Welcome to Season 11, Episode 4, of the Troubleshooting Innovation podcast. Joanie Spencer, editor-in-chief for Commercial Baking, is spending this season with Jennifer Steiner Pool, president and creator-in-chief of Steiner’s Baking Co., about how to turn a special family recipe into a commercially viable brand. Sponsored by Puratos.

In this episode, we have an interesting discussion around the evolution of marketing for a gluten-free product.

Learn more about this season here, and tune into Troubleshooting Innovation on Apple or Spotify.

 

Joanie Spencer: Welcome back this week, Jennifer!

Jennifer Steiner Pool: Hey! How are you? I’m so glad to be here.

Spencer: I am really looking forward to this one because we have a lot to unpack because making a gluten-free product is really complicated. Marketing a gluten-free product, I assume, is just as complicated. So that’s what I want to dive into this week, is the marketing side of gluten-free.

You’ve got a lot of marketing experience; we talked about it last week. You’re in a very interesting position because you have a marketing background, but you are also the daughter of someone with celiac. So, what do you rely on most: your marketing experience or your firsthand consumer experience as a celiac family?

Steiner Pool: That’s an interesting question. So, my training as a marketing professional influences how I absorb what my mom goes through — and has been going through — all of these years, right? It’s a different lens for me because I look at her as a consumer, and I’m so obsessed — as we’ve talked about before — with consumer behavior. I am constantly in my head picking apart how she makes decisions and her comments, and I’m sure she finds it very annoying.

So, I think probably the two actually intersect. I had a boss once. He probably thought I was never listening to him, but I always was, and he had this premise — which I still employ to this day — which is you’re either comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable when you are looking at a marketing paradigm.

So, for folks living with celiac, or folks who are gluten sensitive, we are comforting the afflicted, right? They’re out there scouring the aisles for things that actually taste good and that they can trust. An interesting attribute for a gluten-free consumer is this fear they have of being ‘glutened,’ which is fast becoming an actual verb. And they really lack trust in brands.

In fairness to the consumers, there’s been a lot of abuse of badges, a lot of statements like ‘naturally gluten-free,’ but as we discussed last week, your product may be naturally gluten-free, but based on the supply chain process and food safety implementation, you may actually have cross contamination you don’t realize. So, they get really, really nervous, the consumer that is. I really look at those two things.

And, as I think we discussed a couple of weeks ago, as we’ve evolved our marketing message to lean into the gluten-free solution more and leveraging the idea that we are a premium gluten-free baked good brand that is committed to delivering the very best ingredients in every product — that also happened to be gluten-free — we’re trying to leverage that comfort the afflicted in a very subtle but consistent, authentic and transparent way. That’s also why my feelings about ‘natural flavors’: If it’s in it, I’m going to say it’s in it. And a natural flavor is not a thing.

It’s building that trust and having an authentic brand. That really is born of necessity. My mom spent decades, before anybody knew what celiac was, trying to eat something that was somewhat edible. It was really difficult. And still today, it’s pretty difficult. I mean, there are some cookies, you could go buy today. And if you’re not desperate for a cookie because you’re celiac, you would never eat it. Our brand stands for something much better than that.

The other thing I think we are keenly aware of and helps us in our authentic messaging is our understanding of what celiac disease is and what gluten sensitivity is. And many consumers — there’s actually a comedian who does a whole bit on this — it’s not an allergy, which is a very common misconception. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, and it fires off your system in such a way that it has these symptoms that are debilitating.

I myself, although I’ve never been tested, in 1997 ended up in the emergency room with acute symptoms from either gluten intolerance or celiac. Again, I haven’t been tested. And it was one of those days of work, you know, you’ll have those days at work where it’s a bagel breakfast, and then it’s a pizza party, and it’s like a carbohydrate extravaganza. And my weakness is bagels.

I have no idea if I had any issue whatsoever. All of a sudden, I was in tears, hysterical crying, severe pain. I had to go to the ER. They asked me my family history. Of course, I shared my mother’s issues, and they said, ‘Well, we can test you,’ and I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to go cold turkey gluten-free for three weeks.’ Now, this is ’97, so still, really not a lot of options and a lot of misinformation.

Spencer: Right. Nobody really even knew what gluten was in ’97. From a consumer perspective.

Steiner Pool: Yeah, exactly. So, things like soy sauce, and you don’t even realize all the things that contain gluten. And remember, the other conflict that consumers have — or confusion, I should say, I’m sorry — is wheat allergy, which is totally different from anything having to do with gluten, which often throws off consumers who are trying to avoid gluten and because their perception is if it’s gluten-free, then it’s wheat free.

Those things are very different. Anyway, so I ended up in the ER, I went cold turkey. And I felt fabulous. All these symptoms, like I was a Pepto Bismol junkie in high school and college. I ate it like candy, and everybody was like, ‘Why are you eating this?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I have a stomachache like all the time.’

Lo and behold, I went cold turkey, I feel great. And if I cheat, which I always cheat, no one should ever feel bad about cheating, it’s virtually impossible not to. So, it’s really hard for consumers. They get such bad information. And then another interesting thing for consumers — which is why having a great sweet baked good solution helps them feel good about themselves and just life — you go to dinner with a bunch of people and you’re sitting around and everyone’s ordering, right. And then you get to the person who can’t have gluten.

Well, it’s 20 minutes later before they put their order in. And they are basically doing an FBI investigation with the chef as to what is in the kitchen and what is going to end up on their plate. And people are so annoyed by it. But they’re afraid. It’s not because they’re trying to be high maintenance. It’s because they just don’t know how to navigate the situation. And what I love is our products — one of our channels is food service, which is a great channel for us — because we solve this problem for restaurants and coffee shops. All of our products are individually wrapped to ensure a lack of cross-contamination. So, until you’re ordering and eating that product, it is wrapped and sealed, which is a really important part of the food safety process and ensuring something remains gluten-free.

We love that we can be a part of a menu and be a premium solution. And then everyone at the table is like, ‘Wait, what is that? I want those brownies.’ Okay, you can have them! They’re for everybody.

Spencer: So, I have to say when you talk about restaurants, because I have thought about this several times over the course of our conversations. I don’t get annoyed at the people if I’m at dinner and they’re asking those questions and doing a full investigation. That is legitimate.

The people who annoy me are the ones — like always when I see, ‘Oh, here’s the gluten-free menu,’ or ‘Here’s the gluten-free option’ — knowing what I know from reporting on the industry for 16 years, I just scratch my head and I’m like, ‘Is it really?’ It can’t just come out of the same kitchen and be gluten-free.

And so, the people who very flippantly say, ‘Oh, well, I don’t like gluten. I’m going to order the gluten-free option’ — those are the ones who annoy me because I feel like those are the uneducated consumers who don’t even understand why they don’t want to have gluten, and they’re taking the easy way that’s probably not gluten-free.

Steiner Pool: I also think some of the responsibility for better managing the fear factor, so one of the things I’m really eager to do, and I hope I have a chance to do it in 2024, is when someone is newly diagnosed with celiac, the very first thing is, ‘Now I can’t eat anything.’ Like, ‘I can’t go out.’

I mean, they really are afraid. Like, sometimes I read the social media threads, and they want to throw out their toaster ovens. They want their whole family to eat gluten-free, like they really are afraid. And I think if doctors had a way to deliver the diagnosis with a delicious food kit, if you will, with directions and understanding of how to manage your home and your choices that you make for yourself and your family, a lot of that fear would dissipate because you would enable and empower the person who has been diagnosed.

And you know, a dream of mine. And I often jump into social media threads and start to go down that path. And then I’m like, ‘Wait, no one wants to hear from me.’ Like, I can’t, you know, because some people want permission to be afraid. My thought is, ‘Well yes, you should have permission to onboard whatever you’ve been told and all the emotions that come with that. I also want you to know, now you’re free.’

You’re empowered to feel really good once you get your diagnosis because now you know what not to eat. When you feel bad every day, all the time, and suddenly someone tells you, ‘Don’t eat this, and your symptoms are going to go away, that’s freedom. You have to figure out how to do it, which is difficult, but it’s a huge win for someone. And I think if they can see that and feel that more quickly and have products that are delicious to take them on their journey, it’s life changing. I get very passionate about it. I don’t think it has to be all fear.

Spencer: If you’re not passionate about it, you’re in the wrong business. Your company is not going to do very well, so I appreciate the passion. And it would be a boring podcast!

Steiner Pool: Anyway, so that’s my two cents on, you know, the gluten-free world and consumers. And my mom is right there with all those people. She lost 40 pounds in a three-month period once because something she was eating had gluten, and she didn’t know, and it was making her incredibly sick. So, it’s a real thing. I mean, it’s very scary.

Spencer: It is. And that’s why it does grind on me when people — I think we’re going to touch on it throughout this conversation — but just those misconceptions where people are saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m trying to be healthier, so I’m going to cut out gluten,’ and no, that’s not what it is.

But here’s what I want to ask you. There are so many emerging brands that have this origin story of, ‘My daughter had an autoimmune disease,’ or ‘I had an autoimmune disease,’ or ‘My child had a severe allergy, and I couldn’t find anything delicious, so I started to make it myself.’ From a marketing perspective, this is a pure intention. You are a celiac family, and you created this so your mom could enjoy these baked goods that her dad made.

From a marketing perspective, how do consumers identify with that, especially consumers, like the parents of kids who have to bring their own treats to a birthday party, or sit at a different lunch table? Because I got to tell you that first time I went and had lunch — my son’s 14 now, so he wants nothing to do with me — but he used to like me to come have lunch with him in elementary school. And I was like, ‘Who’s that at that table?’ And he said, ‘Those are the allergy kids.’ And that just broke my heart. Like when there are children who can’t eat what everybody else does, and they have to be relegated to a different table, or they can’t share in the birthday treats and have to bring something of their own. Like, how are your customers and consumers identifying with your origin story?

Steiner Pool: It’s the authenticity of it. Going back to something we just discussed, it’s easier for them to take the belief and to trust us. When you have, especially if you have a child, if you have a child who is living with something like celiac or severe gluten sensitivity, all you want is for them to be happy. You want them to feel good, and you don’t want to fail at that, right?

I’m a mom, I have a 15-year-old son. He doesn’t like me either. I’ve told him it’s mandatory that I’m in his life, but he’s not really buying into that. But I only have one, so it’s not like I can, you know, do over or something. Just one and done.

You never want your child to leave the house and think they’re going to have a tough day because their lunchbox doesn’t meet the standards of everybody else’s lunchbox, right? Or anything like that — it’s awful. So that’s another reason that motivates me to talk to moms and share with moms the success we’ve had. And in this year, you’ll start to see us publish more recipes to use with the flour. Because people love to bake at home, you want your home to be filled with the smells of memories and cinnamon and nutmeg and all those things, so we know that consumers are going to want to do that themselves, and we want to empower them to do so with our flour.

But back to your question, it just breaks down this wall immediately. Immediately, moms will say to me, ‘Wait, everything you make is gluten-free?’ Yeah. And actually, it’s also all nut free. We don’t use any nuts on our equipment or in our recipes. So that’s mind blowing for a lot of parents.

There’s this interesting app, if you don’t know about it, called Spoken, and it’s for allergy moms. Now, this is where we get into this weird intersection. So, gluten intolerance and celiac are not an allergy. However, there is so much misinformation about it, it gets lumped in with allergies. And this misunderstanding, for instance, a child — and this goes back to my education thing with doctors — a child who’s diagnosed with celiac disease or severe gluten sensitivity should not have to sit at a different table. The gluten is not going to jump out of the pancakes my friend is eating and come into my pancakes, okay? The gluten is going to stay where it is; it’s not airborne. Once it’s been used, processed into whatever it is you’re eating, it’s not coming out of that.

Now you have to teach your child perhaps not to share, and sharing is caring, so that’s a little bit confusing for a young kid. However, if you are educated so that you can then share that information with your school, with your child — these are the things I talk about with parents. These are the things we talk about on social media. Fill your kid’s lunchbox. Let them give the brownies to everyone. Let them be the lunch table hero.

I was actually just talking about this last night with someone that you can make custom enamel, old school lunch boxes, which is something we’re going do as we pivot to more of a gift-oriented, direct-to-consumer offering. And I can’t wait to do that because I can’t wait for kids to be able to have these lunch boxes, and they can fill them with all these treats. And imagine the joy: a kid who’s just told, ‘You can’t eat any of these things. Everything your friends are eating, you cannot eat.’ But then, you send your kid to school with the best brownies — and I will challenge anyone — the best brownies that anyone is ever going to eat, and they can eat them and the nut free kid can eat them, and everyone else is trying to steal the brownies from them. I win. Like that’s it!

Spencer: I mean, and I was, I was imagining when you said it’s nut-free. I was like, Oh, so then the celiac kid can bring these treats on their birthday because they’re individually wrapped. And they’re nut-free. And at least at my school district, I mean, those are the hard lines. They have to be nut-free. It has to say on the label, ‘This was made in a nut-free facility.’

Steiner Pool: That’s really strict. Listen, it’s just scary for moms. And so, they just want people to be empathetic. They want to be heard, and they don’t want to be blown off. Now it’s changed a lot in the past five years, I would say.

But 10 years ago, if a mom went to a school and said, ‘My child has a severe nut allergy. They have to have an epi pen,’ or ‘We can’t have kids eating nuts in the classroom,’  the school didn’t care and didn’t take it seriously. Now, it’s changed a lot. It’s changed a lot.

Spencer: Yeah. And parents want their kids to fit in, and they want them to be safe. That’s a hard balance to strike for a kid who has celiac or a severe gluten sensitivity.

Steiner Pool: And you also want them to be confident. You want them to live with whatever their diagnosis is with confidence. It’s just a part of who they are. Right? It’s like one of their attributes. It’s a very delicate balance to teach a young person how to be aware of whatever their diagnosis may be and live within the constraints that it imposes upon them. And just to be. That’s a hard thing for a young person to start to learn. It takes a lot of maturity to embrace who you are, and whatever those attributes are, and engage with the world.

Spencer: Like this is my height. This is my hair color. This is my reaction to certain types of foods.

Steiner Pool: Exactly.

