June 22, 2008 | last updated March 28, 2012 5:01 am
FOODIES

Hopkinton Entrepreneur Readies New Venture | Business aimed at $3.9B allergy market

PHOTO/EILEEN KENNEDY
Kathleen A. Reale, president of Checker's Product Servicing Inc., Hopkinton.

Kathleen A. Reale wants to bring people with food allergies, makers of specialized food and information about food allergies and diseases together in one online location: www.befreeforme.com.

While the site won't be up and running until September, she has spent this year gathering a lot of research and putting her new business, Be Free For Me, in place. It will be part of her existing business, Checker's Products Servicing Inc.

Reale ran Checker's, a food display and promotional company in Hopkinton, for 17 years and plans to apply the expertise she gained there by helping food companies and allergy sufferers.

Past Exploits

In 1987, Reale started Checker's Product Servicing of Hopkinton to help food companies make sure their prominent supermarket shelf space was as promised in the stores, then added in-store product promotions and provided consumers with her customer's coupons and samples. SmartFoods was one of her early customers.

After growing the business to a good size, but without the resources to go national, she sold Checker's customers and other assets in 2004 to Storecast Merchandising Corp. in Malvern, Pa., for an undisclosed amount. At almost the same time, Chicago-based investment company Lake Capital, took a large equity position in Storecast.

She stayed with the company for two years, keeping the rights to the Checker's name and company, and then abided by the one-year non-compete clause before taking her company into a different yet similar business vein.

While she learned a lot during those two years, it also made her aware that she really wanted to run her own business again.

The sale of Checker's and working for Storecast for two years has given her the financial independence to start out on her own again.

The name, Be Free For Me, captures the business in several ways: people can be anxiety-free about their allergies as they share a community with similar people, it will let Reale be free from corporate life and it's also an allusion to information the site will have about allergen-free foods.

And her timing seems pretty much dead on. About 12 million people in the U.S. suffer from food allergies, according to a nonprofit food allergy education group, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

In turn, the estimated market for food-allergy and intolerance products is estimated to be $3.9 billion by the end of the year, according to a New York research firm Packaged Facts.

Of those 12 million food allergy suffers, about 3 million of them suffer from celiac disease, according to Packaged Facts. And Reale is one of those 3 million, although she only became aware of her intolerance to wheat products late in life.

"I thought that was the way everyone felt: run-down, tired. Now that I've been diagnosed and changed my diet, I feel so much better.

It turns out not only myself, but my sister and two of her children are also celiacs. Once I was diagnosed I was like a zombie, what am I going to do, what am I going to eat?" Reale said.

But she wasn't afraid to call up food manufacturers, just as every consumer can, and quiz them on the ingredients in their products and start locating resources on food and products.

As she found that certain items, like gluten-free bread, can cost much more than everyday products.

The cost, combined with the lack of information available about food options, allergy information and a dearth of easily available recipes, led her to begin thinking of how to bring all the information together for consumers.

"I'm very passionate about this and I'm determined to build a community where people are brought together," Reale said.

She plans blogs, forums, quarterly and weekly e-mail newsletters, recipe banks and coupons and free sample offers.

The web site will be free to users, and she plans to make her money in advertising for the allergen-free foods.

Reale also offers consulting services to restaurants that want to highlight or include allergen-free dishes and show that information on their menus.

"It's all about sharing. I want this to be a place where people are free of anxiety and they can contribute in the ways they want to," Reale said. n

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