Praised by Good Housekeeping magazine, America’s Home Test Kitchen and NBC New York, Wholly Wholesome’s range of organic, vegan and allergen-free baked goods is proof that food can be both natural and delicious
Doon Wintz joined his family’s New Jersey-based baked goods business in 1987. Though the company focused primarily on conventional baked products for supermarkets in the Northeastern United States, the firm introduced the concept of natural foods to the supermarket industry in the late 1970s at the behest of Doon’s father, Bob. As far as Bob was concerned, most natural bakery products on the market tasted ‘no better than the cardboard packaging they were sold in’. It was a sentiment echoed by Doon, and in 1996, they took action, establishing The Run-A-Ton Group and its flagship brand, Wholly Wholesome, which aims to combine the ingredient standards of natural food devotees with the taste standards of foodies everywhere.
“Wholly Wholesome was born from the idea that people should not have to sacrifice taste when they purchase something with natural or organic ingredients,” Doon states. “Okay, you don’t want to put artificial stuff in your mouth, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any taste buds or taste desires!
“We started by thinking about how we could bring natural foods and baked goods together,” he continues. “Many of the ingredients in conventional baked goods were not in there because they made it easier and cheaper for manufacture, but did nothing to improve the product for the consumer. We went in and cleaned up the recipes, made them natural, and made them so you could produce them efficiently, consistently, and in volume at an industrial bakery. That is how Wholly Wholesome began. It was around the same time as Whole Foods and Wild Oats were coming into existence, so the demand was certainly there, we just had to deliver.”
What started with cookies and pie shells has, over the course of 25 years in business, grown into a huge assortment of desserts and frozen all-natural baked goods at Wholly Wholesome. As part of its mission to craft products that everyone can enjoy, in 2014 The Run-A-Ton Group launched the Wholly Gluten Free brand, offering a natural gluten free baked goods line, headlined by their hugely popular Gluten Free/Allergy Friendly Pie Shells and Pizza Dough Balls.
“The Wholly Gluten Free arm of our business came about when two of our associates, who happen to have Celiac disease, asked if we could make them a gluten free product,” Doon recalls. “As a lot of food allergies seem to go hand in hand, we decided to take things one step further and focus on creating some products that were not only gluten free, but highly allergy friendly.
“After setting up a segregated allergy friendly room with a positive airflow and no chance of cross-contamination from the rest of the bakery, we were able to produce our first gluten free pie shell. Soon, we had requests for pizza dough, and so we began producing a Gluten Free Pizza Dough Ball that has gone on to be a really strong item for us. Later, we added pizza crust that hit a sales benchmark in 12 months that usually takes products 36 months to achieve.
“The rapid growth meant that we had to open up a new facility in 2015 because we had run out of capacity. A year and half later, we had to double the size of that factory, and after another year and a half, we moved into a 35,000-square foot site that we call home today.
“Due to its popularity,” Doon adds, “we decided that this new product range needed a different name so that people could understand that it was a dedicated brand. We went with Wholly Gluten Free because so much of the consumer base is gluten free, but these products are actually about way more than just being gluten free. They are free of the top nine most common food allergens, as well as vegan.”
Both Wholly Wholesome and Wholly Gluten Free are members of the Run-A-Ton Group, a family of brands that produces great-tasting, ingredient-conscious foods. Other brands in the group include Unique Belgique and its range of pearl sugar Belgian waffles, MetaBall Energy Bites and its line of plant-based protein snacks, and Blissfully Better, with its organic dark chocolate creations sweetened only with organic coconut nectar.
Doon, who as CEO of Run-A-Ton works across all brands, suggests that Blissfully Better, Wholly Wholesome and Wholly Gluten Free share many similarities in that the brands continue to find delicious, natural alternatives to the norm. “Sugar has become a pariah of sorts because some people are concerned about what it does to your weight or are concerned that it is a toxin, so at Blissfully Better we use organic coconut nectar to sweeten chocolate instead of traditional refined sugar,” he explains. “Whilst coconut nectar is a sugar, it is among the most healthful sugars out there because it’s low glycemic, scoring only 39 on the glycemic index where 55 is deemed low, and has more vitamins and minerals than most other sweeteners. What that means is that it burns much more slowly in the body, so we get people who are diabetic looking at the product’s nutritional panel and saying, ‘Wow, I can have this.’
“We really try and stay away from things that are faddish or fakish, like sugar alcohol, which is a way to deliver sweetness without calories but is really still not what many would consider a wholesome food ingredient. We enjoy putting something out there that has five or six ingredients and tastes great,” Doon declares. “None of the stuff we do across our brands is the foundation of anybody’s trendy weight loss plan, but we are about wholesome, natural indulgences, and we believe that if you make something taste really good, with quality ingredients, it can be a great part of a balanced lifestyle.”
For Wholly Wholesome, the success has continued throughout 2020. Covid-19 has led to a rise in demand for frozen baked goods and pizza, two areas in which the company is heavily involved, and thus the pandemic has, in this rare case, acted as a catalyst for triple digit growth. Though the firm is climbing Nielsen/IRI data charts packed with mainstream groceries, Doon argues that Wholly Wholesome’s success can actually be measured in a different way altogether.
“More and more people are starting to say, ‘Hey, this is the best pie shell I’ve had, and it just happens to be organic’ or ‘it just happens to be natural’ or ‘it just happens to be kosher’. That is the real win for us, when people eat our products and say, on a primary level, this is good, and on a secondary level, it is also vegan or organic or gluten free,” Doon says. “Our goal was always to produce natural baked goods that taste as good, or better, than what is available conventionally. We are proof that it is possible to make delicious food without conventional sugar, hydrogenated fats, artificial flavors or preservatives, and all those things the industry has convinced us are necessary to make something taste great.”
In the years ahead, Wholly Wholesome is hoping for more strong and organic growth as it introduces new products that people can rely on and enjoy. As more consumers begin to covet natural food, and as more establishments understand the need to provide organic or allergen free alternatives, the company’s customer base continues to expand, and Doon expects Wholly Wholesome to expand with it.
“We want to make every part of the business better, from sustainability, to product offerings, to profitability for ourselves, our customers, and our suppliers,” Doon vows. “We truly believe that every single relationship is symbiotic in this business and if we can honor that, and take care of our customers and our people, then we will experience more success.
“The consumer base of people with allergen concerns is growing at a dramatic pace. We want to serve those customers, but even more importantly, we want to make sure that people who aren’t allergic, or don’t have food challenges, are happy to ride along with them. When a family member needs to shop for somebody with a dietary requirement, we want to make sure that they are happy eating that product too.”
In terms of product development going forward, Wholly Wholesome aims to focus on center of the plate offerings, as well as natural snack alternatives. Both ranges are highly suitable for retail settings, where the company currently positions most of its products, but Doon also has eyes for the food service market.
“We have some great food service customers and we believe that, in the long-term, food service needs to be a larger part of our business,” Doon reveals. “Lasting food trends tend to start in retail before eventually being adopted into food service. At present, universities and colleges are beginning to look at the ingredients in their food so that they can take care of the allergy friendly consumer with specific dietary needs. Fast food has also woken up to this demand and many of the market’s big players are starting to understand that consumers want cleaner label, natural alternatives. It’s going to be a long-term arc of change, especially on the fast food side, but slowly and surely the industry is coming around. It’s great news for all of us because big companies drag the whole supply chain along with them, which means natural organic products become more plentiful, and more plentiful means more affordable.”