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Building Partake from Scratch
The idea for Partake Foods came about in my living room last June. I was thinking about how my daughter, Vivienne, always missed out on fun treats because of her food allergies. At the time, Vivienne had just turned 1 and wasn’t able to eat wheat, corn, eggs, tree nuts, or bananas. It seemed that every time I found a great gluten-free dessert recipe, it called for eggs or every time I found a great vegan dessert recipe, there was wheat flour used in the recipe. Throw in her allergy to bananas, and we were totally screwed, as bananas are often used in place of eggs in baked goods recipes.
Cue my mama bear anxiety. I began to picture Vivienne being at school (mind you, at this time, she’s only 1) and missing out on classroom birthday parties and being the girl no one wanted to invite to playdates because of her multiple allergies. As I wallowed in my misery, I thought, “instead of complaining about this, I’ll create a company that makes fun snacks that she can eat”.
I conducted some brief market research, which consisted of buying lots of gluten-free and vegan cookies, as well as “normal” cookies and harassing my mom-friends with online surveys. My findings led me to want to create a brand platform that would eventually have delicious, nutritious Top 8 Allergen Free meal and snack options for every part of the day. Things that I was not willing to compromise on were: the products had to taste “normal”, no super cheesy kids branding, and we would only use ingredients that I would feel comfortable giving to my own daughter.
Now, to decide what products we would start with. In my market research, I learned that there are lots of allergy-friendly baking mixes, and while that would have been an easier first product, baking mixes didn’t provide the convenience I was looking for. Customers would still have to decide what type of milk substitute and what type of egg replacement to use, depending on their allergy situation. Then I thought about frozen foods – and still love that idea – clean label, allergy-friendly frozen meals, but for a one-woman startup managing USDA guidelines and a frozen supply chain was more cumbersome that I was up for. And then – muffins – I REALLY wanted to do muffins –like the little mini muffins that every kid eats (that have sugar as the first ingredient!), but to make them shelf stable they’d need a lot more sugar and preservatives than I was willing to consider. So cookies it was.
I went to Whole Foods and bought $200 worth of ingredients and started experimenting in my kitchen with different recipes and flavor combinations, but after two weeks of trial and error, I realized that it would take me a lot longer than I’d like to launch Partake without the help of an outside product developer. I began reaching out to vegan and gluten-free bloggers and cookbook authors and interviewed several, but when Shauna Ahern (aka “Gluten Free Girl”) got back to me with her suggestions, I knew she was our lady! Shauna helped us to create flavor combinations (based on the results of the online survey I sent to mom-friends) and a base formula.
At this same time, I was looking for a place to make the cookies. I didn’t have the capital to build my own facility but wanted to ensure that the facility we chose reduced the risk of cross-contamination as much as possible. I printed the guide of manufacturers approved by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (the people who provide the Gluten-Free logo that goes on packages) and literally cold-called every single approved manufacturer in the US. I was super excited when I found a gluten-free, nut-free facility that had a Top 8 Allergen Free room and BRC certification (a type of super legit food safety certification). Unfortunately, they didn’t work with startups, so that’s a whole ‘nother story for another blog post. Long story short, we convinced them over the course of the year that we were serious about growing Partake, and they decided to give us a shot. (Yay!)
Meanwhile, the cookies – after working with Shauna, we settled on Blueberry Buckwheat, Sweet Potato Millet, and Carrot Oat as our flavors and had some really cool ingredients like aquafaba – the gross liquid that is leftover in a can of chickpeas has a name and can be used as a great egg replacer – in our recipes. We found a small copacker in Illinois where we could do a trial run and learned that a recipe that tastes great in the kitchen is a lot different than something that runs efficiently on professional manufacturing equipment… Oh, and blueberry cookies (made with blueberry powder or puree) turn a very not pretty shade of green/brown when baked.
I then went to work on finding a Product Developer and found an amazing woman, who we still work with, who turned those recipes into “formulas” and included some really functional ingredients like sprouted ancient grain flours. We took those formulas to our new copacker and that’s how we brought our cookies to market! Partake was truly born out of a desire to bring delicious, nutritious, allergy-friendly meals and snacks to families – like mine, and while we started with cookies, my vision for the company includes meals and snack options that I think my family – and others – will enjoy partaking in.
Thanks for reading! We would love for you to join us on this journey as we work to grow Partake Foods. Stay tuned to learn more about my entrepreneurial highs (& lows), life as a food allergy (but also normal!) mama, and for delicious, allergy-friendly recipes.