Spencer: The next thing that I wanted to ask is about science, and Nancy was a science teacher. When gluten became part of the American lexicon, when celiac and gluten-intolerance got that visibility, what happened in our industry was baked goods were more or less vilified.

So, how do you think the science behind baking has enabled products, like Steiner’s to be seen as mainstream in the eyes of all consumers? And it goes kind of with what we’re talking about, when people and kids especially can be confident in who they are and what they eat?

Steiner Pool: That’s an interesting question. I think as this issue with gluten entered the lexicon and became a part of our thought process, it actually unleashed a lot of innovation and creativity, which was latent. And people focused on a lot of other food science issues that they were tackling — and needed to be tackled, of course —food supply things, and  listen, that’s a whole other podcast. But I think it unleashed a lot of creativity.

A lot of people rolled up their sleeves, not just my mom, and went into kitchens and said, ‘Okay, I want a Bavarian pretzel, but it has to be gluten-free. How am I going to make that happen?’ That’s no small task. ‘I want a bagel that’s gluten-free.’ Now, the bagels that were on the market for the first, I don’t know, until maybe, like 10 years ago, were literally cement, rocks, inedible. I can’t even believe they got on grocery store shelves. I mean, disgusting.

But again, there was nothing else. So, what are you going to do? You just have to eat it. But those people, you got to love them, because they tried to solve a problem. They’re trying to comfort the afflicted. ‘These people want bagels; there are no bagels. How am I going to make them?’ So, I think what happened was, it unleashed an enormous amount of innovation and creativity that otherwise never would have happened.

From that, we’ve learned a lot about starches and fat absorption. All of these solutions in what I’ll call the flour sector, they really burst out when the gluten issue really surfaced. There are some great products on the market, and there’s a much better understanding of how to use them together to make something that is actually edible.

I just think it was a huge motivation. And again, as I said, necessity is the mother of invention. And if you don’t have a problem to solve, it’s very hard to just innovate out of nowhere, right? I mean everything, from the iPod to you know, ‘What do I do with all this music?’ and now we have this amazing solution. So, that’s what I chalk it up to.

Spencer: I’m sure you know, the brand Canyon Bakehouse, the guy who started Canyon — Josh Skow — he started that bakery because his wife was celiac diagnosed. Very similar story. They were tired of having to go to the freezer section and have these horrid products.

Steiner Pool: For those guys, it was all rice-based and the breads were so dense.

Spencer: Yes. I know Josh really well, and I did a story on Canyon before they had become part of Flowers Foods, and he was like, ‘I only know how to make gluten-free bread. I don’t know what the regular bread process is. I only know this way.’ So, I thought that was really interesting. Like he really dialed it in, more than it’s not a gluten-free version of another product.

Steiner Pool: Correct. I mean, bread is really hard. It’s interesting that he went down that road and I obviously admire his brand and have tremendous respect for him, and maybe someday I’ll meet him. So, he had to come up with something that didn’t exist, right?

To your point, he’s trying to figure out how to make bread that doesn’t have gluten in it, not how to take you know, so-and-so’s bread and make it gluten-free. He wanted to basically invent a new product. Which is I mean, listen, he shattered the market, right? It’s a total disruptor; people love his product. I only wish to be as successful as he is.

At Steiner’s, what we’ve said, because this is different than bread, is we don’t want people to have to sacrifice or search out or try to figure out a recipe. I want people to take a recipe that their grandfather used — which, nobody ever heard of celiac when their grandfather was alive — and just put our flour in it. It’s just a different premise. Right? It’s not right or wrong.

We just set out to say, and my mom was really focused on, ‘This is how Grandpa Malcolm makes this. I want to make it this way without gluten.’ And that was her motivation for her innovation. She didn’t have to reinvent the product. She had to figure out how can we make all these things: pancakes waffles, apple pie. You know, we’ve had people make sourdough bread with our flour. Scones. Who doesn’t love a scone? A gluten-free scone, you can’t find them.

She wanted to take recipes that people love and just give them a flour that would work. That’s what she’s done. And it’s pretty cool. So that was her motivation. And again, not right or wrong. She was just setting out to solve a different problem.

Spencer: Right. Okay, I want to go back to sort of consumer misconceptions, just talking about the flour, and what Nancy did to be able to enable people to make these things in their homes as well.

The term ‘gluten free.’ One of the easiest things for consumers to get confused about is they equate it automatically with ‘healthy.’ That it’s a better-for-you option or it’s a healthier option if it’s gluten-free, and that’s not always the case. I mean, you even mentioned it a couple of episodes ago, when some gluten-free brands, what they put in — they put so much other stuff in to mask the off flavor or the aftertaste or to fix the texture — it’s actually unhealthy.

This is another thing that I try to educate my friends without being a jerk, you know, like having bad form. But I’m like, just eliminating something that your body actually needs, like if you’re not intolerant to it, if you don’t have an autoimmune disease that has all of these ramifications if you ingest it, it’s not bad for you, and your body on certain levels needs it. And so, when you take it out, and you replace it with all this other crap that you don’t need, it’s counterproductive.

We’ve talked about a little bit and how you deal with that in terms of marketing, because you have an indulgent, delicious product, and it’s not about, ‘I can eat whatever coffee cake I want. And if I eat a Steiner’s coffee cake, then I’ll lose weight because it doesn’t have gluten.’ Do you get caught in that consumer misconception? And how do you navigate it?

Steiner Pool: This goes back to what we were talking about regarding authenticity. First of all, in food in general, the word ‘healthy’ is a dangerous, slippery word. It’s often misused, often misunderstood, and everyone has their own definition of healthy. And, quite frankly, probably they should because everybody’s body is different.

So what is going to be healthy, meaning what is going to keep you safe and keep all your parts working correctly, et cetera, is going to be different just between you and I. We all have a different definition of healthy.

For me, I try to stay away from the word ‘healthy.’ And I try to stay away from the word ‘natural.’ Not because we aren’t using real ingredients — and that’s the word I like to use — it’s because A: People have their own definition of these things. And B: For us, I mean, we make cake and brownies and cookies.

You know, I often meet folks who are diabetic, who say, you know, ‘I can’t eat this, and you should make it with less sugar.’ And they are frustrated, they themselves are frustrated. And my response is always, ‘I appreciate what you need. And I understand that our products aren’t for you.’ What we are committed to is responsible indulgence. And that’s why our portion sizes are small.

Our little brownie bites, I think each brownie bite is 26 grams. They’re small. Our gingersnaps — 12 gingersnaps — is 38 grams. They’re tiny, but they’re satisfying. And they’re chock-full of real ingredients. So that’s how I reconcile this concept of ‘healthy.’

Now back to the other part of your question, which gluten-free in and of itself is not healthy or unhealthy. It just is, in fact, gluten-free. So, you know, the big guys have taken advantage of that. And they look for the halo effect. That’s something that is free of, which is only getting hotter in the marketplace. It’s not just gluten, right? You and I could go through a list of probably 50 things free of: free of soy, I mean, the list goes on and on — which we are soy-free as well. People are always amazed that our brownies are soy-free, actually. And they are.

But that is a construct that consumers are now clamoring after. That is in some cases very, very important — nut-free, gluten-free, soy-free. These are real allergies that people have and/or diagnoses that they’re living with. But the entire explosion of that concept and the halo effect is 100% Marketing 101. It’s like consumer psyche, right?

This goes back to my passion about consumer behavior. And you know, I use my mom as my test subject all the time, but anytime something says ‘free of,’ she’s like, ‘Oh, I bought that. These are better for you, Jen, because blah, blah, blah.’ And I’ll say, ‘But did you read the ingredients? I can’t pronounce anything that’s in it.’ You know, and she’s just like, ‘Oh.’

Free-of does not necessarily mean — again, unless you have a diagnosis that you’re dealing with — that it’s the better choice. You really have to look at what the ingredient list is. First of all, people are in a rush. I mean, it’s hard. It’s really hard to do. If you’ve got family, if you’re a parent, the last thing you want to do is sit with your phone in the grocery store and try to figure out what the stuff is that you’re buying.

Spencer: Right. And in consumers’ defense, decision fatigue is real. And we do want people to make our decisions for us, or at least make them easier.

Steiner Pool: Yeah. And as a manufacturer, I lean into the badges that we carry. OU-D kosher, Gluten Intolerance Group, I depend on them to keep us — I don’t want to use the word ‘honest’ — I guess to keep us best in class. I depend on them to push us to do better to meet the requirements of their certifications.

Spencer: I like that.

Steiner Pool: And a lot of people look at — we’re not going to get political — but a lot of people look at regulation as the bane of their existence if they are a manufacturer. Now you’re talking about a company that’s based on a zero waste, sustainable policy, and gluten-free, so you know, I live in a world of regulation.

But I actually look at it as a way to empower us to make those decisions that are strategic initiatives for our company, grounded and correctly. I mean, what do I know about home compost right? I’m not a scientist. I have no idea about how you make corn into a clear film. I don’t have the slightest clue! But the guys that I work with at NatureFlex, who are fabulous, they’re subject matter experts. They went out, and again, innovation, necessity, right, we need to get plastic out of our food system.

They figured this out, and they have the certifications, and I depend on them for those certifications, and we collaborate on what makes that great. We have these interesting conversations about consumers’ understanding between home-compost rated and recyclable.

That’s very confusing to consumers. So, do I want to buy something that’s recyclable? Or do I want to buy something that’s home-compost rated? And I had some strategic conversations with the folks at NatureFlex about this. And I said, ‘Listen, at the end of the day, you want home-compost-rated to win.’

Why? Because, certainly in the United States, we haven’t figured out our recycling stream. It’s very, very broken. If everybody is using non-toxic, home-compost rated, clear packaging, then when it falls out of the back of the truck, which it inevitably does, or doesn’t make it to the recycling facility, it’s going to break down.

So, I struggled with this. I really had to get my head around it. And after doing the research, I said, ‘You know what, the home compost is a win.’ It doesn’t matter if they ever put it in their garden; it’s not going to make it to the landfill. It’ll be disintegrated.

Those kinds of things, consumers, you know — back to your question about healthy — like, it’s the same thing. It’s the same misunderstanding, misconception. How do you lean into this, but do it transparently and authentically?

Spencer: Right. So, you have this balance — being a baker, a marketer and a celiac family member, and perhaps celiac yourself. However, I have learned from my conversations with you that you’re not a baker. I am going to say ‘baker, creator in chief.’

So, what are the priorities for branding and marketing? We talked about this with your education with Mondelez SnackFutures. How can a brand ensure celiac or gluten-sensitive consumers that a product is safe for them, while also communicating that everyone can enjoy it? There is a fine line there. You actually have walked both sides of that line. So, how do you balance and stay on the line?

Steiner Pool: It’s very difficult, first of all. It has been a strategic conundrum for me since I launched the company. Any good marketer will tell you that you cannot be all things to all people. It’s not possible. You have to focus and be the best in the world at what you do. That’s how you win as a brand.

So, once the team at Mondelez hit me over the head with that again and again, which was a lesson I’ve learned a long time ago, but I clearly was having trouble applying it to my own company, which is called founder-itis, I realized we are the best in the world at premium, sweet baked goods that happen to be gluten-free. We are the best in the world at that. I have to lean into it, and I have to live it and love it.

And what will happen is, because it’s I mean, I can’t say none but tiny, tiny, tiny percent of the population that’s gluten-free, lives on their own in an isolated state, right? Most people who are living with celiac or are gluten-sensitive have a whole family or people they love or have friends or what have you, or professional colleagues, etc. They’re going to eat their brownie, and they’re going to make noises when they eat it. ‘Oh my god, this is so good!’ That word of mouth, the power of recommendation — listen, that’s what makes likes and hearts and all that stuff work on social media — the power of the gluten-free person loving what they’re eating, not tolerating what they’re eating, that is where we will win and leap into a mass market consumption pattern.

Spencer: Light bulbs are going off over my head right now.

Steiner Pool: It will happen, and I have to be willing to let it happen that way. It was very hard for me to get there. So, when we produce our next line of packaging, ‘gluten-free’ will be loud and proud. You won’t miss it. Right now, you definitely won’t miss it.

So, we’re going to change that, and we’re evolving. And any good entrepreneur knows that sometimes they have to listen and collaborate and evolve, as difficult as it is.

So, we will, we will lean into it. Now, I would also say that that concept of is your product really only tolerated versus loved, that’s our litmus test for, ‘How good is it?’ Is it so good that my coffee shop clients are willing to list the coffee cake on their conventional menu and their gluten-free menu? Is it that good that the restaurant is going to put the brownies on the conventional dessert menu and the gluten-free dessert menu? That’s how we know that we’re doing our job and that I can feel confident leaning into gluten-free.

Another trick of the trade that I learned along the way is it’s not enough to be known; you have to be wanted. I have to have faith that strategic principles of marketing and being authentic and living what you are and being the best in the world at it will get us where we want to go.

Spencer: Nice. I love it. I love it. And I think that it can be a beacon for other brands as well. And I do feel like you’re sort of following in the footsteps of Josh Skow and what he did for gluten-free bread. Truly.

Steiner Pool: He did. He focused, went deep. He was proud of it. There were no apologies. It was ‘We make this product. It serves this market. It’s delicious. It’s better than everything else out there.’

I was afraid of that. And now I’m not.

Spencer: I can’t imagine you being afraid of anything Jennifer.

Steiner Pool: I was. I was. It definitely weighed on my mind. I thought, I’m like, ‘God, the market’s too small. There’s not enough people. We can’t grow the brand on this.’ You know, it just was I like had my whole psyche revved up against it.

And listen, that’s the value of these incubator programs. You’re surrounded by subject matter experts who are there to help you be strategically on point.

Spencer: For sure. Okay, this wraps up this episode. What a great conversation. I learned a lot and was also entertained. And I hope everyone else was too.

Next week, we’re going to look at the future, and I’m going to start next week talking about where you and where Steiner’s live in this changing idea of where indulgence plays into the idea of wellness and health because it’s changing, just like everything else. And then I want to talk about line extensions and where you’re going and breaking out into other gluten-free products. So, that’s for next week, which will be our last episode.

Thank you again so much for another great conversation!

Steiner Pool: Thank you, this is fantastic. Have a good one!

Spencer: You too!

