers and they feel comfortable telling us what they like and what they think is disgusting.’
As the market for safe food continues to grow, through self-diagnoses, GP-diagnoses and as a lifestyle choice, so development continues. Every product in the Delicious Alchemy range is free from wheat, gluten, chemicals, artificial flavours, colours and GM ingredients, and many are also dairy-free, which Emma believes is the next burgeoning market to tackle.
‘Dairy-free is the next big thing,’ she said. ‘It’s what gluten-free was five years ago. Our new porridge in a pot range is gluten and dairy-free to hit both markets.
‘We’re only just launching ourselves into the dairy-free market. We’re taking tentative steps because it’s dangerous – someone could die if you get it wrong. A lot of our products have been dairy-free from the start, but we’re only just starting to make it part of our marketing. We had to make sure we had it nailed before we started pushing it.’
Emma obviously thrives on the daily challenges she faces as an entrepreneur, but this doesn’t mean she wants to spend every waking hour thinking deliciously alchemistic thoughts. To maintain her own precarious health, she aims to work to live rather than live to work.
‘I want the business to be making £6-10m by 2016 and I want my exit strategy in place for when I turn 50 in ten years’ time,’ she said. ‘I work four days a week now and want that down to three before too much longer. If I’ve got the right people in place – and I’m confident I have – the business will continue to thrive without me, and me without it.’