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2015 R&D Team of the Year: Among Friends LLC

Two moms with a passion for healthier baked goods pre-mix delicious with nutritious.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Among Friends co founders coffeeTwo friends (and moms) who love baking and want to help people fill their kitchens with "fresh-from-the-­oven" baked goods is what started Among Friends LLC. The small company, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., began in 2006 in a renovated garage space, what the moms refer to as "the 8-by-10 world headquarters." Over coffee and, of course cookies, the pair tinkered with whole grains, spices, "the best" ingredients they could find and family recipes.

Vetting countless ingredients and determined to replace the processed treats their kids were used to eating with healthier options that didn't taste "like cardboard," they ended up creating baking mixes with no white flour and a homemade taste. All of the Among Friends mixes incorporate top-quality flours that offer superior taste, texture and nutrition, according to the company.

Creative with graphic designs, cofounder Suzie Miller focuses primarily on the brand’s identity, business development and retail relations, while the other cofounder, Lizann Anderson, is a writer and business associate who used her professional experience and passion for sharing stories and healthy recipes to create the story behind Among Friends.

Anderson writes a blog called "The Crumbs of Life" on the Among Friends website. Anderson and Miller get their inspirations and names for their products from loved ones, in keeping with Anderson's love of story telling. "We're all about names here," Anderson says. "We like to say that our name tells it all." Each product is named after someone the moms love, and its packaging features a short story written by Anderson about the namesake.

The first cookie was a classic oatmeal-chocolate concoction named Suzie Q after Miller. "We developed it after a beach vacation on which Suzie brought the yummiest cookies to share with my gang," Anderson remembers. "The six kids and the adults loved them. But given my whole-grain idealism, I couldn’t rest my wooden spoon until the cookies were 100 percent whole-grain and delicious."

Among Friends baking mixThe pair tested hundreds of batches, documenting textures and flavors, and then hand-delivered the mixes to local markets. "We figured we could help other time-pressed moms make fresh, wholesome cookies in their own kitchens, and we could source all the great ingredients for them," she adds. "At that time, whole-grain flours were not as widely available as they are now."

The resulting baked sweet treats are packed with flavor and are nutritious, say the founders, who now sell their products in more than 3,000 stores nationwide. Among Friends' cookie, cake, brownie and fruit crisp mixes contain no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and many are gluten-free.

They're available in brightly labeled standup bags in varieties such as Double Chocolate cookies, Trish the Dish Fruit Crisp, Evan’s Heavenly Oatmeal Raisin cookies and best-seller Suzie Q’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies. They can be easily prepped with a spoon and go from package to oven in about five minutes.

In March at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., Miller and Anderson launched their newest hand-crafted cookie and a gluten-free line conversion, Darcy's Delish Old-Fashioned Chocolate Chip, which will roll out on a broader scale this month. The updated classic cookie has a crispy edge with a soft interior and is dotted throughout with premium chocolate chips.

Among Friends CoFounders KitchenIt was named after Darcy Zbinovec, now CEO of the rapidly growing firm. With 35 years on the food industry, Zbinovec was previously president and COO of Kahiki Foods, a maker of frozen Asian meals and appetizers. She has also held leadership roles in ConAgra’s Meals and Deli portfolios, as well as in Sara Lee Foods. “I’ve been thrilled to be a part of this fast-growing and fun brand, and now I am honored to be commemorated with a cookie, which happens to be my personal favorite,” Zbinovec says.

"We knew we needed a classic chocolate chip, but we debated how to make it gluten-free and without too much butter and brown sugar," Anderson remembers. "There are as many opinions with chocolate chip cookies as there are eaters."

For weeks, the company developed different versions of Darcy's namesake, using sorghum, millet, brown rice, oats and nut meals. After multiple tastings and testing, the solution finally came after the group elected to go with an all-oat flour version with an added bit of light molasses powder. "We also increased the baking temperature by 25 degrees and got the crispy, butterscotch note we were after," she says.

Five of the brand’s nine mixes are gluten-free, but the Among Friends team saw a need to provide more options for those with dietary restrictions, so they're currently converting the entire product line to gluten-free formulations by the end of this month.