Welcome to Season 11, Episode 3, of the Troubleshooting Innovation podcast. Joanie Spencer, editor-in-chief for Commercial Baking, is spending this season with Jennifer Steiner Pool, president and creator-in-chief of Steiner’s Baking Co., about how to turn a special family recipe into a commercially viable brand. Sponsored by Puratos.

In this episode, we’re tackling the product development challenges that come with creating gluten-free baked goods.

Learn more about this season here, and tune into Troubleshooting Innovation on Apple or Spotify.

 

Joanie Spencer: Hi, Jennifer, welcome back.

Jennifer Steiner Pool: Thanks for having me back. I’m glad I didn’t get kicked off.

Spencer: Oh, my gosh, no way. No way. I love talking to you. Two episodes in, and we have covered a ton of ground. And obviously, we’ve had some discussion around gluten-free because your product — and your flour base — is gluten-free, but this week, I want to focus on one specific aspect, and that is production.

Let’s start with talking about food safety aspects and production. As you’ve grown, what are some of the lessons that you’re learning around things like food safety and sanitation, in production, when you’re creating a gluten-free product?

Steiner Pool: So, great question. It’s complicated. When it was just Jen in our first commercial kitchen, I had a lot more control over every single utensil, surface, how the ingredients were handled. And when you’re talking about gluten-free and as you’re trying to mitigate cross contamination, which is critical,

one of the misconceptions is that if every ingredient is gluten-free, then your product, well, lo and behold, be gluten-free. Well, what if I made lunch for my son this morning on regular, what I’ll say conventional bread, and I didn’t have a proper apron on, and there was residue from my son’s bread on my clothing? That’s a problem. That’s why people wear what I’ll call lab coats, right? Not just aprons, but actual full clothing covering because you could drive cross contamination inadvertently on your clothing.

So it’s like that level of detail, as you’re scaling, becomes more and more important the more people you have on the line, and understanding every component of the equipment, and how it’s cleaned, and how it’s stored. All of those things stack up to make a confidently, in our case, gluten-free (other people might be dealing with nuts, etc.) product. Or even, for instance, if ingredients are coming off a truck that has flour on a pallet in the truck, but the butter that we’re buying is on another pallet, and let’s say — because this can happen — flour, of course, is quite light, it travels in the air very easily, so it could settle on our boxes of butter. That’s why when you unpack something like butter, you unpack that in a different part of the warehouse with gloves, then the butter is put on a means of conveyance into the kitchen. It’s all those details, and you don’t think about it right? You’re at home, you have your butter, why would I ever consider the fact that somehow gluten got on my sticks of butter? But in that scenario, it could happen. And certainly, it’s just a matter of the supply chain, and how all of these things come together in the kitchen. And that’s why people, they may not know this, but you’re testing along the way.

So, when we run the production line, we end up doing, I think it’s 21, gluten tests throughout the run. So, you’re testing the equipment before you start. You’re testing the batter. You’re testing the batter from the mixer, then you’re testing the batter when it gets to the depositing mechanisms, then you’re testing the parts in the depositing mechanism. Then you come out of the oven, before you can proceed, you’re testing the finished product. It’s expensive and time-consuming, right? Because your line efficiency is based on throughput. Every one of those instances requires almost 20 minutes to wait for the test. So, you want to make sure going to pass.

Spencer: Yeah. If you don’t pass, then you’re really set back, right?

Steiner Pool: Well, A: then we’re not in compliance with our own zero waste. What am I going to do? I mean, of course I would give the product to the staff, but still, you don’t want to waste all that product. And you’re starting over because what you’ll have to do then — and we did have this happen once — if you fail, now you have to re-clean everything. That could be two hours. And then you have to retest it.

Spencer: I mean, you manufacture, in part, because you didn’t want to bake. You know, you dove into this, and you had to, it was just like, a completely new concept to learn. So, how did you, in your brain, reconcile this balance between food safety and sanitation from the gluten-free aspect, with efficiency, with zero food waste? That’s a hard equation. Like, how did you figure it out? When you’re a marketer, not an engineer. And I’m a journalist, so I can say that with a lot of certainty.

Steiner Pool: When you have principles by which you want to do anything — it doesn’t have to be running a company, it can be running your household — and you’re anchored in them, it helps you see the pathway. So, if my vision is that we are going to have zero waste, we haven’t even discussed sustainability, that’s a whole ‘other conversation we could have.

So, zero waste, which is part of our sustainability program anyway, and gluten-free and clean ingredients, certain things have to happen, in a certain order, or you’ll fail at what you’d started out to do, which was to have zero waste. So, as you’re moving through the process, it’s almost like each little decision tree goes back to that first point. And so even if I’m faced with decisions, which I am every day, on topics that I don’t know anything about, I know that I don’t want to waste any food.

So how am I going to purchase the butter so that I don’t have to throw any butter out? And how am I going to run a batch and use all of the sour cream, because I can’t throw any out, right? That’s our rule.

So, I come to the idea that when I’m looking at batch factoring, I have to use my most perishable ingredient to drive the size of the batch. Now, I don’t know anything about anything. But I know if my most perishable ingredient isn’t going to be thrown out, I better use every last drop of it. That’s actually a great example, someone who knows nothing about baking, nothing about manufacturing food at scale, but I do know I don’t want to throw something out.

And so that’s how someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing can get to a very sensible and financially efficient decision on how to run the line. And I learned that very quickly. So, if sour cream is going to be my issue, and it still is today, right? That’s my most perishable ingredient. Butter can be frozen. Eggs, and now remember we only use real eggs, no funny business, but they can be frozen. Sugar’s not, you know, not an issue. So, you’ve worked through that. And now we know a batch ‘X’ of sour cream and we never waste any sour cream. That’s how I do it. That’s how I bring those things together when I really don’t know anything about them.

Spencer: Manufacturing a gluten-free product, I mean, that testing is really important. Because I mean, just based on the principle and the product that you make, you’re taking those tests very, very seriously. And then, if it fails, then it’s wasted product. It’s like that’s just another layer of risk. Right?

Steiner Pool: Yeah. And on the testing side, as I mentioned, we’ve only ever failed the test once. And I’m not even sure it was a real, you know, you can have a false positive. We’ll never know, right? We just did what we had to do, and we recleaned all the equipment.

But if I’m starting out right, and we have a proper HACCP plan in place, which of course we do, and we’re audited by the Gluten Intolerance Group. So, I feel very confident in the program and the process that we have in place; we’ll always deliver the right end results and keep our consumers safe and happy. I tend not to worry about that as much. It’s burdensome, and we have to do it. But I really don’t worry that we’re not going to pass. You know, I just know that we’re doing things correctly. And I’m really confident in the team.

Spencer: And you have a contract manufacturer for the blending of the flour. Are you manufacturing yourself? Are you working with a co-manufacturer?

Steiner Pool: For the end products, you’re asking?

Co-manufacturer. Praise be sweet baby Jesus, if I may quote Ricky Bobby, I have a co-manufacturer, and I do not make the products myself anymore. And that’s not because I don’t love our consumers; it is simply because there’s no way I could make all this product myself. 

Spencer: Right. I mean, you get to a point where, especially when you know where your lane is, you know where you need to let go.

Steiner Pool: Yeah. I must say, it’s really good, as much as I didn’t like it, that I did all the baking because there isn’t an aspect of my business that I don’t know. There isn’t a point in the supply chain or the production cycle where, first of all, someone could take advantage of me and tell me some cockamamie story that isn’t true because I myself have made every single product, thousands of them. And it also helps me see opportunities to be better.

So, I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, so when we moved in with our co-manufacturer, who I love, there were a lot of lessons we didn’t need to learn. To them, the product was totally new, right? They never made it before. A lot of companies come to their co-manufacturer having never really run the product at scale, which the whole different space-time continuum, when you’re trying to onboard with your co-man, I was able to come in and say, ‘Well, this is how we do it. These four things we shouldn’t be doing, but we’re doing them this way because it was just Jen. Now that we have you, we don’t have to do this.’ So, you know, as much as I hated it, it’s good that I did it.

Spencer: Do you think that experience of making it yourself in that commercial kitchen helped you choose the right manufacturing partner?

Steiner Pool: Yes.

Spencer: I mean, it’s a vetting process from both sides. It’s like any relationship, and it has to be a good fit. And sometimes it’s not a good fit. And then you have to find someone else, or they had all the capabilities that we needed, except for this one thing. What you were saying, about you have firsthand understanding of how it should be made, did that help you find the right co-man?

Steiner Pool: Absolutely. We have, I have what I’ll call a consultant in a director of production seat for us, and he’s a fabulous guy. I adore him.

Together, we were able to really ferret out and vet co-mans. Now, it hasn’t been easy. It took almost six years for me to find the right group. I have to own some responsibility for that. Because we haven’t had the right working capital budget, it makes us — I don’t want to say difficult because I’d like to think of myself as fairly as not difficult — but it’s hard to have a client, and you know this because you’ve spoken to some pretty impressive co-mans, you want to be a good client is the way I want to say that. And being a good client means you’re well-funded because you have to run often enough, and you have to pay your bills on time.

So, that’s one issue. Then the next issue is you have to be a personality fit; you have to be able to work with these people. This is your baby. This is like sending your kid to daycare.

Spencer: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Steiner Pool: Well, and are you really willing to sacrifice anything like you really have to know sort of your truth and what you’re just not going to cave on. And if you’re sitting across the table with someone entertaining this kind of relationship where they’re nurturing, and cultivating, and driving your product into market, and you don’t have a great feeling, and you’re not really communicating well, (remember, I’m a New Yorker) then that’s not good. It’s ultimately never going to work. Because you have to be respectful of who the other people are. This is who they are, right? This is their business; they need to be successful too. I’m not going to change them. And they have to respect me for who I am. As long as I’m not being a crazy lunatic and disrespectful, then pretty much, you know, we have to be able to meet the middle.

So where we are now: They’re New Yorkers, which is helpful. They know this business. I mean, these guys are third generation, they’re phenomenal. And they love the product. And they believe in me, and they believe in the potential of what we can be. And that makes it a good fit.

Spencer: Was it hard? I mean, you again, you’re in a little bit of a unique position because of the flour. It always comes back to the flour, doesn’t it?

So, you have the blender, and then you have the contract manufacturer? How do you bring the two of them together? And how did that factor into finding a good contract manufacturer?

Steiner Pool: So, rolling back to our previous conversation about defensible: Our flour’s in a black box.— The two shall never meet. From the very inception of the company, the strategy was that the blender and the co-man would never work together and would never know each other and would never be in the same facility.

And so, we order flour — obviously pounds and pounds of flour — and that is shipped to our co-man. And those two will never meet. So, as far as our co-manufacturer’s concerned, it’s like ordering butter. You know, they order the flour, they make our products. And they always want the recipe, but they’ll never get it. 

Spencer: As far as the co-man is concerned, it’s just another third-party vendor.

Steiner Pool: Right. So it just calls for flour, you know, or whatever it is. But you’re right.

Spencer: Okay. That’s really interesting because that co-man and brand relationship, that you give them your formula, and the most important part of your formula is just another ingredient. Like, then you’re managing almost two different companies.

Steiner Pool: Yes, I mean, for sure. But again, remember, it is also a retail product for us. So, it’s a little bit nuanced in that regard. That’s how much I believe in the unique nature of our flour. That’s how critical it is that it remains a secret. It is our Coca-Cola.

And there have been times where, you know, we’ve talked about making it two separate companies. I don’t think that’s fair to our investors. I think they’re investing and believing in, of course me, but in the flour and what it can make, and you know, therefore, it’s one company. That’s how I manage the supply chain.

Spencer: That’s interesting. Like, I’ve never experienced another product or brand like that.

Okay, so I’m going change the subject. And I’m going ask a really rudimentary question. Gluten-free bread is so hard to produce and make it tasty and shelf stable. Relative to something like bread, to manufacture coffee cake, is it hard?

Steiner Pool: Yeah, I mean, it’s cake. Right? So, forget the gluten-free for a minute.

How many cakes do you know in the market that are fresh frozen, that you take home and defrost and eat? Not pie. Pie shells, you can get pie shells, right? I mean, a cookie sandwich, you could sort of argue is a baked good on the outside. I guess muffins maybe. I don’t know if people buy frozen muffins and take them home. I’ve never noticed that. Pizza, but you have to bake it.

It’s really hard. It’s really hard to do. But come back to our three legs of our stool: recipe, methodology and ingredients. If those three things come together, and you freeze it immediately, you will preserve the moisture level. And you can reconstitute it in the microwave when you nuke it. You can’t put it in a toaster. It’s not a piece of bread. You can’t put it in an oven. It’s already baked.

That fresh-frozen concept and wrapping it immediately is a key component to our success. There aren’t a lot of people doing it. I mean, go to the grocery store after our conversation and tell me how many fresh frozen cakes, that are made with real ingredients, okay that’s key — we don’t put anything in the product; there’s no conditioners; there’s no additives; there’s no preservatives; there’s no imitation flavors, nothing — tell me what you find. I don’t think you’re going to find a lot. 

Spencer: It’s like a research project. 

Steiner Pool: It is. I’d challenge you.

So then layer in the gluten-free. So, listen, we never would have launched the company if Nancy hadn’t successfully made a cake that was moist that you didn’t know was gluten-free, right?

You probably know a lot of the complaints about gluten-free: It’s gritty. It has an aftertaste. It sticks in my teeth. It has no taste. It’s you know, as hard as cardboard. It’s sawdust. I mean, all of those things, right? I we’ve all heard them, and many people have experienced them. Our cake doesn’t have those things. And it’s because it’s a real recipe.

And my grandfather didn’t know anything about gluten-free and he probably would have told us all to get out of his kitchen if we even started in with that.

He was a tall, skinny German Jew who did not want to hear about gluten-free, I can assure you. And his recipe is the exact recipe we use, save for the flour. We didn’t change anything.

And so, one of the other things I learned, actually a couple of years ago, unsalted butter now has natural flavors in it, which are a combination of several preservatives because they wanted to extend the shelf life of unsalted butter.

We used to use unsalted butter before this happened. When they made this change, it was changing the texture of the cakes. I went back to my sour cream lesson, right? I was like, “What is going on? I don’t understand. Suddenly this is different.”

