This article is part of a series on Entrepreneurs To Watch in the Food and Beverage Industry. You can read the full series, starting here
When you find out that your baby daughter has severe food allergies, but you want her to enjoy cookies, you can: 1. look high and low for the right product on store shelves, or 2. make them yourself.
Or you can 3. make them yourself and put them on store shelves. Of course, it helps if you have major CPG executive experience and can attract Jay-Z as an investor.
Denise Woodard rolled out Partake Foods in 2017, bringing to market a line of cookies that are free from the top eight food allergens, as well as GMOs, preservatives and artificial flavors. The first big retail customer was Whole Foods; They’re now in about 2,700 retail stores, including Sprouts, Wegman’s, The Fresh Market and, just recently, Target. Not bad for a company with just three full-time and three part-time employees.
The inspiration for Partake came around the first birthday of Woodard’s daughter Vivienne (now 5), when she ate a snack with just two ingredients, peanuts and corn.
“Immediately after biting into it, her lips began to swell up and her tongue swelled up, and her lips turned blue,” Woodard recalled. That scary experience led to testing that determined Vivienne was allergic to “most tree nuts, corn, eggs and banana,” she said.
Woodard at the time was director of national sales for venturing and emerging brands at Coca-Cola, working on brands like Honest Tea and Zico coconut water. “They were started by regular people, who were just looking to solve a problem,” she says. “So that gave me some confidence.” It helped that her nanny, a woman named Martha (who now holds equity in Partake Foods), told her that her daughter deserved a diet more exciting than could be provided by the non-allergenic foods already on the shelf.
Trying to put together the recipes, Woodard “spent hours in the kitchen and I failed horribly,” she says. But she was lucky enough to hire a food scientist who both helped to develop the formulations and brought them up to industrial scale.
The next step was finding a manufacturer. Woodard quickly discovered that contract manufacturers want to take on a startup about as much as newsstand vendors want to change a fifty-dollar bill.
“Getting them to work with a startup was probably the hardest part of getting our business off the ground,” Woodard says. She says there was “a lot of begging and pleading” involved.
She did a Kickstarter campaign that went well, raising more than $30,000, which gave her some credibility with contract manufacturers. She managed to find one with the right equipment, on which several kinds of non-allergic products could be run; she settled on cookies because “we wanted to make something that was fun.”
Partake started in independent natural food stores in the New York market for the first two months, then in the summer of 2018, got into Whole Foods and Wegman’s.
To get those kind of retail customers, Woodard had to jump in cold. “For Whole Foods, I literally emailed every person I could find on LinkedIn who had ‘category manager’ in their job title,” she says.
“Somebody was interested, or took pity on me, and was willing to listen to our story and try a sample.”
By the time Partake got into Wegman’s, Woodard knew it was time to expand, which would take a second round of funding. Through “a friend of a friend of a friend,” she was introduced to Marcy Venture Partners, the fund co-founded by rapper/businessman Jay-Z. Marcy became the leading investor in that seed round, which raised a million dollars.
Woodard plans to have other products besides cookies (which she’s not ready to specify) on the market soon. She says the pandemic is not slowing the process down; the first new product, which she hopes will be available on Partake’s website by September, will be “able to help consumers with their at-home baking needs.”