EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 12, 2013

Windham baking company begins exporting

Windham company expands with exports to Canada

By John Toole

---- — WINDHAM — A growing Windham company that makes treats allergy sufferers can is branching out in Canada with some state help promoting exports.

The $500 grant may seem small, but the founder and owner of HomeFree expects it could make a big difference in the bottom line.

“We used it to help pay to do a trade show in Canada,” Jill Robbins said.

“I do expect business in western Canada to develop partly because of this activity,” she said.

Robbins launched the company, rebranded as HomeFree four years ago, and becoming a baker, because her own son, Bradley, now 16, had food allergies.

As both a mom and clinical psychologist, Robbins understood the need to feel included when treats are served and wanted to make snacks anyone could share.

“This is about making a healthy snack option everybody can happily eat together,” she said.

The company makes cookies and coffee cake that are free of peanuts, eggs, dairy and gluten, all of which can trigger food allergies.

The cookies, which come in boxes and single-serving packages, come in flavors that include vanilla, chocolate chip and double chocolate chip.

Robbins won’t discuss sales figures for business reasons, but acknowledges the market’s hunger for HomeFree products.

“We’re growing very quickly,” she said. “Our sales are more than doubling this year over last year.”

The company, located on Industrial Drive a couple of minutes from Interstate 93, employs 16 and expects to continue expanding its workforce.

HomeFree occupies a two-story building, with an institutional-size kitchen and offices.

The company takes great care to avoid contamination.

Workers wear hairnets and gloves. Visitors must wear protective jackets and shoes, and are asked to refrain from eating food with peanuts before entering the factory.

“Everyone wants products of good quality that taste good,” Robbins said.

NBC’s “Today” show highlighted HomeFree as one of four recommended school snacks, Robbins said.

Robbins herself has put aside her psychology practice to concentrate on her business, which she admits demands more than a full-time work schedule.

Exports are just coming into play for the company.

“We’ve just really begun talking to people in other countries,” she said. “I think there is enormous room for growth in this country and certainly internationally.”

So, the state grant meant a lot to the business.

“For a small business trying to grow as we are growing, it’s extremely expensive,” Robbins said. “For there to be a grant like that, it was terrific.”

Ellie White with the New Hampshire International Trade Resource Center said the aid originates with the federal Department of Agriculture and was provided to the state through Food Export-Northeast.

That nonprofit agency, based in Philadelphia, promotes food exports from 10 northeastern states.

States have the option of how to use the money to boost exports.

“This year we decided to extend the money to companies,” White said.

The grants are for up to $500 and reimburse expenses related to growing exports. The export activities have to take place this year.

HomeFree is one of about five companies that have received grants, White said. More aid is available.

“We still have funding available,” she said. “They have to be small or mid-sized businesses with fewer than 500 employees.”

Applications and guidelines are available online at ExportNH.org. Companies can get more information from White at 271-8444 or ellie.white@dred.state.nh.us.