It was the butter. So, we rebalanced the salt in the recipe and changed to salted butter, which has no preservatives or additives. And, of course, drew back the salt in the base recipe. So we, you know, had the same amount of salt.

And that can happen to you on the fly. Like imagine you’re producing, producing, producing, and then all of a sudden, a basic ingredient that everybody uses is changed across the board.

Spencer: And this kind of calls back to the very first episode, the first conversation that we had. The thing about baking is, you don’t know, until it’s finished, that it’s changed.

Steiner Pool: Yeah. And now you have hundreds of coffee cakes, but you don’t really — A: It’s a food safety issue because the label doesn’t account for the surprise natural flavors that suddenly appeared in your product — and B: Now I have hundreds of coffee cakes.

Spencer: And then that goes against the zero waste.

Steiner Pool: And this ties back to the food safety conversation we had. Like these are really critical nuances. And in food, it’s just, you know, people are eating this. Like, it’s really critical that you understand each component as you’re moving through your process every day.

Spencer: I mean, gluten-free is so hard. And it’s far more complicated.

Steiner Pool: It is, and the way that my mom, you know, one of the things about her flour formula is how well it absorbs fat. And that’s what drives the moisture.

Again, I think this is the scientist in the back of her head, even though she might not have articulated it as like a chemistry experiment, ‘I think this is what’s going on,’ right? She’s watching this happen, and the key issue is you don’t want it to be dry.

So how are you going to overcome that? And the other thing that she did really well, which is interesting — so I mentioned those things like grit sticking in your teeth, dryness, those particular attributes — she was tinkering against them, if you will.

So, she was in the kitchen saying, ‘Well, if this is sticky, what’s the thing that keeps making it sticky?’ She was kind of trying to deconstruct the negative attributes so that she could re-engineer to a positive outcome. But you know, it took her 35 years; I could never do that.

But now we have a flour that performs and behaves with ingredients that people have in their kitchens because it came from someone’s kitchen, you know, not from a chemistry set.

Spencer: Right, yeah. Okay, so, next week, we’re going to get into this a little more with the gluten-free, like you’re leaning into it now, but sort of touting that gluten-free is secondary to the taste and quality.

So many little things had to come together. What is it that makes this product so special? How do the ingredients play nicely together in order to be machinable and still be the same coffee cake that you made with your mom in her kitchen that your grandfather made in his kitchen? How do you maintain it?

Steiner Pool: So, another principle is, I actually learned this from my dad: Keep it simple. When that is an anchor point, you look at your ingredients with that in mind. And you don’t want to have a lot of ingredients, quite frankly. Gingersnaps are interesting. So, the gingersnaps —  12 ingredients in the gingersnaps — that’s a lot, in my opinion. Every one of them has to be right.

Whereas brownies have six ingredients; easier to control. I do, first and foremost, want the recipes to be very simple, which also allows us to embrace our promise of a clean label. The less you put in it, the less issues you have. That influences how the ingredients work together.

One of the things I learned when you mix the butter and sugar— and I tell people who are baking at home to do this — when you mix the butter and sugar together first, the sugar is incorporating with the fat in the butter which is going to give you more moisture.

The other thing with our flour, unlike conventional flour, you can really beat the crap out of this flour. You almost can’t over-mix the flour. When you mix something furiously, you’re introducing air over the time that you’re mixing it, so that can drive dryness in a product or can make something sticky and not come out of pans or different things that can happen.

But our flour can take it. And it just keeps absorbing the moisture. So the coffee cakes in particular — because we have two great sources of fat in the coffee cakes — for moisture we have the sour cream and the butter, we can really drive the moisture level up, which people love.

So those ingredients come together really nicely, and we always use the flour last. It’s the last thing to go in the mixer. So, everything else incorporates, and then the flour goes in. And it just sucks all of that up really well. And that’s, you know, a really important part of the process. When we get to talk about some of the line extensions we’ll have in the future, the way that the flour behaves and interacts with the flavors and other things that go in the recipes, it’s a critical part of why they’re so delicious. And in some cases, people would argue, better than the conventional counterpart.

Spencer: Wow, awesome. That’s so interesting. It’s so interesting. It’s fascinating.

Steiner Pool: Even though I hate baking, and I think I’ve said that several times, I’m still curious, or I still want to know how does this work? And I care about each step of the process. So even if I don’t physically like doing it, I am intrigued by the whole thing, so that helps mitigate the distaste for the baking part.

Spencer: I think you’re really good at engineering. And I think you have a bit of Nanci’s scientific mind.

Steiner Pool: Maybe, or maybe it’s just my unwillingness to accept no.

Spencer: You have her stubbornness. 

Steiner Pool: Now, don’t tell me it can’t be done, because I’m just going to go do it.

Spencer: I love it. I love it.

Okay, so that is going to wrap up this week’s conversation, Jennifer. We’re going to stay on the theme of gluten-free but look at it from a marketing standpoint. And I want to dive back into Mondelez and their advice to lean into it, but I have seen this trend toward making the gluten-free secondary. And it’s a hard balance to say, ‘This is gluten-free, but don’t worry about that.’ So, I think we’re going to have another interesting conversation next week.

Steiner Pool: Absolutely. I’m looking forward to it.

Spencer: Thanks again, Jennifer. You are so fun to talk to. Have a great day.

Steiner Pool: You too!

 

Welcome to Season 11, Episode 2, of the Troubleshooting Innovation podcast. Joanie Spencer, editor-in-chief for Commercial Baking, is spending this season with Jennifer Steiner Pool, president and creator-in-chief of Steiner’s Baking Co., about how to turn a special family recipe into a commercially viable brand. Sponsored by Puratos.

In this episode, we’re going from startup to scale and learning how Steiner’s Coffee Cake has grown its customer base … and how production is growing with it.

Learn more about this season here, and tune into Troubleshooting Innovation on Apple or Spotify.

 

Joanie Spencer: Hi, Jennifer! Thanks for coming back to join me again this week.

Jennifer Steiner Pool: So excited, it’s gonna be great.

Spencer: We had such a fun conversation last week in just learning about the Steiner family, how the brand started and your relationship with your mom. It’s a cool, cool story. Now we’re going to talk about scale, and going from startup to scale. But one thing that I want to talk about first is your background, because I’ve heard this story before: marketer turned baker. Your background in marketing and advertising is relatively common, and it’s really useful when you’re an entrepreneur and building a bakery brand. So can you just walk me through a little bit of your background? Since you got into it for a totally different reason? I mean, in a short and relatively crass way, you did it to piss your mom off!

Steiner Pool: Facts are facts!

Spencer: Tell me about your marketing and advertising background and where your areas of expertise are. How did you take that and dive into this?

Steiner Pool: I have always been obsessed with marketing and advertising. When I was young, I used to go to the bank and take all the creative assets, like the brochures and the deposit slips and stuff. I would take them home and organize them in my room. That’s what I used to do. Like, I’ve always been obsessed with marketing and advertising. And that’s has been my career; I had my own company in Denver for a while. And I’m just obsessed with consumer behavior. How do consumers interact with brands and products? And why do some work and why? Why do some fail? What motivates a consumer, it’s just fascinating. If you ever want to to people-watch, which we were discussing, go to the grocery store. Watch how people sort of investigate the products that are around them. It’s really fascinating.

So I have this passion. As we discussed in the last episode, I quit my job, my mom is furious. And I know immediately that we have to get samples out into the market. Now to do that was very tricky, because we had a proprietary flour blend, right? It’s not as if we were just taking a recipe, I could go to the grocery store, get all the ingredients we needed, and here you go. We had to have the flour; that was a no-go item on the list. So I was doing all of the basics like creating the website. As you and I discussed, I had the brand locked down, I was registering the company name and I knew how to do all these things because this is my professional background, but what I didn’t know how to do is bake. Just a small issue.

So we put that aside and I said okay, I’ve got to get the flour. How am I going to figure this out? And I just went on Google and I researched blenders: what does that really mean, how do you find one. And ours has to be gluten-free so it can’t just be any blender. I was looking at all of these food safety things, like are these flours certified kosher? So now, this funnel is getting narrower and narrower as I’m trying to vet out and find someone to blend the flour, which I do keep secret.

Then we find this group. They’re such great people, as I’ve mentioned before, so now we send the flour to them — our little bowl of flour — and we send them the recipe. Now they have to replicate it. Here’s my first lesson, right? How are we going to scale this? Jennifer went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of ingredients and Nancy had to sift them in a bowl is not the same as 5,000 pounds of flour tumbling in a giant cauldron. Just imagine the difference. These guys are fabulous partners. We had to go through a lot of iterations to make it work, and what I will always say about any successful food product is that there’s three legs to the stool. The recipe: Not all recipes are like, people think they are. But they’re not. Sometimes the reason why your food doesn’t taste good is not you, it’s the recipe. No. 2 is the methodology: You could have a great recipe, but if you’re not baking it at the right temperature or the right time or mixing it correctly in the right order, it’s not going to be good. Therefore, it kind of is you and the rest is good. And then the third is the ingredients: Ingredients matter. And this is my second lesson that we learned the hard way, and we’ll come back to that. Don’t let me forget!

So we find this blender, we go through this whole process, we finally get the flour right. But now I, as the marketer, and apparently someone who now has to learn how to bake, we have to get enough product out to find out if it’s scalable. Can I make hundreds of coffee cakes? It’s nthe same thing to make one as it is to make hundreds.

Spencer: And hundreds where every single one tastes the same.

Steiner Pool: Every single one has to be perfect. And then thousands, right, and then tens of that. That’s where my head is, and I want to go there very quickly because I don’t actually want to bake, but clearly I’m going to have to. So the entire time my mind is, ‘I don’t want to bake if we’re going to make this work. I have to get out of the kitchen.’ That’s all I can think about. Before I’ve even got in the kitchen, I’m trying to figure out how to get out of it. That’s why I was so hellbent on finding scale. So I’m making hundreds of coffee cakes, and I happen to live in a place where you are not allowed to bake at home. I live in Nassau County, New York. You cannot sell food products made from your home, so that is now an immediate problem. You can make muffin samples and go to your school’s bake sale or what have you, but the minute you want to slap your business license on it and be out there selling it, that is forbidden. So now I have to find a place to bake. And remember, it’s gluten-free.

Spencer: So you can’t just go to your neighborhood commercial kitchen and knock on the door and ask for some space.

Steiner Pool: Yes, I live in a place where there are no neighborhood commercial kitchens, so what are we going to do? So we get the flour and . Now I’m baking hundreds of coffee cakes in my mom’s kitchen. They’re all over the kitchen, I mean, hundreds, I can’t explain to you how many coffee cakes I pumped out of my mom’s kitchen. And I’m wrapping them by hand and I’m taking them to farmer’s markets and I’m sampling them everywhere. And remember, I’m miserable because I don’t like baking. She’s already telling me there’s two more products she wants me to start making because now she’s realized she doesn’t have to bake because she made me bake! Like, just pump the brakes, sweetie! Slow down.

Spencer: It’s a good thing you’re skilled at ignoring your mother.

Steiner Pool: I am really good at it. And unfortunately, my son has inherited the same thing. So I realize we also happen to live in a place that’s a little bit of a bubble. When you’re trying to pressure-test a new product in the market — and this is my marketing background; a baker wouldn’t necessarily know this — there are certain zip codes in certain areas of the country that aren’t really going to tell you the truth and reveal the reality of the viability of your product. Before I could go to scale, I really had to have a good sense of price point and palate. Is this a New York thing or will coffee cake resonate across the continental United States? I didn’t know.

The only way I could really figure out how to get the product out to a more objective test market was Amazon. It was the only way. So now we’re in May 2016, I’ve quit my job, and by October, I have the flour. It’s packaged and ready for resale … which also pissed off my mom. That was our biggest hurdle was, ‘She’ll never get the flour made.’ So now she’s just crumbling over in the corner. Now, I have to figure out if we can ship these coffee cakes after they’re made. Like what is gonna happen to this coffee cake? I’m gonna make these coffee cakes, they’re adorable, they’re kind of fragile, and they have to have a shelf life. I mean, what are we going to do? We don’t want to waste any food. We don’t want to throw things out. So we start freezing them. What do I know? I’m like, just put in the freezer. What could go wrong? We’re freezing the coffee cakes.

Now the other thing you have to know — and as a marketer, I know this — consumers, especially my mother, are very susceptible to the power of suggestion. I have so many stories that I’ll share with you in another episode. It’s just unbelievable and my mother is very guilty of this. So because I know this about her, I never told her when I was baking something and feeding it to her or freezing it and nuking it and feeding it to her. Her role was, ‘If I don’t like it, you can’t sell it.’ That’s what she always says to me. I’m like, ‘You have dry mouth and all these issues and you’re so picky. You’re not like a normal person! You can’t be the taste tester.’ But I would do that; I would always lie to her and I’d mix them up. And I’d label things with Post-It notes, like if you use a red Post-It note, she’ll tell you she doesn’t like it. She’s just a marketer’s dream, in some ways, because you know exactly how to manipulate her in terms of packaging, signage and language.

So anyways, while I’m making all these coffee cakes, I’ve got to figure out how to ship them all across the country, because Nassau County is not the place to test this. I figured out we can freeze them, which is a whole other big epiphany for me and the baking industry, and we can discuss that another time. I set myself up on Amazon, but it’s not easy to set up a business on Amazon. I’m jamming this in like an hour, like, I have to do this right now and I have to start shipping coffee cakes immediately. And as you’re setting your business up on Amazon, you have to have all this paperwork because it’s food. Every time I come to a different part of the onboarding process in Amazon, they want this document. Oh, crap, I don’t have this document. Okay, I have to go over here and register this thing, right, bring it back. I’m just doing it in real-time as I’m going through this thing. No one works for me, I don’t have legions of people just Jen. So I’m getting this all together and then I finally launch it. We push it out on Amazon. My brother’s like, ‘You’re out of your mind. You know, we need insurance, everything.’ Just imagine the list of things, right?

Spencer: I was wondering how bad was your brother, the attorney, freaking out?

