On the Imminent Death of a Gluten Free Friend

This is a painful post to write. It hurts because it’s about the imminent death of an Atlanta institution, a vanguard in organic, natural, and gluten free groceries. Return to Eden is closing…for good.

Return to EdenOpened in 1993 in an iconic small retail complex on Cheshire Bridge Road (anchored by the indy movie temple, Tara Theater), Return to Eden innovated by offering natural food grocery shopping on a larger scale than anything Atlanta previously had seen. Rainbow was older but Return to Eden was bigger, and it pre-dated Whole Foods’ first foray into the Atlanta market by several years. Ownership has changed a few times and it’s bounced back from near-death more than once, but this time, Return to Eden is not returning.

The team broke the news on Eden’s Facebook page:
“It is with sadness that we announce the pending closing of Return to Eden. Our tentative last day will be Saturday, November 29th. An Atlanta institution for over the last two decades, Return to Eden has struggled over the years. While we were on a tentative path to recovery, this year has proved too difficult for us — the brutal winter, the changing traffic patterns in the neighborhood, increased competition in the Atlanta marketplace, and escalating operational costs and needs, etc., all took their toll.”

I was diagnosed in October 2009, at the dawn of the current golden era of all things gluten free. A few weeks post-diagnosis, I was tipped off about Return to Eden: the premier place for the gluten free to find affordable options upon options for every meal and snack. Return to Eden introduced me to Kinnikinnick, the Canadian producer of my favorite GF hot dog buns, white bread, and animal crackers; Schar, the incredible European company that makes the best par-baked baguettes (just heat for ten minutes and you have warm, crusty bread!), multigrain penne rigate, and ladyfingers; Enjoy Life Foods, which makes surprisingly small-for-the-package but very yummy caramel apple snack bars and soft gingerbread cookies; Gillian’s Foods, which is the only GF pastry pie crust I use (no one can tell it’s GF); and Daiya Foods, whose vegan “cheese” products melt and stretch and taste just like real cheese but have absolutely no beany or weird aftertaste like other fake cheese products.

The other main sources of GF fare were Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s makes GF inexpensive but also somewhat challenging, at least for me, because of the way they manufacture some of their GF products (making it not impossible for cross-contamination). Whole Foods has its own line of gluten free baked goods available in the freezer section–$8 for a loaf of bread and $16 for a cake–as well as a solid range of GF products on every aisle at regular Whole Foods prices, which are not inexpensive. Return to Eden was a dependable and affordable source of everything GF and I happily spent thousands of dollars there.

In only five short years, gluten free retail has been upended.

This is the age of Publix and Kroger and Ingles and every other big box grocer posting gluten free grocery lists on their websites and at the entrances to their stores, the glory days of multiple gluten free options riding alongside the popularly inexpensive glutinous brands on the main shelves, gluten free no longer banished to a lonely corner frequented by ten dejected shoppers every other week.

The explosive popularity of gluten free food has lured major manufacturers into producing their own gluten free versions of their most popular products, and then selling them at major chain retailers who have been lured into serving GF customers at much lower prices than specialty grocers can.

It’s a far cry from the way we were. Just a few years ago, behemoth brands laughed at gluten free. The gluten free depended on European entrepreneurs and West Coast upstarts to create edible substitutes for everything from bagels to baguettes, corn flakes to cornbread, pizza to pasta, fish sticks to fried chicken.

Today I can buy fresh GF bread by Canyon Bakehouse or frozen Udi’s breads, buns and muffins at Target. I can snap up Barilla GF pasta for $2.99 and Betty Crocker GF cake mix for $4.50 at Target instead of Schar GF pasta for $4.99 and Pamela’s Classic Vanilla Cake Mix for $6.50 at Return to Eden. I also can get more than a pound of Perdue’s GF Chicken Tenders for $6.50 and my family loves them more than the standard kind. Before that, I would pay $8 for 12 ounces of Ian’s GF Tenders that my nephew spat onto his plate and said, “That’s not chicken. That’s disgusting.” Sorry, Ian’s. I thought they tasted okay.

The economics don’t support mom and pop retailers when chain retailers decide to do it bigger and cheaper. The popularity of all things gluten free has been a boon to the gluten free consumer—lower prices, more regular places to shop, greater variety–but it’s sounded the death knell for the places that appreciated us, catered to us, and nourished us long before GF went mainstream.

We’ve won but lost, all at the same time.