A five-year-old Westlake Village food manufacturing company already considered a leader in the gluten-free market has landed another major contract.

Gluten Free & Fabulous, which this month changed its name to Simply Shari’s Gluten Free, will soon have its products carried by U.S. Foodservice, a Rosemont, Ill., food distributor serving restaurants, hospitals, hotels, cafeterias and college campuses nationwide.

The deal follows a major breakthrough in the summer when big Cincinnati grocery company Kroger Co. agreed to make space for gluten-free products in more than 1,600 of its Ralphs, Kroger, King Soopers and Fry’s stores.

“We are very excited,” said founder and Chief Executive Shari Cole, 50, who added that the company is negotiating with the Department of Defense to place its products in military commissaries worldwide.

The company, which employs 15 people and has a plant in Phoenix, produces a line of gluten-free cookies, pizzas, pastas and soon-to-be-added sauces. Sales hit $2 million last year.

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley, rye, malts and certain food additives. Sufferers of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, who ingest gluten can experience anemia, bloating, fatigue and even damage to their intestines. It is treated by adopting a diet free of gluten.

Cole was inspired to start producing gluten-free foods because her 77-year-old father suffers from celiac disease and her daughter, 17, is gluten intolerant, a less severe condition. Shari’s is part of a burgeoning army of companies cashing in on a growing gluten-free market.

According to Whitney Ehret, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in Ambler, Pa., nationwide sales of gluten-free products totaled only $700 million in 2006 but are expected to rise to $2.6 billion this year.

Though most gluten-free food producers are still small companies run by individuals such as Cole with a personal interest in the condition, Ehret said the recent entrance of major companies such as General Mills into the sector has drawn attention. The food giant has begun manufacturing gluten-free versions of its popular brands, such as Bisquick pancake mix.

In addition, Ehret said some major restaurant chains, including Red Lobster, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Maggiano’s Little Italy, have begun offering gluten-free items on their menus, indicating that the appeal is widening.

“We consider Shari a pioneer,” Ehret said.

Beginning with about $400,000 in seed money from her and her father’s savings, Cole started making gluten-free chocolate-chip cookies.

She made her first sales to several Lassen’s Natural Foods & Vitamins stores in Ventura County.

“I still make the recipes in my own kitchen,” she said.

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