Steiner Pool: He’s just running behind me and he’s like, ‘Jen, you need insurance.’ Okay, I’ll go get that. So I have this philosophy professionally, that ‘no’ just means you have to start selling or you have to start doing. No doesn’t actually mean no. This is how I approach my professional career. My brother and mother don’t share that particular sentiment. So every time I run into ‘no’ or ‘that can’t be done’ or ‘nobody does that, nobody freezes baked goods, how can you freeze this,’ I just said, ‘Well, you just ate it and you’ve licked the plate. Like, apparently it’s not a problem.’

I don’t know why people don’t freeze their baked goods. They should. It would save a lot of food waste in the world if everyone just froze this stuff. And I have a friend who I just talked with about this: It’s the same thing with sushi. This stuff is frozen. People think the bluefin tuna that they’re eating in Kansas is fresh, like … that’s not possible, guys. It was frozen, it came to you frozen. They defrosted it and gave it to you fresh, but it was frozen. So you know, I guess unless you’re Warren Buffett and you brought it in from point of origin, it’s frozen. I’ve quickly learned that I had to lean into that being a positive, which it is, because we have a zero food waste policy. So we freeze our baked goods and then we sell them. Nobody has ever had a Steiner’s coffee cake that was made and sold to them within the hour. And I did that from the get-go because I didn’t want to have to fight some sort of palate differential down the road. I didn’t want to have consumers who were getting it fresh out of the oven and then other consumers who were reheating it, and have some perception issue there. So the product is always fresh frozen, right out of the oven into the freezer.

Now we have the flour on Amazon. Now people are buying coffee cakes on Amazon and I’m shipping them all over the country. And suddenly I get very nervous and I pump the brakes. I put the Amazon inventory down to zero. So now we’re in March of 2017.

Spencer: Holy smokes, hold on! So your mom perfected the flour in 2016, and by 2017, the Amazon business is growing too fast. You’re manufacturing the flour. That’s fast!

Steiner Pool: It makes me nervous. I mean, I’m very nervous, but I had to know. There was no way I could justify a business plan or really look at how we were going to package and scale if I didn’t know for sure that consumers liked the product. Amazon is a great way to do that. Now we’re really selling coffee cakes and I better be able to make them. So it does turn out that there is a commercial baking facility in Glen Cove, which is four blocks from where I live, and I happen to know who owns it. So I strike up a deal. I say, ‘Listen, you don’t use the facility on this day, right? Can I come in and use it? I’m going to clean it, you know, I have to do the whole thing for food safety reasons, etc.’ And he wanted a tenant. I mean, it was just luck. And he said yes.

We start manufacturing there, but it’s just Jen. I am making every single thing by myself. So I’ll go back to lesson No. 2, which I mentioned earlier. What happens is that we’re baking and baking, and the ingredients are critical. We don’t use any additives, no imitation flavors, no natural flavors, just the real deal. How you would bake in your home is how we bake, and the ingredients you would use in your home are the ingredients we use. We’re very, very proud of that. So since Jen is not a baker, Jen doesn’t know that all ingredients aren’t created equally, I had no idea. So I’m going along, and sour cream is a very important ingredient in a German sour cream coffee cake. So we’re going along and suddenly, I’m getting feedback on Amazon that the cakes are dry. Now for gluten-free products, that is the death knell. For someone to write and tell me a cake was dry, I literally would burst into tears. I’m like, ‘It can’t be dry! How is it possible?’ I’m at my wit’s end. So then, since Jen doesn’t ever accept no — and in my mind, if someone doesn’t like the product, that’s kind of like a ‘no’ — I have to deconstruct this. It can’t be that some of the cakes are fabulous and some of the cakes are dry, right? Because now I’m thinking scale. If I can consistently make the product, if every other cake someone thinks is dry, we have a major problem. Unlike my mom, I take notes. So I’m looking to all of my notes. And I’m like, ‘Huh, this is interesting.’ The one ingredient that I was not consistently buying the same brand was the sour cream. I go home and look at the sour cream, and lo and behold, to all you home bakers out there: Some sour creams have additives in them and some don’t. So what was happening was, in the cakes that I was using what I’ll call sour cream B, which is not the one I should be using, were dry because there were all these additives and preservatives. First of all, we didn’t want that in our product, but secondly, they weren’t playing nicely with the gluten-free flour. It turns out that pure sour cream, which of course we should use anyway, is great. It’s got the right fat content, there’s nothing in it. This was a huge learning for me, I had no idea. And this rolls forward into our chocolate fudge brownies, that all chocolate is not equal. So that was a major learning. Remember, I don’t know anything about baking, but I’m running this company and selling these cakes and making these products and I have to learn about these things on the fly. This was a huge win for us because once I figured that out, the cakes were beautiful.

Spencer: Then you got a wholesale customer shortly after that, right?

Steiner Pool: Yes. Then we had our first retail location in April 2017. So now, I had a nice dynamic going on. I could do demos and be in front of customers in a retail environment, and watch and see how they chose and why they chose our product. And we were testing on Amazon across the country and getting feedback about price point and palate and shipping and how was the product holding up. I was also testing sizes. We had many more sizes because that’s part of price point. When we launched the company, we had three sizes; we now have one size. All of that was happening at the same time. It was a lot. I’m just handling it all myself and then Nancy absolutely wanted the chocolate fudge brownie. It was a full-on fight.

Spencer: She was still hung up on the brownies?

Steiner Pool: She wouldn’t let it go. And I’m like, ‘Mom, we’re not even in this a year. We still don’t have packaging for the coffee cakes, and now you want to start with the brownies?’ And she’s like, ‘Yes, I want them.’

Spencer: You have created a monster.

Steiner Pool: She’s a monster!

Spencer: Sorry, Nancy! We love you, Nancy!

Steiner Pool: So first of all, it’s so we start experimenting with the brownies. Again, I don’t know anything about baking. It turns out that all dark chocolate is not created equal. We use 100% cacao chocolate, which we’re very proud of. When we strayed from that, unknowingly, the recipe just wouldn’t taste as good. So I finally figured that out. And now this one happens to be my grandmother’s recipe. And she called them on her recipe card ‘Bossy’s Unusual Brownies.’ They are chocolate fudge brownies and they are phenomenal. They’re crunchy on top and fudgy in the middle. My mom, of course, is a taste tester. The way that you make them is, after you bake them, you have to flash freeze them immediately. That’s how you get the contrast of the textures, which is part of what makes them so awesome. So now I’m thinking, I have to bake these brownies and get them in the freezer en masse. Remember, it’s not one little 6-inch by 12-inch pan of brownies that you would make at home. We’re talking about sheets of brownies! I’m making all the brownies myself, I’m rolling racks into freezers, then taking them out and hand-cutting them all. I really want to kill my mother at this point. And now people want the brownies! Salesmanship 101: You want this? I’ll make it. You’re never going to turn away an order.

Now it’s the summer. Now I’ve got brownies and coffee cakes that I’m making all by myself. Now I’m at a farmers market, we have a retail location and we’re selling products on Amazon. And it’s just Jen. We’re also selling the flour on Amazon, but that’s less work, obviously. This is all unfolding very quickly, and now I’m in this commercial kitchen, which of course means food safety is locked down and perfect, which I love. However, I can’t take full advantage of the capacity available to me in this setting, because it’s just Jen.

So the third lesson … I like to say a person shouldn’t have regrets in life. A person can make mistakes and learn from them, but don’t regret it. That’s kind of sad, because then that starts to stack up on your shoulders and that’s a tough way to go about life. So I would say, in my carefree, risk-taking, ‘no does not mean no’ perspective on life, the mistake I made was not driving harder to book working capital at the front. So as we’re going along through this process, we’re using all the money from sales, it’s going right back into the company. To this day, I still don’t earn a salary or personally get paid. And I’m not pulling working capital into the company. And given that my brother and mother are risk-averse, we are not accruing any debt. And to this day, aside from some family-friendly debt, we don’t have any debt. We don’t have any credit cards, we don’t have any serviceable debt. That helps me, in some way, slow down because I don’t have money to spend. It also hurts because I can’t invest where we’re succeeding, I can’t invest against it. I have to just do this slow roll.

So we’ve learned that ingredients matter, we learned that we need to take notes. And then we learned that we really should have pulled in more working capital at the front. That continues to be my biggest struggle, is working capital. So now we’re on our way to scale. Where I start to get worried is if I pull in part-time employees, how am I going to pay them? And I have a methodology for how I look at cost of goods sold and how I manage the gross profit margin for each cake sold. That’s how I manage my budget. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, just 20 cents of each cake sold or whatever it is, and add all that up, and I know what I can spend.’ And since I know I don’t have any waste aside from marketing, because the best marketing tool we have is the cakes themselves and doing demo days, then that’s how I factor my budget to figure out if I can bring on part-time help. Then it’s not just Jen in the kitchen so we can leverage the capacity we have available to make more product to sell more products. It’s a cycle. That’s how we start the journey to scale. I mean, and that’s pretty quick.

Spencer: Shocking, honestly, how fast. In my opinion, I would attribute that to the flour. You had to make that flour at scale if you were going to start this company, so you’re kind of forced into it really quickly, as it was. So in the profile that Annie wrote for the Commercial Baking printed magazine last year, she identified three things that you said you had to do in order to grow the business: scale (we talked about that), replicate consistently and make the product defensible. Can you talk to me about what does that mean? What do you mean by ‘make it defensible?’

Steiner Pool: So in marketing and advertising, we talk a lot about a defensible position as a differentiator that you can really hold onto and drive against in your messaging and the growth of your business. For us, that was the quality of the baked goods tied back to the flour. We knew and still to this day know that the flour makes our product superior. The taste profile, whether we’re making chocolate fudge brownies, ginger snaps, now three flavors of coffee cakes … there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t say to me, ‘I had no idea this is gluten-free.’ That to me, along with a clean ingredient list that we have, makes our company defensible. Now a more positive way of saying that is we are on the offense. We have positioned ourselves to push forward. And I often say there’s a great bread company out there right now who’s really doing some some great work with gluten-free breads — Schar — which many people are familiar with. I admire them. And I look to them as a peer, if you will, in terms of having created a position for themselves, and they’re holding it. That’s where we want to be. And that comes down to the three things I spoke about earlier: recipe, methodology and ingredients. The ingredients for us are key. That is where our defensive position or offensive position, if you like, sits.

Spencer: Alright, that makes sense. Okay, I want to ask about something you mentioned last episode, and that was getting the attention of Mondelez International in their SnackFutures CoLab program. And I’ve seen a lot of action happening around these incubator programs. We actually wrote about it in the magazine a couple months ago. What was your experience with Mondelez and how did it help you grow?

Steiner Pool: I can’t say enough about the team at Mondelez International SnackFutures. It was an extraordinary opportunity that we were very, very lucky to have. The first thing that they said to us when we got to the kickoff day was, ‘You are here because of your flour.’ Of course, my mom burst into tears! So I can’t say enough about them. So again, since I come from a more of a professional setting, I knew as an entrepreneur what I was hungry for that I didn’t have on my bench from a management perspective. I had 12 weeks, and to be honest with you, still today I can call them anytime for anything that I need. For those 12 weeks though, I had an entire team of seasoned professionals working with me, by my side, in every aspect of my business, from new baking pans that we needed and trying to figure out how to source them and where to go, which took them 15 seconds it would have taken me okay, maybe only an hour because I like Google, but still. It’s much different when you can call up a person and they can help you engineer and architect the solution because they actually know what they’re doing vs. just Jen who who isn’t a baker. The resource end of financial modeling, which I’m always keenly aware of, is critical to the ongoing success of the business. The breadth of expertise is just extraordinary. They will end up influencing our new packaging. Once I raised the capital to run it, we got to work with a company called SellCheck.

We’ve discussed this, I’m obsessed with consumer behavior, and they really help rein me in, which is also important as an entrepreneur: You need to be willing to hear from others. We talked about this before. What you don’t want to have is, and it is the death of any company, the founder who thinks only they know what’s right. Now, as a founder, you have to know where to dig in, where you’re holding onto what the essence of your company is, vs. I may not really know this particular subject area, I need to collaborate and hear what other people have to say. So, while I love marketing and I love consumer behavior, I’m not a graphic designer. Our logo, which I love and people have told me they love it … I never could have done that. I inspired it, I knew what I wanted it to feel like, but I couldn’t have made it.

And so the resources like SellCheck that Mondelez brought to the table, they were able to say to me and I was able to hear, ‘Jen, here are the problems with the packaging. You’ve got to roll this back. This needs to be more prevalent. You’ve got to redo your photography, you know, all these things.’ I mean, the resources are phenomenal. And the people, like, my mom couldn’t stop talking about how nice everyone was. We got to work with people from all over the world. You know, I can answer more specific questions about it, but it really impacted the entire business, every aspect of the company. And I only applied because I was talking to a potential investor and we were talking about resources for capital. And he said, you know, you really need to get in an incubator program. So immediately I start Googling that, and there’s like 10 for food specifically. And we were so small, and I say, ‘They’re never going to take us.’ He’s like, ‘You never know unless you apply.’ So no doesn’t mean no, no means start selling. I applied.

As you can imagine, there’s interviews and they’re reviewing the books and they’re really vetting you. Jackie emails me, she says, ‘Jen, we have to set up this last interview. We have a few more questions to go through.’ Great, no problem. So it’s a little nerve racking. And so I get on the Zoom and, ‘Surprise! We’re picking you!’ She just tells me and she’s like, ‘Jen, we’re recording this.’ But it was so exciting. My mom burst into tears, she couldn’t believe it. It was really an extraordinary experience. Really fabulous.

Spencer: I’m going to start to wrap up this episode with this question: Do you think you would’ve gotten to that program if you hadn’t been able to scale as quickly as you did? And then how did this program help ride the momentum that you had created? Because was it three, four years from the time you started to the time you went into the program?

Steiner Pool: Five! There’s no way they would have taken us if we didn’t have a product that was replicable and in market. Absolutely not. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable being a part of the program if we weren’t at the stage we were at. Because how could I leverage any of it? If you’re going to go through an incubator program, you have to be prepared to leverage what you’re going to learn. There’s two issues. One, if you go into it thinking you know everything already, then don’t waste their time because there’s plenty of companies who want to learn from them. So if you’re gonna have that attitude, and all you want is the check at the end of the thing, don’t do that. So to be ready to leverage everything you’re going to learn you have to be in market. I mean, you have to be moving. There was no way we would have been accepted, nor would I have applied, if we weren’t already at scale and already in a co-man relationship, which we can also talk about at some point. That was critical. So what I was able to do was very quickly, and again, when you’re small and you’re nimble, I was getting feedback on some particular strategic decisions I’d made that changed my course.

