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How Dorothy Lane Does Gluten Free

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As demand for gluten-free products continues to defy market projections and the lingering concern that it’s all one big financial bubble, food companies have scrambled to stay on top of the trend. Supermarkets, which have evolved into wellness destinations over the past few years — complete with classes, clinics, dietitians and more — find themselves on pretty solid footing here. No only are they stocking a variety of gluten-free products, but they’re also offering support and a sense of fellowship for consumers with gluten intolerance.

Which brings me to Dorothy Lane Market, a retailer that embodies this idea as well as any out there. A few years ago the three-store company started a“Gluten-Free Food Lovers Club”, an outgrowth of its Healthy Living department that meets once a month at its Washington Square store in Dayton, Ohio. The agenda usually includes a speaker, product samples and a store tour to show off the latest gluten-free offerings. More than anything, the club is a way of fostering a sense of community — an opportunity for gluten intolerant consumers to be around others who know what they’re going through.

“It’s like the Cheers bar where everyone knows your name. Well here, everyone knows your problems,” said C.A. Diltz, who heads up DLM’s gluten-free programs, in an interview.

The club dovetails nicely with the rest of DLM’s gluten-free promotions, which together constitute a loyalty-building effort that draws customers from far and wide. In October, the company hosted a gluten-free fair in DLM’s Washington Square store in Dayton, featuring local vendors, seminars and product tastings. Diltz said she had some major doubts about attendance for the fair. When the doors opened, though, she was floored.

“It was packed, I mean packed. You couldn’t even find a free grocery cart,” she said.

So successful was the fair that the company has already slotted it in for next year. The same goes for the gluten-free club, which starting in 2012 will be offered at all three DLM locations. At the store level, the company makes sure to highlight its gluten-free offerings with colorful discs that say “Naturally Gluten Free." There’s signage, too, that promotes DLM’s commitment and knowledgeable employees. “We Speak Gluten Free” is one saying they proudly display.

Diltz says these efforts have provided a major boost to gluten-free sales, and it’s no wonder. The company clearly understands gluten-free consumers. Part of the secret is that Diltz herself has celiac disease. Through her guidance the company has developed an approach that’s supportive as well as inclusive. The monthly club, for instance, isn’t called the “Gluten Sufferers Club” or the “Coping with Celiac Club” because intolerant consumers don’t want to think of themselves as victims or in any way at a disadvantage, Diltz said. They want to enjoy comfort foods, gourmet meals and indulgent snacks just like others can.

“They want to know how to make that thing they’ve always made or eat that thing they’ve always eaten gluten free,” Diltz noted.

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