Finally someone has taken the initiative to create a physical space, not merely an online, virtual shop that caters to those of us with food allergies and food intolerances and other food restrictions.
I had an opportunity to talk with Jennifer Elizondo, owner and founder of Navan in Virginia Beach, Va.about her store, her vision and her process of product selection
Health Central: Briefly, why a store for people with food allergies versus an online site?
Jennifer Elizondo: I wanted to create a place where people could come and actually see and feel the food products. It's a much different shopping experience than ordering online. Specially formulated, allergy-friendly foods tend to cost more, so now people can see what they're buying. I know I've been disappointed more than once when I've ordered something online and received a tiny little box of food.
Most importantly, I wanted to create a place where kids can find fun products that they can safely eat. I have a son with multiple food allergies and I know how difficult it is to take your child to the store a tell them countless times that "No, you can't have that, it's not safe for you." As a mom, it makes you feel good when you can say yes to a simple thing like a bag of allergen-friendly gummy bears.
HC: What's behind the name, "Navan"?
JE: I have three children: Nyle (15) and Vaughn (3) and Nina (1). It is an acronym for their names.
HC: How did this all start? Why now?
JE: My youngest son, Vaughn, was diagnosed with multiple food allergies when he was 18 months old. I quickly learned how difficult it was to find safe foods. A week's shopping required a trip to several different grocery stores and a lot of uncertainty regarding the safety of what I was buying (i.e., cross-contamination issues). My concept for this store was to find alternative, allergy-friendly foods (the ones the big stores won't carry) and then contact manufacturers to ask them about ingredients and the manufacturing environment in which the products are made.
As for the timing, it was just a matter of having all of the resources finally established to make the store happen. It took some risk calculation since there is not another brick and mortar store like this in the country. I think some people thought I was crazy to try a concept like mine without having a proven prototype. But I feel strongly about this and about helping other families like mine.
It's not just families dealing with food allergies that need the food I sell; it's families dealing with autism or those dealing with Celiac disease. The need for this type of store is growing.
HC: Tell us about your manufacturer questionnaire process and your product cards.
JE: For every product I carry in the store, I send the questionnaire to the manufacturer. It asks:
- Whether or not the product is made without the top 13 allergens: Egg, Wheat, Dairy, Soy, Peanut, Tree-nut, Fish, Shellfish, Soy, Sulfite, Sesame, Yeast, Corn, Gluten.
- Whether the equipment, line, room and/or plant are dedicated facilities free of the 13 allergens.
- If not, what allergens are shared on the equipment, line, room and/or plant.
- Queries about other attributes of the product such as whether it is Kosher or Feingold acceptable.
I put the information from the questionnaire onto a shelf card for the product. At the bottom of the shelf card, I include any information provided by the manufacturer regarding the production facility and any testing performed. Some individuals can tolerate items made on a shared line. For others, only a dedicated facility free from the allergen is safe. The hope is to provide as much information to the customer to allow them to make an informed decision about the food.
HC: What are your criteria for stocking foods, brands companies?
JE: I look for companies that are very allergy aware. Some companies are on top of their game-dedicated facilities, ingredients testing to some part per million range. There are some others that won't even fill out my manufacturer's questionnaire and respond with the standard "If one of our products contains a top 8 blah, blah, blah...If you have allergy concerns, please read each package ingredient panel". That doesn't mean I won't carry the product if there is a demand, but I will not put any information on the shelf card. It says a lot for a product or company when amongst a shelf of products with cards full of made without icons there is a product with a completely blank card.
HC: What kinds of questions and concerns do you hear from consumers that you feel your store can address?
JE: Most of the customers ask about what foods are safe for their particular diet. I am learning a lot about different types of diets. I envision that I will eventually become a clearinghouse of special diet resources for my customers to point them in the right direction if they need answers.
HC: What are some of your favorite food allergy web sites?
JE: www.kidswithfoodallergies.com, www.peanutallergy.com and for the small business on a shoestring budget, craigslist.com.
HC: Do you have favorite food manufacturers?
JE: For my family, Enjoy Life Foods and Namaste Foods. They have been staples in our house since my son's diagnosis since they meet his diet requirements.
HC: What are your plans for the future?
JE: My short-term goal is to open another store like this in another nearby city. We are spread out enough in Hampton Roads that I think it would support another store in this region. Longer-term, I would love to open stores in other cities around the country - maybe franchises!
Thank you Jennifer, we wish you much success!
The Allergy Free Food Shop
4312 Holland Road
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23452