No city is complete without a family-owned local market, and in Gainesville, Fla., the only market that qualifies is Ward’s Supermarket. Upon walking into the store, it’s hard to believe that 15 years ago the place didn’t even sell natural foods, and I spoke with the woman who spearheaded Ward’s’ foray into the natural food market. Whipple also happens to be a gluten-free vegetarian, and is thus responsible for every gluten-free item Ward’s sells. As I found out, I and the rest of gluten-free Gainesville would be lost without her.
Me: So I guess I just wanted to know how Ward’s got started selling all this gluten-free stuff and how you find out about the products.
KW: It’s me
Me: How long have you been working at Ward’s?
KW: Since 1994. I’m the assistant manager of natural foods.
Me: You’re on a gluten-free diet right? Is that by necessity?
KW: Yes. I’m not diagnosed (with Celiac Disease), but I’ve done several rounds of the elimination diet. Throughout my life I had a lot of symptoms that I now recognize as either celiac or severe gluten intolerance: allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal problems. Around 1990, I’d just read an article about wheat allergy and thought, you know what, I haven’t tried that in a while.
The last time I tried it I still ate rye and a few other gluten grains not realizing. This time I was really strict, took out all gluten.
Me: And a few years later you started working at Ward’s…
KW: Yeah, I was in school then. At the time we didn’t even have a natural foods section. So my boss and I started that and it just grew over the years.
Me: Before that, where would you get natural foods?
KW: I wouldn’t. I literally didn’t eat a sandwich for 10 years because the food that was out there was terrible. It was worse than eating nothing.
Me: Even up until a few years ago it was pretty bad.
KW: It’s really gotten better in the last 5 years.
Me: How do you find out about the products that you end up selling?
KW: *Points to enormous stack of paper in her inbox* That’s my inbox of product literature. I get stuff like that all the time, and get notifications about new products from several trade orgs, solicitations direct from companies, notifications from trade mags. I search around, I hear rumors…
Me: Do they send you samples?
KW: Yes. I’m pretty firm about about trying something before I’ll try to sell it because there’s just so much crap on the market. I don’t want to have something out on the shelf peple pay good money for – gluten-free food is expensive – and have it not be good.
KW: That was an accident. I went to visit my uncle in Naples and my cousin is gluten-free and went to the health food store and came back with this amazing millet and flax bread and I hunted it down and got it for the store.
I wrote Satchel a letter a few years ago just begging him to bring it in. Because you know, that was my first pizza other than homemade in I don’t even know how long.
ME: That was really cool for me too, to go in there and order a GF pizza at a restaurant – although he says he worries about cross contamination.
KW: If you’re really sensitive, you probably shouldn’t eat it. Because it’s impossible to get it clean enough. I don’t know if you’ve seen the kitchen, but it’s really small and they do a tremendous amount of business. They’re really good – they try to wipe off the stone, use a separate cutter and stuff. But I have definitely felt glutened after eating it.
Me: Me too. Actually, last week I bought the same Sami’s crust from here in the store and then I felt a lot better. And also I feel like I saved a lot of money!
KW: Yeah, you did!
ME: Does your family eat gluten-free too?
KW: My mom does but she hasn’t gotten herself diagnosed, so she sometimes cheats. My sister goes off and on but she just resolved for 2011 to stick to it because she’s been having some health problems.
ME: What about people who aren’t gluten intolerant or celiac but go on the diet. Do you think it’s beneficial to them?
KW: It depends on what they’re eating because a lot of the gluten-free foods are rice or rice flour-based or tapioca flour-based and that’s not good for anybody’s blood sugar. So if they’re doing it and opting instead for whole grains, then probably it’s going to make them feel great. But if they’re doing it and they’re eating a lot of Pamela’s cookies and pancakes, then they’re probably going to feel the same as they always do.
Me: Plus it’s so high in calories
KW: Yeah, really concentrated.
Me: Any new products coming in that you’re excited about?
KW: I just found gluten-free pita bread, the first I’ve seen available in our area. There are some good new cinnamon rolls, too.
KW: Udi’s are good but these other ones are even better. Heaven Mills, a bakery up in New York. They ship it fresh and I have to freeze it.
The best cookies we’ve had lately are the Wow cookies.
Me: Haven’t had those.
KW: They’re amazing
Me: I’m gonna get some before I leave!
KW: What else is good…there’s some new pasta – Japanese style soba noodles. There’s black rice, pumpkin brown rice ginger, seaweed brown rice, some really interesting flavors. And a new black bean pasta. Only black beans – it contains 20 grams of protein per serving.
Me: What kind of sauce would you put on that?
KW: I made a stir fry with it. Spicy tofu and broccoli.
Me: What’s your favorite gluten-free product you sell?
KW: I really like the Sami’s garlic crackers. I eat those frequently. And the Sami’s spinach pie is a staple for lunch *holds it up*. The thing I got most excited about this year was the Wow cookies. The brownies are so fudgy…
Me: Well thank you. I really appreciate you speaking with me.
KW: Thank you!
By the way, I did grab a pack of WOW snickerdoodles before I left the store. They are “crazy good,” as Whipple said.