When we originally launched the company, now, this is something you might want to speak about later … we did not tell anyone the products were gluten-free. That was my litmus test for success. Consumers are susceptible to suggestion, so since all the products in the marketplace taste not good, we didn’t want to be up against that. I didn’t want to have to sell over the idea that we were gluten-free. I wanted to sell despite the fact that we are gluten-free. And you’ll look at our packaging, and people would say, ‘Where does it say it’s gluten-free? I don’t believe you that it’s gluten free.’ Well, the patch is on the back because we’ve always been certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group. But I had the badge teeny tiny on the back of the boxes. One of the first things that they gave me a hard time about when I got into the program was that I wasn’t leaning into it. Again, you have to be open to hearing stuff. And I had my whole rationale for why. Well, the frozen and fresh baked good market is something like $35 billion in the US. It’s humongous. The gluten-free baked good business is $900 million, so much smaller. So they’re looking at me saying Jen, which part of the pond do you want to plan?

Now the other thing that’s important for business is, you have to solve a problem. If you’re going to be successful, I don’t care what you’re doing — McDonald’s, convenience; Volvo, safety — you have to solve a problem to be successful in your sector. We solve a problem for people who are gluten-free. They are sick and tired of eating stuff that tastes like crap or is full of crap to make it taste somewhat good. And we needed to lean into that and stop being afraid of it and stop worrying that other people wouldn’t buy the products because they say gluten-free. If the products are good enough, which they are, people will love them. They will tell other people 97% of purchases are made from word-of-mouth. If people are saying, ‘Don’t touch my brownie, those are mine,’ and are coveting them, and kids are at the lunch table and they can share their food because they’re not embarrassed of it, the brand will grow from there. That was a huge learning right out of the gate, that I needed to walk away from that strategy and lean into gluten-free. And I started doing that. The next day I was on social media, I changed our email language. Anything that I could do immediately to change that perspective, I did.

Another thing that was really interesting: When we originally started the company, the legal name of the company was Steiner’s Coffee Cake of New York. I did that because I felt, as a new company with very little capital, I needed the product to really sell us. I needed everyone to know immediately what we made and why they were buying it. New York old school diner nostalgia coffee cake. There could be no gap between that understanding.

And my brother, which is interesting because he’s not in that background, he’s like, ‘I don’t know, it feels too narrow. But we’ll go with it for now.’ I said, ‘Listen, we’ll go with it for now, we can always change it. But I have no anchor, I have no marketing budget. So I’ve got to leverage the name of the company so that people know what we’re selling.’ So now you roll forward, I get to Mondelez and we have ginger snaps, flour, coffee cake stuff in the pipeline. They’re like, ‘You can’t keep with this name.’ You know, I know I have it in the marketing plan in a couple years, but they’re like, ‘No, no, you have to change it now.’ And that makes sense. It’s totally rational, right? But when you’re in it, you can’t see it.

Spencer: Right? And that’s one of the pitfalls of starting a new brand or starting a new company. You have no crystal ball. I mean, why isn’t there a counter where everyone who starts a new company can walk up and say, ‘I would like my crystal ball now, please?’

Steiner Pool: Exactly. It would save me a lot of time. I’m still very close with the person who created the logo for us, so I called him up, literally right after we get out of the session, I call him up and tell him we’ve got to change the logo immediately. He’s like, ‘Wow, you know, I love our logo and everyone loves the logo.’ I said, ‘I think we can hold onto the corporate identity visual, but we have to change the name of the company. So in this smile underneath, you now see Baking Co. instead of Coffee Cake of New York. And that gives us room to breathe. Mondelez was very proud of us. I mean, we’re moving. They’re giving us information and we’re putting it to work. We haven’t even left Chicago, and we’re already putting it into motion. And listen, that’s great for them too. One of the reasons why the teams come together, and it’s a coveted position to be able to work on the SnackFutures team, is because they get to work with small companies, which isn’t an experience they have in corporate. I mean, Mondelez is humongous, right? So to work with a company where they’re just, ‘Oh, you think I should change that? It’s strategically on point. Okay, I’ll do it.’ Like, that would take them probably a year to pull off. That’s also what we gave to them, is that ability to experience what it’s like to be in a startup. And I think they really value that as a team.

Spencer: I’m sure they do. Okay, Jennifer, that is going to wrap up this week for another incredible conversation. It’s not just your story, I love your energy. You are so fun to talk to.

Steiner Pool: I mean, I make cake for a living, you know!

Spencer: It’s pretty fun. I love it. I love it. Okay, so we kind of dipped our toe in the gluten-free conversation, and the next two weeks, we’re really going to focus on that. First, we’re going to talk about the challenges that come with producing a gluten-free product from an operational and production standpoint, then we’ll get to revisit the marketing side of it. So I can’t wait to talk to you about gluten-free production next week. Thanks again for this week!

Steiner Pool: You bet. Take care!

Welcome to Season 11 of the Troubleshooting Innovation podcast. Joanie Spencer, editor-in-chief for Commercial Baking, is spending this season with Jennifer Steiner Pool, president and creator-in-chief of Steiner’s Baking Co., about how to turn a special family recipe into a commercially viable brand. Sponsored by Puratos.

In the first episode, we meet our guest and discover how her grandfather’s hobby led her to become “creator-in-chief” for Steiner’s.

Learn more about this season here, and tune into Troubleshooting Innovation on Apple or Spotify.

 

Joanie Spencer: Hi, Jennifer! Thanks so much for joining me for this season of the podcast.

Jennifer Steiner Pool: Oh my god, are you kidding? Thank you for having me. We are so excited. My mom is sitting outside the door listening.

Spencer: That is awesome. So I first got to know you when one of our editors, Annie Hollon, did a cool profile on Steiner’s as an emerging brand. This is a really cool story. It’s a cool company with an incredible background, and so before we dive into everything, I want you to take me back about 30 years or so and tell me how your grandfather’s baking hobby led eventually to a proprietary gluten-free flour blend, and how that led to these amazing coffee cakes. Basically, how did it happen, and what did baking look like for you looking at your grandfather?

Steiner Pool: Sure. So happy to do that. It is a pretty amazing story. I would say 30 years ago, I never envisioned even having this conversation, let alone a company that was centered around baking. That was not my vision for my career.

My grandfather pulled us all around the table, as many families do around the holidays, etc. They love to spend time together, and food can be a central part of that story. My grandfather was a hobbyist; he raised orchids, he volunteered at the hospital on Long Island, and he loved baking and cooking. He taught classes at the hospital for baking and cooking and had cookbooks. He made an amazing apple pie, as well. We really loved it. It used to, like, just explode with apples. So that was an important part of our lives as a family. It wasn’t my mom and dad preparing these big elaborate meals; it was my grandpa. My grandma hated cooking and baking. She would clean, but she did nothing in the kitchen. It was all him. So the flavors that we experienced, and just the smell. I mean, I can remember it right now.

So what happened was, he was so passionate and loved these hobbies. He took my mom, his daughter-in-law, under his wing. She loved learning from him. They were constantly talking about baking and cooking, and she was always trying to replicate his recipes. The issue was that before anyone could even spell “celiac,” it turned out my mother had celiac, so she couldn’t enjoy any of the baked goods he was making. It was hard. It’s very hard not to cheat, and it’s super-duper hard to replicate a conventional recipe.

Now, my mom, coincidentally, is also a science teacher. She has this really cool creative tinkering. I think people often forget that scientists are very creative, right? That’s how you problem solve. She dug in very early on in her diagnosis before anyone knew what celiac was … there was most definitely nothing to buy in the marketplace. I mean, 30 years ago, nothing. She just started this journey, and would constantly be trying to figure out a way to make a pie or cake.

One of my grandfather’s most fabulous chocolate layer cakes, with this mocha filling and this buttercream icing that he would make all of us, it’s called “Betty’s birthday cake” after my grandma. My mom really wanted to be able to make that gluten-free. Now, it was impossible. I mean, we like to say that she killed many cakes in her kitchen. We have a zero-waste policy at our company, and we are really focused on using every single thing that we buy we use, so the idea that my mom went through all of this food that was, quite frankly, inedible as she was working through this process, it pains me, but we need to do the right thing now.

So it took years. It was very frustrating. When you bake a whole cake, especially a six-layer cake, and then you bite into it and it’s horrendous … you’re frustrated! I mean, imagine how frustrating that is and you don’t know if it’s good until you’re done. Right? It’s different than cooking. In cooking, as you’re moving along through, let’s say, making some sort of chicken dish, you can kind of taste the sauce. But baking is so precise, and you really don’t know the outcome until you’re finished. That’s what makes it so tricky. People forget the difference between those two things. That’s why, oftentimes, you’ll meet folks who are amazing cooks — fabulous food that they make — and they don’t like to bake. In the moment, you can’t make those adjustments.

So this is going on for 30 years, stuff is getting thrown out left and right. Occasionally, something is somewhat edible. Also, what’s happening in the marketplace is that, over a long period of time, we start to see some products on the shelves. She’ll try anything because, at this point, there’s nothing. Things were so bad. The fact that people could put certain products in a package on a shelf and sell them and people would buy them, and you get it home and is inedible … that only fueled her fire more. Because she’s infuriated that everything tastes so bad. And she’s like, ‘We’re already suffering. If you have celiac or gluten intolerance, you’re already miserable. Now, you want me to eat all this stuff?’ And it’s horrendous.

Spencer: I mean, that is salt in the wound.

Steiner Pool: It was just insult on top of insult, and it baited her. She would come home, she’d eat something. And she’s also quite persnickety. So something that I might say was, ‘Okay, Mom, I could eat this, it seems pretty good.’ She’s just spitting it out. And you know, infuriated with it. And actually, it’s probably good for a lot of brands that social media wasn’t around then, because I’m sure she would have just been zipping off left and right for making her suffer through these trials. But it did motivate her, and we were watching her.

I think in 2010, I said, ‘She’s onto something.’ She wasn’t there, but I could see that she was getting closer. And I said to my brother, ‘We need to be ready, because I think she’s going to nail this. And I think she’s going to have a company.’ And he was like, ‘What? You’re crazy. What are you talking about? That’s never going to happen, she’ll never get it.’ And she kept saying she was never going to get it. Like, it’s not doable, never going to happen. But you know when sometimes you see someone going through a process, and you just know — it’s very hard to articulate exactly — but you can just see the confluence of passion and research are taking them to an endpoint. She was going to get there, we were going to have this birthday cake, come hell or high water!

Spencer: I’m hearing this, and these are the marks of a baker. Just a regular consumer, run-of-the-mill person whose father made an incredible cake that she can no longer have, is going to do one of two things: They’re either going to be sad and live without it, or they’re going to cheat and suffer the terrible consequences every once in a while just to have it. And what your mom, Nancy, has is love and stubbornness. These are marks of a baker.

Steiner Pool: Yes. And tenacity, right? She was not letting it go.

Spencer: And then that’s entrepreneurialism, that tenacity. Like at all costs. When you’re watching, you’re like, ‘Why hasn’t she given up?’ So I can see especially — and we’ll get into your marketing background — but when you have a marketing background, your eyes are sort of trained to see those kinds of things. So I can totally see where you are like, ‘It’s coming.’ And she’s going to do something with this because you don’t persist at that level for yourself, just to eat a piece of cake. Right?

Steiner Pool: Yeah, like who’s going to work this hard for something just so I can have a piece of cake? And so in 2010, I was at an ad agency. In an ad agency, you’re like a little family because you’re up late at night and doing all these crazy things. I went to the guys and I said, ‘I’m going to need a logo.’ They’re like, ‘Well, what is this company?’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really have my head around it, but it’s very New York, nostalgic diner. Just work on that for me.’ And they were great, and they did. So that’s 2010, when there is no company, there’s no product. It was just up here, up in my head.

And then in 2016, my mom served us my grandfather’s German sour cream coffee cake, and I just stopped in my tracks. I was like, ‘Mom, this is phenomenal. No one would know this is gluten-free. How did you do this?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t write it down.’ I almost threw the cake at her! For 30, 35 years, I’ve been watching you do this, and you’re not taking notes as you go?’ She said, ‘No, I was just like into it. I was doing it. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t thinking about it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, do it again.’

I couldn’t believe that she never writes any of it down. So we stand there together in the kitchen, and we go through batch after batch to try to get it exactly right. It’s baking: sifting flour in the kitchen, it’s everywhere. My father is furious; my brother is like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I know this is something. She has to figure out what she did. And then we worked through the whole mess. And I’d say for like two or three weeks, we were sifting flour in the kitchen, which is very dangerous and not good for you; it can make you very sick. So we had wet rags all over everything, and all these bowls everywhere. And I was taking notes, and I was writing Post-It notes on everything until we could get to the right recipe for the flour.

Spencer: We’ll get to that in a couple weeks, too, talking about that product development with the flour, but that was the key because of her celiac diagnosis. It wasn’t just about getting a cake recipe. It was the flour recipe before she could perfect anything else. And then we’ll get into all of the other factors that then revolve around that, but again, it takes a lot to not give up to create a flour recipe.

Steiner Pool: I think she forgets some of that sometimes, how much time she really put into this.

Spencer: So she becomes this baker unintentionally, and then you follow suit. You had your instinct, and you could see it coming. Was it really like, ‘It was so good, I quit my job the next day?’ Like how did you dive into it?

Steiner Pool: First you have to know — and my family will attest to this — I do not bake or cook anything. We eat tuna fish for dinner or cottage cheese if you’re lucky, and perhaps we’ll order out. I do not like being in the kitchen. So I did quit my job the next day, and my mom was furious, seething mad. And so her way of managing me growing up was when I would do something that she didn’t agree with, she would throw up a hurdle to make it harder, which unfortunately for her meant that I was just going to work harder at whatever it was that she was in the way of. And then she did it!

