Why are gluten free, artisan cakes so much more expensive?

An Introduction

Afternoon tea set upAs bakers of hand made, premium gluten free cakes we are all about delighting our customers. Fortunately, we are regularly told that our treats are delicious and that they stand out from more run of the mill gluten free offerings. We continuously benchmark our cakes and traybakes against competitors to ensure we are offering something truly special.

Pricing is the one area where we do receive some negative criticism. From time to time, customers tell us they think our products are on the expensive side. To be fair, this does not happen as often nowadays which I attribute to the ever increasing costs of gluten free, bake- at- home ingredients. People generally are more aware of how costly things like ground almonds and polenta can be, especially when compared to regular wheat flour.

There are opportunities to make products to a lower price point for larger trade customers but we feel strongly that our product quality would be compromised. For example, we were once asked by a well known national coffee chain to use margarine instead of butter in the gluten free cookies we made at that time. Their focus was on getting costs as low as possible. This discussion highlighted where our red lines were. It was the right decision for Honeybuns to politely decline the business. We are more than content to run a smaller, sustainable business, making things to our own standards using artisan methods. Using margarine was not an option for us.

With rising costs to be seen in all sectors in the UK, from fuel to everyday groceries, I thought it timely to share a behind the scenes insight into a small bakery’s costs and considerations.

The gluten free nature of our cake range is just one factor of many that determines the prices we need to charge our customers. Other aspects we will look at include:

  • Artisan ingredients
  • Artisan baking methods
  • Sustainable business practices

What exactly is an Artisan Bakery?

At Honeybuns we see ourselves as artisan bakers primarily due to the fact that we have far more people making things than machines. Our cakes are the antithesis of mass produced supermarket offerings. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with mass produced food per se. I’m extremely partial to a cheeky slice of Mr Kipling’s finest with a cup of Builder’s tea. Indeed, when you are surrounded by your own cakes all day it’s a bit of treat to eat someone else’s!

I believe it is all about choice and transparency. If you choose to pay a bit more for something extra special, I think that we, as food producers, need to be able to explain how our cakes are special and why we charge a bit more.

Our artisan ethos starts with our team. Honeybuns bakers work in pairs on a batch of cakes, let’s say Milk Chocolate Brownie, from start to finish. The advantage of this system is that individuals can own responsibility for an entire batch of cakes rather than just one stage- as you would more commonly find on a production line.

Our team can take pride in their work and we can tell customers who made their cakes and who packed them. Our staff retention is high, as is our return rate – with team members returning to us after a period working elsewhere. We attribute this in part to our hands on methods which result in job satisfaction. Our team tell us that they feel part of something and they are valued for their daily contributions to the business.

Artisan ingredients

Handmade gluten free cakes Our interpretation of artisan involves using wholly natural ingredients and avoiding chemical additives. For instance, we do not add any emulsifiers, preservatives or artificial sweeteners to our cakes.

Artificial flavourings are also on our “steer well clear” list. Let’s take lemon as an example. Rather than using lemon essence which is made up of chemical components including artificial colouring, we use the more expensive lemon extract which comes from the lemon zest. At nearly £100 per litre for the pure lemon oil we use, this commitment to using only premium quality ingredients does not come cheaply. We run regular blind taste tests to test different ingredients and our favourite lemon oil always wins convincingly. For us, it is worth the extra expense.

Interestingly, the eggs a bakery uses can tell you a lot about its ethos. We still use natural free range shell eggs despite coming up against push back from Environmental Health some years ago when pasteurised liquid egg was very much in vogue. We needed to demonstrate we had robust food safety procedures in place for handling shell eggs. Why didn’t we use the liquid pasteurised alternative or powdered egg? Both options would have been easier, cheaper and more popular with our Environmental Health Officer at the time but the cakes simply didn’t taste as good. Hence we continue to this day doing it the old fashioned way.

Artisan, to us, means using natural, unprocessed ingredients of the highest quality. We put a lot of thought into sourcing from specific suppliers who can supply safe gluten free ingredients of a consistently high standard.

Artisan baking methods

We keep things simple by baking as you would at home, just on a bigger scale. Ingredients are weighed out, popped in a large mixing bowl (like a giant Kenwood), with the mixture then being spread into baking trays. If you need mixtures to travel around a factory in pipes, that’s when you need to start adding things to the mixture to make it easier to move. Hence a lot of packaged, mass produced foods are highly processed to fit in with automated production.

Baking by hand may be old school; more expensive and slower but the results- namely delicious cakes and customer delight are worth this extra care.

Similarly, the type of ovens we use reveals a lot about our artisan methodology. Our trusty Tom Chandley deck oven, built here in the UK, takes far longer to bake batches of cakes than a super speedy modern “travelling” oven.  Cakes or loaves of bread move through the latter on a conveyor belt and bake speedily.