"We recognized a need in the market that dovetailed beautifully with our whole-grain idealism," Anderson adds. "We had been experimenting with gluten-free grains for several years and had four or five gluten-free products already on shelves. We thought the nutritional profile of many existing gluten-free products is quite poor, and tend to convert to sugar very quickly in the body."

The reception to the mixes from consumers has been so positive, Miller says, "that the company wanted to open its entire whole-grain product line to gluten-free fans and beyond, and provide for additional growth in the category down the road.”

From garage to big time

In 2013, Among Friends renovated a 10,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes two production rooms and a test kitchen 20 times larger than what it started with and currently has 20 employees. But the company still is committed to experimenting with ingredients.

"Ann Arbor is a great place to be," says Zbinovec. "It’s a real foodie town that has incubated some high-energy food companies, particularly in the natural foods area. Everything we produce onsite is certified gluten-free. That way we can control the quality of our product and do our own testing."

Only on the national stage for three years, the company has grown its distribution from 300 stores to what will total 5,500 by year end. The mixes are available in major chains such as Whole Foods, Sprouts, Earth Fare, Albertsons, Hannaford, Harris Teeter and Meijer, as well as some regional chains and specialty nutrition stores. "Early this summer, we will go into national distribution at Publix, Target and Kroger stores," Zbinovec says.

Alhough the two friends are immersed in production and distribution issues these days, the friendship that fueled their ideas and ambitions remains strong. "I currently lead the product development effort," states Anderson. "But with our first products, it was very much a joint effort: Two moms in the kitchen and six taste testers, just like our name suggests."

Miller says it’s difficult for the Among Friends group to separate product development from the Among Friends concept. "They go hand-in-hand," she says. "The brand name and story, visual identity and packaging came quite naturally to us. We both have backgrounds in marketing."

Anderson says the company's research and development team isn't a typical group of  traditional food scientists. "As we grow, we engage consultants to make sure our recipes translate well to the demands of mass production. Our approach is [still] hand crafted. I work alongside my friend Trish Joyce on development now. We named one of our early crisp topping mixes “Trish the Dish,” because Trish was the best baker I knew. This was years before she helped with Among Friends development."

Sarah Notestine, who heads production coordination, also assisted with company and product development early on and is a "super taster" -- the company relies on her taste buds. "She picks up flavor nuances," Miller says.

Another factor in developing new products gets at the heart of what differentiates Among Friends from the pack, Anderson claims. "We look at what consumers need," she says. "We don’t want to replicate what’s out there. We want to do something well that others aren't doing. We produced [easy-to-use] mixes for moms that give them the emotional gratification of whole-grain baking at home, and a from-scratch taste with minimal time and fuss."

Taste, texture and nutrition also guide R&D as prototypes are created and tested. "We never used fillers in our products so didn't need to remove them," Miller explains. "Our best taste-testers remain our kids and their friends," Anderson says. "They’re not shy and are quick to criticize — and praise."

In fact, a panel of friends was instrumental in guiding the course of the products and in part conducted the company's first focus group before it launched its gluten-free products, Anderson recounts. "We learned lessons then that we use today. Practice makes perfect."

From concept to store shelf, the products take anywhere from six months to a year to develop, Anderson says. "Some of the products have been 'brewing' for a long time. For example, Shane’s Sweet-n-Spicy Molasses Ginger cookies were based on my mother-in-law’s shortening-laden cookies, and Suzie’s 'grandma's' famous frosted creams. My son Shane, a self-proclaimed 'dessertatarian,' loved them, but I didn’t love the excess fat and sugar."

Thrilled to gain distribution at Target and Kroger stores this summer, Among Friends hopes to reach new fans. "We also have a couple exclusive products at each of these retailers. We offer each of our partners something special and unique to that store," Zbinovec points out.

The company's whole-grain idealism and products -- like its packaging and people -- are transparent. It even has a  motto: "Friends don’t let friends eat white flour," says Miller. "It's a line we have trademarked."