I quit my job, I went online, I registered the company, and this all happened in a matter of like 30 seconds. She says to me, ‘I’m not baking anything. You’ll never be able to get the flour made.’ Those were her two things, because obviously we weren’t going to sit in the kitchen and sift flour for however long. I said, ‘Then I’ll learn how to bake.’ Then she looked at me like as absolutely crazy. She’s like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t even make scrambled eggs.’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out, and I’m going to find someone to make the flour.’ And within three weeks, I had found someone to make the flour.

I had a little more time to learn how to bake because we needed the flour before I had to bake anything. She said, ‘I want to see you bake something. I don’t care what it is. I just want to see you bake something because I’ve literally never seen you do anything of this kind. Cookies? No, nothing. Rice Krispies Treats? Nothing.’ So my grandpa, one of his best recipes — and I can’t wait for us to release it — is this banana bread. I love it, it’s so good. And so we sifted up the flour, and I made the banana bread. And it was so good! And she was, you could tell now, more mad because I now overcame that hurdle because clearly I could bake something.

Then I found our blender. We’ve had the same blender since those first three weeks that I found them. And they’re fabulous, fabulous partners. I love them. They’re a part of our family now. But yes, literally, I quit my job.

Spencer: Oh my god. So if I were to write a profile about you, I would open with, ‘Jennifer Steiner Pool became a baker to spite her mother.’

Steiner Pool: Yes, that’s correct. And I still hate it! It pains me when I have to bake, and obviously I don’t bake a lot now because we’re running a huge production line, so I’m physically not doing the baking. But for the first three years of the company, every single product I baked with my own hands. Thousands and thousands of coffee cakes and brownies and ginger snaps. I baked every single one. It was incredibly difficult. There were days when I was hysterically crying in the kitchen at 2 in the morning, you know, it was really hard.

Spencer: I mean, we all say baking is an art and a science. The creativity requires the science, but when people think of baking, it has this romantic connotation to it. But it’s really not. It’s messy and it’s hard and it’s frustrating, and it gets ugly but with a beautiful finished product.

Okay, so I have to ask because you launched Steiner’s with coffee cake: Steiner’s Coffee Cake of New York. What happened to Betty’s birthday cake? Did she ever nail the birthday cake?

Steiner Pool: Oh, the birthday cake is fabulous. We have the birthday cake for every birthday. It doesn’t matter where you live in the country, she will figure out a way to get your birthday cake to you. It’s our family tradition. We have looked at it, we’re not there yet, at how we could pre-bake them and package it because it is so good. It’s complicated. It’s a very complicated recipe, so we’re not there yet, because you really have to think about scale, which I know you and I are going to talk about. But it’s fabulous. The birthday cake is so good. 

Spencer: Just a shameless plug for me, this podcast launches on my birthday week. So…

Steiner Pool: Where are you? I can get you a cake! We’ll figure that out. Birthdays should be celebrated, so we will figure that out.

Spencer: That would be awesome. Okay, so this is a family business. And I’m listening to your family story from watching your grandfather and how hard your mom works. I keep picturing a movie from the ’80s, and I haven’t seen it in forever, but it just makes me think of that movie Mystic Pizza. Your family sounds like the family from Mystic Pizza.

Steiner Pool: It’s that and Seinfeld. I feel like I live in a Seinfeld episode every day.

Spencer: So okay, you launch a brand, you just dive in unabashedly, and you do it with your family. So I’ve got to know, what is it like to start a company with your family, especially when it’s something that none of you, except for your grandfather, had any experience with? Who and what did you lean on through the learning curve, from a business perspective and from a baking perspective? But also, I am very curious, how did you guys not kill each other?

Steiner Pool: Well, and remember, our name is on the product also. Right? So that’s an added measure of pressure. So we do come from an entrepreneurial background. In 1926, my grandfather’s mother started a sign company, which was unheard of in 1926, for a woman to do anything like that. So I definitely have that in my DNA, this entrepreneurial spirit. I think I’m also very good at ignoring my mother. So all the kinds of hurdles and negative stuff she was throwing at me, I just filtered them out. I wasn’t even listening to her, which obviously annoyed her even more.

I think another key aspect of our ability to work together … my brother is literally my business partner, although he has what everyone likes to say, ‘a real job,’ so we’re very respectful of each other’s ‘swim lanes,’ as I like to say. My mom is R&D. She’s thinking about recipes all the time. Now, she’s tried to write things down, but she usually still does not write anything down, so I’m always chasing after her to write things down. But that is what she does.

Here’s an interesting story. So we have these ginger snaps, which you could just eat like popcorn, they’re so good. And we make them really little because one of our other pillars is responsible indulgence. We want people to enjoy great baked goods that have clean ingredients but are responsibly portioned. So our ginger snaps are tiny. I was really struggling in production to make them efficiently. Many people know ginger snaps are usually hand-rolled, and then put in a bowl of sugar and then put on a baking sheet. Well, you have to have 5,000 people rolling ginger snaps. It just wasn’t going to work. So I went to her and she really wanted them in the market, and I said, ‘Mom, then you have to figure out how to roll these ginger snaps without rolling them.’ Right? Like you got to solve that problem, because I’m not going to solve it. This is not where I excel. And we can’t make the ginger snaps one at a time. So she went to work and she figured out you can make them in a log. She just was experimenting. Make them in a log, you don’t have to have them be in a circle to bake into a circle — who knew? — so there you go. She’s really good at that.

My brother, he’s an attorney. That’s his deal. He’s got my back. He’s very good at it. He’s also an excellent taste tester. He’s not getting in the kitchen. I mean, there were two nights in the history of this company where I was so hysterical, at my wit’s end, he did come into the kitchen. But other than that, that’s what he does. And then everything else is me. So they’re all quite respectful of that.

And they’re always honest, which is really important, whether it’s the product or the marketing and communications. I need trusted feedback. One of the slippery things when you start a business, especially in food, is people who love you tend to want to just tell you it’s great. And for everyone out there listening, that’s actually not helpful. What we want as entrepreneurs is the people we love and trust to tell us the hard stuff. I’d rather hear from my family that the recipe isn’t right, or, you know, such and such is wrong, than from consumers because we didn’t catch it early because my family wouldn’t tell me and they were just trying to tell me everything’s great, and now we have a product out there that isn’t acceptable. That is a really important part of our dynamic together.

Spencer: Yeah. And it sounds like you guys are very skilled with honest feedback.

Steiner Pool: Yes. Well, we’re New Yorkers. That’s in the DNA; we tend to just blurt out what we’re thinking. We love working together. Listen, it’s your mom, right? So when I stumble, when I’m struggling with things, when the business is kind of like trying to start a lawn mower … she worries. And she’s still angry that I quit my job. But then she’ll walk in a grocery store and she’ll see the products on the shelf, and she’ll burst into tears because she just can’t believe it. And when Mondelez tapped us to be a part of their CoLab program in 2023, I think she cried through the whole 12-week program.

And that was such an awesome experience for her, and we did that together. I think another poignant moment for me that I would share is watching my mom at 70. So when I quit my job and we started this company, she just was turning 70, like 10 days later. I don’t think she thought she could have something like this. First of all, she comes from a generation where women were just starting to make their mark, paving the way for my generation. But I think sometimes she’s just like, ‘I can’t believe this is real, that I’ve gotten to have this experience after I’ve been a teacher, retired, raised my children. Like, I have grandchildren. And now I have a company.’ It’s very interesting to watch her in that regard. So when we did this program with Mondelez, together — and we were together all the time, people thought it was adorable — we almost killed each other, but we didn’t. But she was doing things that, for me professionally, I did all the time: brainstorming sessions, meeting with advertising agencies and all these things. For her, it was totally new. And I thought that was pretty cool for her to have that. I feel like that’s the biggest gift, aside from making her flour a reality, is this opportunity to do this thing that, in her wildest dreams, she would never imagine doing.

Spencer: That is just so special to me from a personal perspective, because I have this little company that I helped start and we have a female-dominated staff. The only males in our company are the founders, and I’m so proud of that. It’s really cool watching the next generation come in and building a company of really empowered women. Then to hear you talk about your mom who did come from a generation where, if you worked out of the home, you became a teacher and you raised your children. And food is love and you fed your family and you raised your family, and you got your joy from seeing the things that your children did or picking up the skills that you taught them. To hear you describe her experience of this business success and achieving something she never imagined, and doing it at age 70, is just like girl power at its finest. There truly are no boundaries if you’re willing to be brave and have that grit and that tenacity.

Steiner Pool: It’s a huge risk, right? She’s risk averse. My brother is also risk averse. They’re extremely conservative in that regard. And I’m pushing her so far outside of her comfort zone, and it’s been great for her. I think you’re right, that it doesn’t matter how old you are. If there’s something that you want to achieve, and it could be anything — writing a book, starting a crazy baking company, whatever it is — there is no ‘I’m too old for that.’ And she would say that sometimes. I would give her such a hard time. She’s like, ‘Oh, my back hurts, I can’t stand in the kitchen anymore today.’ I’m just like, ‘Get a stool and sit here and roll those ginger snaps.’ And you know, you have to like, sometimes push her over her own psyche, her own assumption that she can’t do it because now she’s 76. I’m constantly beating her back on that constantly taking that away from her and telling her that you’re here, of course you can do this. There’s no issue. Chop chop, wake up! Let’s go.

Spencer: I love it. This has been amazing, and just really educational and entertaining, to hear the story of your family and how a hobby turned into a science project that turned into a brand. It’s incredible. And there are far-reaching impacts for what you and your mom have done, born out of what your grandfather loved to do. This episode is just sort of a taste of that. We are really going to go on a journey over the next five weeks.

One thing that’s also very interesting about your story is that you weren’t, like, baking in the kitchen for five years and selling at bake sales; you jumped into manufacturing pretty quickly. So we’re going to talk about your lessons that you’ve learned and where you are, and your best practices in scaling up and growing that consumer and customer base. We’re going to talk about product development challenges that come with gluten-free; I think you have a unique perspective, and I’m excited to hear about that. We’re going to talk about what I’ve been seeing, what I call an evolution of marketing for a gluten-free product. And then we’re going to finish off with looking at portfolio expansion, because you started this company when your mom perfected the coffee cake, but like you said, there’s ginger snaps and there’s the birthday cake and there’s so much more. This growth is rapid, but it’s done in a really smart way, so I am so honored and excited to take this journey with you this month of May.

That’s all I have for you for this week, Jennifer, and it was awesome. It was so much fun! Next week, I’m excited to talk about how you scaled up.

Steiner Pool: I’m looking forward to it. It’s my pleasure.

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 5, of the Troubleshooting Innovation podcast. Joanie Spencer, editor-in-chief for Commercial Baking, is spending this season with Julie Miller Jones, a member of the Grain Foods Foundation Scientific Advisory Board, and Charlotte Martin, registered dietitian and consultant for the Grain Foods Foundation. They’re debunking bread myths to help bakers develop delicious, healthy grain-based products — and help them educate consumers on the health benefits of bread. Sponsored by Lallemand.

In this final episode, we close out the season with a discussion around the benefits of grain foods on women’s health.

Learn more about this season here, and listen to Troubleshooting Innovation on Apple, Spotify and Google.

 

Joanie Spencer: Hi Julie and Charlotte. Thanks so much for spending this final episode with me.

Charlotte Martin: Thanks again for having us.

Spencer: So, this is, I think I saved probably the most important topic for last, and that is women’s health. In doing research on this topic, I discovered how important this is as a woman. So I’m very excited to dive into this with you. The first thing I want to talk about is something called “shortfall nutrients,” and these are the ones that Americans typically under-consume. My question for you both is: Why is it so important for women to know and understand the shortfall nutrients?

Martin: Yeah. Well yes, the shortfall nutrients are the nutrients that many Americans are just not getting enough of. This includes nutrients like calcium, potassium, fiber, vitamin D. It’s particularly crucial for women to be aware of the shortfall nutrients because women have unique nutritional needs at different stages of their life, whether it’s during childbearing years, or pregnancy or lactation. So, for example, getting enough folic acid is essential for women of childbearing age to help prevent birth defects. And then iron supports healthy blood cell production, which is crucial, given that women can lose a significant amount during menstruation. Bread and grains in general play a significant role in this context; they contribute to our overall diet quality by providing these key essential and shortfall nutrients. Enriched grains, for example, are a top source of folic acid in the American diet. And then refined grain foods actually account for almost 40% of the dietary fiber intake in the American diet.

Julie Miller Jones: And the absorbable iron. The iron is more absorbable from a refined grain than it is from a whole grain. That’s why one of the reasons that the dietary guidelines ask for people to have half their grains whole, because they know about this difference in absorbability and the difference in the enrichment of the B vitamins. Just as a historical, to show how important the nutrients that are in refined grains are, to women and to all, is that in World War II, when the soldiers came in to be recruited, they found that they were low in all the B vitamins. That’s what caused the enrichment of flour. Very rarely do you hear about B vitamin deficiency diseases. That was not true in the 1940s. And it just shows how effective the enrichment of flour has been, in that those aren’t on the list of shortfall nutrients. So folate now is not on the list of shortfall nutrients, and it’s due to the industry and government partnership to address the problems through a food that everybody eats. They chose bread and grains and cereals because everybody eats it.

Spencer: It’s like you’re reading my mind, Julie. That literally was the next question I was going to ask you because we did talk about the enrichment of flour and the impact on Americans’ health. So again, like, how is this enrichment specifically impacting women’s health, especially in terms of women of childbearing age?

Martin: Julie, correct me if I’m wrong, but the FDA mandated that manufacturers add folic acid to the enriched bread and grain products in the late ’90s. Correct?

Miller Jones: Yes.

Martin: And so that was to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. And folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate, is important for many things, but it’s crucial for DNA synthesis and repair, which makes it essential for cell growth and reproduction. And so, I don’t know the exact numbers — and Julie might know more about this — but this public health initiative led to a significant decrease in the incidence of these birth defects in the United States. So, for women, this means that consuming enriched grain products alongside a balanced diet can help ensure they’re getting enough folic acid to support a healthy pregnancy, even before conception and in the early weeks that follow, which are times when many women might not yet be aware they’re pregnant, and they’re not taking prenatal vitamins.

