BUENA BOROUGH - The addition is just a shell now - cement walls and steel frames - but by the end of summer the newest expansion to Conte Pasta Co. will employ 25 to 30 new workers.

The $1.7 million addition to the Wheat Road pasta company is being built to meet demands for the brand's growing gluten-free product line. The new building, which also will include administrative offices, will have a 5,000-square-foot production room dedicated to gluten-free products such as pasta and pizza dough.

When Michael Conte decided to use his mother's recipes, the one she brought along with her family to America 40 years ago, to manufacture and sell pasta in the 1980s, a gluten-free version was not even a consideration.

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While pasta without gluten has been available for years - for decades in Italy, where it's even available in pharmacies with a prescription, Conte said - the stuff is notoriously temperamental and notoriously finicky, Conte said.

But he decided to give it a crack, to see if he could produce pasta without wheat and gluten that could be used for some of the company's signature stuffed pastas.

"I kept reading trade magazines," he said. "I kept seeing gluten-free this, gluten-free that."

With a new gluten-free recipe - one that was developed by Conte over more than two years - he went to a trade show in New York City about five years ago. At his booth, which showcased all of his regular products, Conte put out a small sign advertising his new gluten-free offering.

The response was remarkable, he said.

Conte said the demand for the specialty pasta has been great. The company's gluten-free items can be found in stores throughout the country, including at regional markets and national chains such as Whole Foods Market.

He never imagined that the small sign he put up at his booth about five years ago would be the thing driving his business's growth today, he said.

"It was totally unplanned," he said of developing the line. "It's almost like an act of God, something completely just a matter of timing."

Vice President of Operations Judy Sabella said Conte's gluten-free products account for nearly 50 percent of the company's sales. In addition to pasta and stuffed pasta, Conte also produces several other products without gluten, including frozen pizzas and frozen pizza crusts. The crusts are purchased by pizzerias that are not able to produce their own gluten-free dough.

Gluten is found in most grains. It's a composite of proteins that bind together and stretch. In baking, gluten is responsible for making dough rise and, depending on how much is added, giving baked goods a chewy texture. In pasta making, gluten provides much needed flexibility.

The problem is that a growing number of people are allergic to gluten or cannot digest it properly. About 1 in 100 people suffer from celiac disease, Sabella said. Some sufferers have adverse reactions to gluten that can make them sick.

Still more are the number of people who have reactions to gluten similar to those who are lactose intolerant. Gastrointestinal issues often plague those who eat regular pasta and pizza.

"About four years ago we started actively pursuing the market," she said. "We get calls from all over the country, calls from Canada. We've had people tell us they haven't had pasta in 20 years. People have literally cried to us."

Sabella said Conte distributes its products to thousands of stores throughout the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and Bermuda. Forgoing traditional marketing campaigns, Conte has used certifications and partnerships with celiac organizations to spread the word about its products.

Conte administration is expected to move into the new building by Aug. 1. Pasta production would follow soon after. About $700,000 of the $1.7 million total will be used to purchase equipment for pasta and pizza making.

Preparation of gluten-free products does not reach the level of kosher preparation, though it's not far off. Before gluten-free food can be made, all of the machines must be scrubbed, the floors and walls must be washed to eliminate any chance of cross-contamination.

The company also uses gluten tests to ensure their products fall well below the Food and Drug Administration's gluten-free benchmark of 20 parts per million.

Sabella said the new building will make it simpler to produce pasta without gluten.

"I don't see the growth slowing up any time soon," she said. "There are a lot of pasta makers out there, but we're the only national one doing gluten-free. We want to have our name be synonymous with gluten-free."

Contact Edward Van Embden:


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