Having tried our cakes and brownies in such an oven the results were drier and less tasty. So, as with our shell eggs, we are content to stick with our old fashioned ways by baking “Low and Slow”.

Speaking of slow, The Slow Food Movement is an interesting campaigning body worthy a look. They champion traditional foods and hands on methods, believing that great food takes time and also serves to enrich our cultures and communities.

Tell me more about the confusion between artisan and factory made food?

Arguably, we have reached “peak artisan” here in the UK. Some large food brands are guilty of describing products, mass produced in factories with hardly a human in sight, as artisan. The unsubstantiated use of terms such as “hand finished” and “craft” can also make it difficult for the consumer to assuage if they are getting the real deal or being ripped off. Quoting an excellent article for The New Food Magazine by Arun Chauhan,

“….(Artisan) foods command a premium as they are perceived to be higher quality and also imply a much more labour-intensive and skilled processes in their production. Artisan bakers and makers of craft beer have been warning that supermarkets or large corporations may be using misleading terms like handmade, artisan and natural to take advantage of the premium people would pay for such products.”

Going back to Mr Kipling products – this brand does what it says on the pack. There is no pretence of being “hand crafted” or artisan made. This is not the case with many other brands who stretch the truth and must remain nameless lest I get cancelled……

With the lack of a clear legally binding definition of the term “artisan” I think it us up to us as food producers to communicate clearly with our customers about how we make our products, why we use the terms we do and how we justify the prices we charge.

For example, cakes baked in a traditional deck oven here at Honeybuns takes, on average, 40 mins to bake a batch of product. Compare this to a couple of minutes of baking time in a large, commercial conveyor belt oven you can see how much slower our methods are. Again, there is nothing wrong with opting for a modern, quick baked products – I just think we need to present each type of product honestly to the customer and not dress factory made foods up in language suggestive of artisan, hand made methods.

Why does gluten free increase the price of cakes?

The chief ingredient used to make up most non gluten free cake recipes is wheat flour which at the moment, with the war in Ukraine affecting grain prices, has increased substantially.

Quoting an article in the Guardian by Richard Partington and Sarah Butler,

The price of pasta jumped the most from a basket of 30 basic food items compiled by government statisticians, with an increase of 50% from a year earlier – more than five times the headline rate of inflation of 9% for the same period.

At Honeybuns we have fortunately managed to avoid this problem because we do not using wheat flour. Our favourite gluten free wheat flour substitutes are ground almonds and polenta which are packed with flavour, natural oils and a range of vitamins and minerals.

As with all the premium ingredients we love to bake with, they do not come cheap. Almonds, in particular are sensitive to weather conditions. Spain and California are the main growing areas and both have suffered droughts in the almond grove regions over recent years.

This week I worked out the costs of making one tray bake of our lemon and ginger slice based on making it at home using ingredients from a supermarket.

The cost of the ingredients alone is nearly £10. Even factoring in the inflated wheat flour prices, using ground almonds and polenta is a significantly more expensive option. Gluten free ingredients do cost more for the consumer. At Honeybuns we can buy ingredients in bulk and pass some savings onto our customers this way.

The polenta we use is a good example of how the “gluten free” assurance costs more.

Polenta, ie ground maize, is a naturally gluten free ingredient. The issue comes when we need to find a supplier who mills the polenta in a stand alone, gluten free facility. We also need to use suppliers who can give us full traceability from field – to mill – to packaged product. This inevitably costs more. Our polenta supplier needs to send samples for laboratory testing on a regular basis. All these extra steps naturally cost money but are in the background. Therefore, it is understandable why gluten free foods can sometimes feel like a bit of a rip off.

Here at Honeybuns we routinely send ingredients and our cakes to an independent laboratory for gluten testing. We also swab surfaces and equipment daily. This is standard practice for us but, again it takes time and therefore more costs to keep to these standards.

Why do eco products cost more?

For us, there is no option for us not to operate our business in a sustainable way. It’s been in our business DNA since we started Honeybuns (25 years ago next year!). We re invest back into the business making it greener each year. A significant investment for us was the installation of solar panels which now provide up to 40% of our energy on a sunny day. We also bought our own cardboard compressor, meaning we can bale our cardboard efficiently and send all directly to the recycling plant.

Trees are another one of our loves. We’ve planted well over 4000 trees and hedging plants on site and we maintain a 5 acre nature reserve around the bakery. Again this costs money but to us it is important and worth the extra investment.

Happily enough Honeybuns customers agree that this slower, artisan and eco friendly approach is worth that little bit extra.

Comment and share what you thought of this blog! Be sure to share this with a friend too! Thanks for reading!

– Emma Goss Custard

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