Sunstart Bakery wins top health award

Sunstart, the Northern Ireland baker of gluten and wheat-free biscuits, cookies and traybakes, helped Morrisons, the UK supermarket group, win a top industry award for a healthy product.

Caramel shortbread slices, produced by Sunstart, which bakes only gluten and wheat-free products, and sold by Morrisons under its ‘Free From’ own label gained the top award in the health/wellbeing category in the annual awards for own label products run by The Grocer magazine, the first time a Northern Ireland bakery product have featured in the prestigious awards.

“This award is fundamentally an endorsement by the industry of excellence and is a marvellous boost for the bakery,” says Hubert Kerr, Sunstart’s owner and managing director.

Sunstart, which is based at Ballymena in County Antrim, converted to exclusive gluten and wheat-free baking from conventional bread production seven years ago when Mr Kerr spotted a market niche for biscuits and cakes that coeliacs, people unable to tolerate gluten or wheat, could enjoy.

Maynard Mawhinney, Invest Northern Ireland Food Director, congratulated the company on its award. He said: “Sunstart Bakery is the type of innovative and internationally focused company that we are keen to work with and help to accelerate its growth in North America and other global markets”. We have a portfolio of services which smaller companies like Sunstart Bakery can access to increase business overseas.

“It is an excellent example of how a traditional company has reinvented itself and become a leader in an important market niche through a focus on innovation and professional marketing.”

Mr Kerr said: “Bread production had become fiercely competitive and margins were decreasing steadily so I decided to explore other market opportunities for the knowledge and expertise we had built over the 20 years the bakery had been in existence.

“I looked at various types of artisan breads, such as soda and potato farls, and came to the conclusion that there was too much competition. Scope for growth outside Northern Ireland was also very limited. I realised that something totally different would be required.

“I had some friends who were coeliacs and wished to be able to enjoy cakes or biscuits but couldn’t find any products that tasted the same as those made from wheat. This led me to start work on developing my own recipes that were both wheat and gluten-free and yet tasted as good as those that aren’t. We carried out extensive market tests before finding products that met this requirement.

“This is what sets us apart in the market. Our wheat and gluten-free cakes and biscuits taste as good as those using these ingredients,” he adds.

Sunstart now supplies Morrisons, Tesco and Asda supermarkets throughout the United Kingdom with their own label wheat and gluten-free cakes and biscuits.

Three years ago the bakery secured its first sales in North America, a market Mr Kerr had pinpointed for export sales. Clients there for its range of wheat and gluten-free biscuits, the most successful being the Sunstart-branded ‘Golden Crunch Cookies’, now include Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobey’s supermarket chain.

Sunstart supplies its growing customer base in the US and Canada from a depot in Chicago and has a sales team based there. It is now Northern Ireland’s biggest exporter of bakery products to North America and one of the biggest in Europe in terms of wheat and gluten-free biscuits and cookies.