From health food niche to global market leader

Burgstall 40 years ago Dr. Schär only a local player in South Tyrol. The company is still based in Burgstall, not far from Bolzano, at the foot of the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy. But the gluten-free products are now sold in more than 100 countries: At McDonald’s they are available as burger buns, at Lufthansa in the on-board bistro, and in many hotels there are individually wrapped slices of bread – made entirely without cereals containing gluten.

The company, founded by Ulrich Ladurner in 1981, has quickly become a global player for gluten-free foods. From the health food niche, the brand has made it into supermarkets and drugstores. In Germany alone there are 11,000 points of sale with an average of 32 items on the shelves.

The Schär brand, under which the gluten-free foods are traded, currently accounts for 90 percent of sales. According to various studies, around one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammatory changes in the intestinal mucosa when gluten is consumed. “People often suffer from gastrointestinal complaints, diarrhea and general malaise for years,” says CEO Philipp Schoeller, who has been running the company for two years.

Gluten refers to a specific protein component that occurs in various types of grain such as wheat, rye or barley. Products that contain a maximum of 20 milligrams of gluten per kilogram can be described as “gluten-free”.

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There are more and more of these on supermarket shelves. Schär alone operates plants in Germany, the USA, Brazil and Turkey, among others. The product range extends from rolls and biscuits to pizza dough and noodles to ready meals. 20 years ago the turnover was still 20 million euros, recently it was around 440 million euros.

“We improve the lives of people with special nutritional needs,” says Schoeller. Gluten makes a dough easy to bake, is responsible for the small bubbles, a good network structure. “Replacing these proteins is an art.” The business graduate in his mid-fifties is the first external boss. To date, founder Ladurner has managed the business himself. The 73-year-old is now President of the Board of Directors, and the second generation of the family is already represented on the supervisory bodies.

High number of unreported cases of celiac disease patients

Schoeller himself grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and together with his father he was the managing partner of a spinning mill, which they sold in 2007. He then went into the food industry, was CEO of the Stollwerck chocolate company, and later moved to Switzerland to work for Barry Callebaut, one of the largest chocolate producers in the world. He should dr. Schär is now internationalizing further – and making it even more innovative.

In addition to the gluten-free foods, two more lines have already been added: Flavis offers low-salt and low-protein products for patients with chronic kidney failure. Kanso is a range for the ketogenic diet, i.e. for people with problems using fat.

However, the core target group continues to be patients with celiac disease, gluten-wheat sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome and wheat allergy.

Head office of Dr. Schär in Postal

Production takes place in the factory directly behind the administration.

(Photo: Dr. Schär)

The medical profession does not always understand the disease: “In the meantime, you can diagnose celiac disease using a blood test and a subsequent gastrointestinal examination,” says Schoeller. According to estimates, the number of unreported cases is 75 percent. dr Schär wants to provide more information in the future, and by the end of the year in Germany will launch an online portal for intestinal health to accompany people with symptoms on their way to diagnosis.

Basically, the company is right that celiac disease is not diagnosed often enough, explains the German Allergy and Asthma Association (DAAb). “But free consultation hours for patients will not change anything about that.” Doctors should be better trained and informed, know the relevant celiac disease guidelines and act accordingly.

Hamster purchases in the Corona period

The pandemic, meanwhile, has Dr. Schär hardly felt financially. “Because our consumers are dependent on the products, there was even panic buying in a few months,” emphasizes Schoeller. A celiac disease patient cannot just eat a normal bread roll. “20 milligrams of gluten per kilo is the upper limit, that’s just a breadcrumb.”

The company with its 1,500 employees is growing almost everywhere: they are currently moving into a new plant in Turkey. In Argentina, they bought out their partner and are now 100% owners. In the US they are in the process of building a second production line.

>> Read here: There are gaps on supermarket shelves with these brands

The only setback is Russia: Since 2017, Dr. Schär on site, had a small office in Moscow to market the products in the Russian and Eurasian region. Today the country is no longer an issue. The three core markets are Germany, Italy and the USA, which together account for around half of the group’s sales. “Germany and Italy are more saturated markets and America is still developing,” says Schoeller.

He names the search for personnel as a major challenge: “There is a lack of specialists on the one hand and well-trained staff for the lines on the other,” says Schoeller. Finding workers for the night shift in the future will be “a real issue”. Added to this are the rising costs of energy, transport and raw materials. “The agricultural markets are completely out of joint,” says Schoeller. The price of cornstarch, the key ingredient in most products, has tripled in the past 18 months. “So we couldn’t avoid price increases.”

Criticism of gluten-free nutrition as a trend

The range of gluten-free foods has increased significantly in recent years. True, there are no exact figures. “But established manufacturers are also expanding their range,” says the German Celiac Society (DZG). Today, supermarkets, drugstores, organic markets and discounters “usually have a comprehensive range of gluten-free foods”.

Unfortunately, the selection of high-quality gluten-free products is “significantly smaller and less readily available” compared to gluten-free snack products, says the DAAb. The association advises those affected to make products themselves, because then “significantly fewer ingredients and additives are included”. The fiber quality, which is essential for good digestion, is then “better to adjust”.

The DAAb also criticizes gluten-free nutrition as a trend. According to Schoeller, people who buy the products without medical indication make up “about one third” of the Schär brand. “We can only recommend that those affected who do not suffer from celiac disease place themselves in the hands of a competent, trained nutritionist before implementing strict diets based on suspected diagnoses.”

According to the DZG, the increasing demand for gluten-free products is both a curse and a blessing for celiac disease patients. Although the offer is becoming broader overall, it can also lead to problems in restaurants. “For people with celiac disease, the food not only has to be gluten-free, but also cooked and served free of contamination.”

Pure trend eaters don’t have the problem. There is a risk that people with celiac disease will be “perceived as picky and difficult” when confronted with the issue of contamination in the kitchen and service.

More: New boss for biscuit manufacturers – Verena Bahlsen leaves the family business

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