The brand’s founders are taking traditional Italian fare and turning it gluten-free. It may not please their family, but it’s making shoppers happy

Chef Matteo Ferrari can never tell his family about White Rabbit, the Italian food company he set up in 2015. “My uncle, he’d delete me from the family,” he says.

The issue is one of styles. While Ferrari grew up working in his family’s restaurants in Bergamo near Milan where “there was always delicious pizzas…it always had to be very strict to the tradition.” He, on the other hand, wanted to innovate.

His chance to do just that came while working as a chef in the White Rabbit pub in Oxford. Alongside his now business partner Nick Croft-Simon (right in photo) who was working behind the bar, Ferrari began experimenting with gluten-free and plant-based pizzas after realising there was nothing out there they felt was up to scratch. “Everything was like a flatbread,” says Ferrari. “It wasn’t even pizza. There was no raise to the dough. There wasn’t a crust. The base was really the key at that stage. That was going to be the main differentiator.”

After a year experimenting in the pub’s tiny kitchen, the pair launched White Rabbit: “delicious gourmet pizza that happens to be ‘free from,’” as the tagline goes. They moved into a 700 sq ft bakery in Oxfordshire, Ferrari making the pizzas from a tiny pizza oven, before a first major listing with Sainsbury’s in 2017 enabled the duo to give up their jobs and commit to White Rabbit full-time.

White Rabbit’s promise is that it ditches the cardboard stereotypes of other gluten-free doughs to offer a product that can compete with normal gluten pizzas. This has only happened, the pair explain, because they have invested in their own manufacturing process, setting up a production line that is specifically designed to produce gluten-free food. “All the big manufacturers see free-from as a spin-off from the rest of business. So they don’t invest a lot of technology on that,” Ferrari says. This is particularly a problem for gluten-free products, he continues, which desperately need the right machinery to avoid the dough becoming a cardboard plate.

On top of “artisan” machinery, the pair have gone to great lengths to try and source vegan ingredients that match their dairy alternatives. The cheese, for example, is made near Ferrari’s hometown of Bergamo. “It’s expensive, it’s difficult to apply on an automated line. And it’s just something that the bigger manufacturers wouldn’t touch. And that’s just one of many examples why we had to do it our own way,” says Croft-Simon.

Keeping their production ‘in-house’ has also allowed the pair to rapidly innovate with their new products. “We were the first brand to have a chilled plant-based and gluten-free pizza in a major retailer. We’re the first people to do sourdough in gluten-free. The first brand to do a proper raised crust on a gluten-free dough. As far as we’re aware, we’re the first calzone ever in retail,” Croft-Simon says proudly.

Name: Matteo Ferrari

Role: Co-founder/CEO

Potted CV: Cinema operator at 13. Started making pizza in relative’s restaurant. Moved to Oxford for bioethics dissertation, met Nick and came up with first White Rabbit idea.

Best pizza you’ve had: Cold margherita for breakfast on a mountain top with your best friend. The real dolce vita!

Even once the product is sorted, though, there are still questions as to what to do with it. “There’s a question the wider industry still hasn’t answered,” says Croft-Simon. “And that is where do people want to shop for these? Do they want it within the parent category or do they want a dedicated bay [for free-from]?”

The benefit of sitting in the pizza aisle with the rest of the category is the much higher footfall, shoppers who may not necessarily be vegan or gluten-free but dip in and out and might pick up White Rabbit because it looks good on shelf. By contrast, when you’re in a dedicated bay, Croft-Simon explains, “free-from shoppers are very discerning so they will actively seek out brands like ours.”

After several years of experimentation across different retailers, there still doesn’t seem to be a clear answer as to where is best. “I honestly think it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other,” Croft-Simon says.

But for other similar brands considering the same question, he does have some advice. “Timing is really important. If you try and jump in a parent category too soon there’s a risk you get lost in the noise where it’s much more promo-led and value driven. If you really want to incrementally grow your brand and grow that loyalty, starting out in the dedicated bays, although the volume will be smaller to start with, I think it’s probably better overall and there’s more longevity.”

White_Rabbit_Pizza_Matteo Ferrari Nick Croft Simon

Matteo Ferrari (leff) and Nick Croft-Simon

New money

White Rabbit does at least seem to be starting to slowly mix it with the big boys that dominate the chilled pizza aisle. The company’s sales are projected to hit £6.5m this year following year-on-year growth of 70%. It comes after 100% growth through covid that took their sales to £3.7m in 2021.

Recently, the duo have sought to go beyond their “heartland” of pizza and into other Italian products such as gluten-free pasta, dough balls, and, just last week, the ambient aisle for the first time with risotto.

Name: Nick Croft-Simon

Role: Co-Founder/CEO

Potted CV: Lasted one day in office temp job.  Became a host at Jamie’s Italian in Oxford. Studied history at Bristol and started White Rabbit soon after.

Hobbies: Reading, playing poker and trying to prise any kind of affection out of my cat

Best pizza you’ve had: Teo’s, of course. 

“My dream would be to become a point-of-reference for free-from production in UK,” says Ferrari. “So ideally one day, we will extend our production line and really embrace a lot of exports, a lot of foodservice.”

Investors are picking up the scent and in April, ploughed £1.1m into the business to aid its expansion. The money is going into taking White Rabbit out of stores and into foodservice, a mix of selling directly to restaurants and newly opened dark kitchens. “We want to go back to where it all started in a restaurant and pub,” says Croft-Simon. By the end of this year, the pair plan to be trialling a couple of dark kitchens in London, training up chefs to make the dough from scratch and launch onto Deliveroo and Uber.

The investment will also help to expand the export arm, which currently accounts for just 5% of sales. White Rabbit is already sold in Norway, Singapore and France, and will soon move into Ireland, the Netherlands and other European countries. If they can match the rate of growth seen in the UK, they might even be able to head home to Italy to see the family.