This article is part of a series on Disruptors to Watch in the Food Industry. You can read the full series, starting here
A lot of people want, or need, to cut back on carbs. And almost everyone could stand to eat more vegetables. How’s this for a two-fer: making pizza crust out of vegetables.
Cali’flour Foods got its start when Amy Lacey didn’t want to give up pizza for family game night despite being compelled by an illness to change her diet. Needing to consume more vegetables, the mother of three tried out recipes for pizza crust made from mashed cauliflower with the help of her then grade-school daughter.
The recipe was a hit with the family, and Lacey began serving cauliflower-crust pizzas to friends and clients from her business as a life coach. Then, at her daughter’s suggestion, she began selling them in early 2016 at a farmers market near her home in Chico, Calif. This involved renting an industrial kitchen for more tweaking of the recipe. It was a lot of work, but at the end of the process, Lacey had three products: the basic cauliflower crust, a variation that incorporated red peppers, and zucchini noodles.
They were a smash, selling out at each week’s farmers market. People were asking her to make special orders for pickup at her home. Lacey decided to take the next step in early 2017: online sales of the pizza crusts.
Online sales presented the first significant challenge, Lacey says, because they can vary so much and create spikes in demand.
“For example, January is a super busy time for the health and wellness industry,” she says. “Our first year, we had no clue we would be getting an unprecedented amount of sales. Let’s just say, there were many all-nighters and ‘all-weekends’ required to keep up.”
Cali’flour products now include flatbreads, crackers and three kinds of pasta, along with the signature crusts. Those come in “traditional” versions, which include mozzarella and egg whites along with the cauliflower, and “plant-based” or “paleo” versions, which have no animal-derived ingredients, with multiple flavors for both categories. The company will introduce five SKUs of topped pizzas in September and plans to have eight more new frozen products by the end of 2020.
Although most of Cali’flour’s sales are still online, its crusts are now in about 3,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, Safeway, Albertson’s and Hy-Vee. They're manufactured in a plant in Salinas, Calif., that started out as a contract manufacturer; Cali’flour is now in the process of buying it.
“We have always had an excellent partnership and attribute a large part of our success to them,” Lacey says of that manufacturer. “They have truly become an extension of us. As we look to grow into other parts of the nation, we’ve decided now is the time to purchase them.”
As the company has grown, Lacey has learned the importance of supplier relationships, especially when it comes to her main ingredient.
“When you’re a new company and your volume is inconsistent, farmers are less likely to give you priority,” Lacey says. “That, along with the growing fad of cauliflower, meant that I really had to prove that we were a legitimate company with steady sales.”
The fad is growing, all right. According to figures reported by Nielsen, sales of vegetable substitutes reached $47 million last year, with cauliflower-based substitutes in particular hitting $17 million. The increased interest in cauliflower-for-carbs means increased competition for Cali’flour, the pioneer in cauliflower pizza crusts. Both dedicated companies like Caulipower, founded by a woman who has two sons with celiac disease, and giants like Nestlé are marketing cauliflower pizzas, and others are marketing cauliflower crackers and other carb-analogue products.
Cali’flour recently found an investor: Sunrise Strategic Partners, a fund based in Boulder, Colo., that specializes in food and other companies in the “healthy, active and sustainable living space.”
For her part, Lacey is confident that being an innovator in the cauliflower-for-carbs space will give Cali’flour an ongoing competitive advantage.
“Anytime someone asks how long we’ve been around, I love to see their reaction when I say that we were one of the first,” she says. “It immediately speaks to our credibility and continuity.”