Miller Jones: Yeah, the neural tube is formed in the first two weeks. And so most people don’t know they’re pregnant. And therefore, the folate status of the woman when she conceives is critical. The March of Dimes named fortification of folate as one of the most important public health measures of the last century, up there with antibiotics and certain kinds of vaccinations. That’s how important it was. And so I think people take it for granted. What scares me is that people often buy flours that may not have the enrichment package. They may buy, particularly often organic flours, because all of the additives or all of the fortificants (the nutrients that are added to fortify) are deemed as additives. Therefore, some organic products are not enriched and fortified. And people think that buying organic may be better for them. But it may actually, in fact, not be. I should just add folate that is really, really important because it helps in the formation of the DNA. The other one that’s really critical is B12. And so we have some women who go on a non-bread diet, and if they are vegan — B12 is found only in animal products — so this could be incredibly problematic for vegan women who decide that they should not eat enriched grain products, because they would not be getting the B12 needed to form DNA, and they would not be getting the folate needed to form DNA.

Spencer: That sort of speaks to what we talked about last week. Elimination types of diets can be counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve with your health.

Miller Jones: You know, they think gluten-free … for some reason, they got the idea that gluten-free is better for them. And that, then, also puts them in not getting the enriched and fortified products. So that’s problematic.

Spencer: Right. When consumers sort of try to educate themselves and, I think we really talked about this in the beginning of the podcast season as well, that people seek out information that they want to hear. And they don’t seek out balanced information. So, when they hear, ‘Well, this is bad for you don’t eat it’ … they’re not really getting the other side of the story of what happens when you don’t consume these foods, then you need to supplement with X, Y and Z. So I do think there is this opportunity. And I think Charlotte, you mentioned it last week, an opportunity to say, ‘This is why we put this in our bread. This is why this is in here.’ And I didn’t really personally understand the whole attitude of pregnant women saying, ‘Well, I can’t eat that because I’m pregnant.’ And it’s sort of like, what’s the big deal until you’re pregnant? And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m harvesting a life. Everything that I put in my body is really important.’

And I think there’s this great opportunity to communicate that in advance of pregnancy, because you’re right, that’s another thing I didn’t really realize was when you make the decision that you’re ready to start trying to have children, you should treat your body as if you’re pregnant, because for the first four to six weeks that you’re pregnant, you don’t know you are and it’s a critical time in gestation. So this is a really good opportunity for baking brands to tout those women’s health benefits and why it’s important. I love the idea around ‘why.’

Miller Jones: They can talk about healthy moms, healthy kids, because we also see young children being fed things that I would not recommend being fed on a regular basis so that it’s an opportunity to start kids out right. And you’re having healthy moms and healthy kids.

Martin: I agree. The Grain Foods Foundation obviously does a very good job of putting that messaging out there. But, you know, bread manufacturers … I don’t see them talking about that, really. And I think that’s a missed opportunity there.

Spencer: Okay, so we have talked several times about protein, and how it’s really popular in diet and food culture these days, especially like last week talking about sandwiches and the types of meat that you add to a sandwich. But I feel like fiber is having a bit of a moment, too. And I say that as a 52-year-old woman, that I’m hyper-aware of fiber these days. Why is this nutrient so important for women? And what would you say are the benefits of bread and other grain-based foods in terms of fiber?

Miller Jones: I’d first like to say that we have got it so wrong, in that the average man gets 30% more protein than he needs. And the average woman gets 12-15% more protein than she needs. And yet, everybody thinks, ‘Protein is good for me, protein is good for me.’ Too much protein can be like anything else: It can be problematic. And yet, everybody tries to get more protein. They say they’re trying to get more fiber, but they don’t. And partly, they don’t because they don’t know where to find it. In some surveys, believe it or not, if you ask people — one was even done with an MD — where they asked them, “Where do you get fiber?” They said meat. Because they could see the fibers. So we talked about muscle fiber, and that confused people. Dietary fiber is not muscle fiber. Even a doctor got it wrong. So dietary fiber is only from plants, and we have to tell people that. The major source in the US diet is not fruits and vegetables; it’s grains. Fruits and vegetables are second. And a lot of people say, ‘Well, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.’ Well, they lie there too, because they don’t. They especially don’t think about white bread. An average slice of white bread has one gram of fiber in it. You eat six of them, that’s six grams of the 25 that are recommended.

Martin: Yeah. I think the average American gets in only about half the daily recommended amount, whereas — as Julie mentioned — they get plenty of protein. I agree, fiber is finally having its well-deserved moment, at least I hope, this year. And speaking to the benefits of fiber, particularly for women, so … fiber plays a crucial role in supporting digestive health, as we know. It also aids in weight management and reducing the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Heart disease is leading cause of death for women in the US and can affect women at any age. Also, for women, a fiber-rich diet may help promote healthy estrogen regulation and protect against breast cancer. To add to its role in supporting digestive health, it may also help alleviate, in some people, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, which is more prevalent in women than men. So, bread and other grain-based foods are very valuable sources of dietary fiber, as Julie mentioned, and with whole grains — white, as well, provides fiber — but with whole grains, they retain all parts of the grain kernel, including that fiber-rich outer layer. So they do retain some more fiber and can contribute greatly to that daily fiber intake. I think that these grain-based products and bread, in particular, are very important for women’s health.

Miller Jones: And I think we need to do a better job telling people about it. Because you mentioned earlier, if there’s a few grains of oatmeal on the top of the bread loaf, people think they’ve gotten a whole grain bread. If it has any color in it, they don’t know that could be entirely due to the addition of caramel color.

When I did the first whole grain and dietary fiber conference back in 2001, the international one, I went to people and I said, ‘Would you be a an exhibitor at our conference?’ The man is standing in front of all of these boxes of oatmeal, and he said, ‘Why would we? It’s not a whole grain.’ He thought because the oatmeal had a light color, it wasn’t a whole grain. A lot of people don’t know that the white whole wheat has as much fiber as the dark whole wheat. I used to make my son mad when I’d go to the Subway and order a sandwich. They asked me if I wanted the white or the wheat, and I said, ‘Well, what’s the white made out of?’ And he said, ‘Mom, just buy your sandwich!’ But people don’t know that the wheat is not whole wheat. They think that when it says wheat, it is whole wheat. And that’s been for almost 25 years, we’ve been trying to get this message across. And we need to penetrate better because people are still really, really confused about what’s a whole grain product.

Spencer: And I think you tapped into something, Julie, saying that we are talking about fiber a lot more, but we don’t know how to consume the fiber. To Charlotte’s point, fiber supports gut health and I think we’re in an era where we finally can have those open conversations about gut health. It’s not a taboo topic anymore, and there’s research that shows the connection between gut health and overall health. Here’s another opportunity for baking brands to tout those fiber benefits and how these grain foods can support gut health if people aren’t going to naturally make that assumption on their own.

Miller Jones: No, they associate … because grains can have FODMAPs. And FODMAPs are chemicals which are fermented by the bacteria, they actually may be good for you. But a lot of fermentation in your gut is uncomfortable. And so, some people say, ‘Well, I don’t eat any bread or grain because it makes me have gas.’ And I then say, ‘Well, okay, do you want colon cancer later, or gas now?’ It seems like when you put the choice that way, that you try to adjust your diet so that you can increase the amount of fiber that the fermentation and the production of the short chain fatty acids actually make healthy colonic cells. And so our skittishness about gas, I think, is one of the problems that we have in terms of convincing people that this is actually good for you.

Spencer: Another thing that we sort of touched on with women’s health is cardiovascular health. We just celebrated Women’s Heart Health Awareness last month, in February. So, I think it’s a good time to talk about the relationship between refined grains and cardiovascular health. Can you guys sort of walk me through what that relationship is?

Miller Jones: Well, the big study by On, which is a meta-analysis of the existing studies done up through 2016 — and the ones that have been subsequently — still show that eating about three servings a day of whole grain lowers your risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease. What those same studies say, which has not been widely reported, is that refined grains neither raise nor lower the risk. The risk is zero. And that’s very different from what is being reported. In fact, the risk is actually one, and anything that has a number over one is raising the risk, and anything with a number less than one is lowering the risk.

And so I’m sad because people have not really gotten the idea that, thank goodness, the dietary guidelines got. And that is, it’s the mix of grains that really makes the healthy diet. And that’s what we have data for. People who ate three servings of whole grain and three to four of refined grain were the least likely to have heart disease and the least likely to have diabetes. But unfortunately, those aren’t picked up in the headlines. It’s not the ‘dog bites man.’ That story doesn’t get picked up. ‘Refined grains don’t raise the risk’ doesn’t get picked up as a story, even though it’s in the conclusion of those very well vetted studies. It only picked up that whole grains lowers your risk, it doesn’t pick up that refined grains didn’t raise the risk.

Martin: I think that just reiterates what we’ve been saying through every episode, that refined grains can have a place in a balanced, health-supporting diet, provided that you’re including some whole grains in there.

Spencer: I feel like we can get that message out there. It’s a mix of whole grains and refined grains. But the truth is, that’s kind of complicated. Like that’s a lot for consumers. Like they just don’t want to do the work. They don’t want to have to think about, ‘How do I get a healthy combination of these grains?’ They just kind of want somebody to do the math or do the work for them. Do you think there’s a little bit of that at play?

Miller Jones: You’re so right. Because we know that something like the DASH diet, we know it works. We know it reduces the risk of every disease I can mention. It reduces blood pressure, it reduces weight … but it’s complicated. So you have someone who writes the DASH diet or the book, it’s all available online because it was government-funded. Someone has a book and says, ‘Don’t eat X and you’ll lose 25 pounds in three weeks’ … it sells like hotcakes. Because they just tell you, ‘Okay, if you only don’t eat this, or you only do eat that, that this is going to change your life.’ And until people stop doing the magic lamp kind of give you three wishes, that’s not going to happen. And I don’t know how we can convince them. If any one of those diet books worked, you wouldn’t need any of the rest of them. Everybody wants to have lost the weight yesterday, and that’s what the book promises: this really, really fast weight loss, these really healthy children. It makes those promises and the government’s not going to promise that if you eat the DASH diet that it reduces your risk. But they want us to believe the fairy tale-ness of it, I think.

Martin: Julie, you might disagree on this, but I think when it comes to grains in particular and that messaging, not making it complicated and continuing to focus on telling consumers to make half their grains whole, I think that’s really clear, easy messaging. It doesn’t seem like we have a refined grain intake problem. Most people get enough of the refined grains; it’s really about focusing on getting more whole grains in their diet and keeping that messaging simple, like we have been.

Miller Jones: No, really, I couldn’t agree with you more. And maybe the bread industry isn’t gonna like this, but there are people who eat way too many grain servings, and they’re not whole grains. So, we need to talk about half your grains whole, and then right-sizing all your servings of food to meet your caloric need. That’s a message that’s a hard sell. It’s really a hard sell.

Martin: That’s where these manufacturers could really help with creating these breads that are either like half loaves or smaller sizes. I think the smaller size options are just wonderful. 

Miller Jones: Also, I think to really encourage the regular slice of bread rather than the super-size slice of bread may also be helpful in terms of getting the health message across.

Spencer: Right. And that’s what we talked about in the very first episode, was that portion size and serving size are really important.

Martin: Yeah, I think it’s what we’ve been discussing, not necessarily completely removing enriched flours from their products, but trying to incorporate more whole grains, whole grain flours into their products, and then adding ingredients like seeds. Nuts can also enhance that nutritional profile, provide healthy fats, fiber and protein. And then reducing the amount of sodium if it’s a higher sodium product could also be beneficial, and added sugar as well.

Spencer: From a formulating standpoint, do you have any thoughts on what bakers can do to make their products more heart-friendly?

Miller Jones: Since only 4% of the population meets the fiber requirement, and we have a huge fiber gap even in the quintile that’s eating the most fiber … if people could look for some higher-fiber varietals, or use some resistant starch, or add grains that are higher in fiber or that contain beta-glucan like oats. Under 1% of men between 19 and 50 meet the fiber requirements. Basically zero. They don’t meet the fiber requirement. They don’t. They’re coming in at about half the amount of fiber that we should need. And women aren’t doing that much better. The only group that’s doing really even sort of decent, is 15% of people my age — old women — meet the fiber requirement. That’s because we’re close to God, but we’d rather not be quite that close.

And so that’s the group that makes the fiber requirement nobody else does. And this is this is problematic.

Spencer: Again, you know, I’m 52 and the minute I hit 50, it’s like fiber is part of the conversation.

Miller Jones: But we need to pick up part of the conversations of the 22-year-olds.

Spencer: I think there is opportunity especially when, like I said, with gut health and now women’s heart health really at the forefront. These are conversations that females are more willing to have out in the open. And I think that when bread producers or just grain-based food producers can create these gut-healthy and heart-healthy products, then they need to start taking part in the conversations with women who are now more open to having the conversations about how they can be more healthy in their guts and in their hearts.

Miller Jones: Well, the other thing in terms of formulation that bread manufacturers might consider would be heat-stable pre- and probiotics. And post-biotics. I think those have a buzz now, I think the buzz is justified by the scientific data backing it up. So that could hook in with women, because women are very interested in gut health, probably more so than men.

Spencer: So let’s just take a minute to celebrate consumers being open to science-backed buzzwords!

Miller Jones: That is true, that’s nice. Yeah.

Spencer: To punctuate what we’ve been talking about for these last few minutes, GFF is really emphasizing women’s health throughout their lives, from childbearing age through menopause. We’re talking about things that older women are concerned about, and we need to get younger women concerned about them too. So GFF is doing a great job of getting that word out, but when we’re talking to the industry, and we’re talking to bakers, what are the most important things for them to know, just sort of hitting the highlights, about how their products impact women and their health at any stage? If you could stand in an elevator with a baker who makes bread, what would you want them to know? Like, you need to do X, Y and Z for women.

Martin: Ultimately, nutrition plays such a pivotal role in women’s health, influencing everything from fertility and pregnancy outcomes to the management of menopause symptoms and the prevention of age-related diseases. So some of the most important things we’ve discussed are the importance of folic acid for women of childbearing age, which supports fetal development, and the need for increased iron due to menstrual blood loss or during pregnancy. And then as women transition into menopause, dietary needs shift again, with a focus on things like calcium to support bone health and mitigate that risk of osteoporosis. So whole and enriched grains help women meet their daily needs for these essential nutrients. They are just vital at every stage of life. I never really see bread being marketed as a product to support women’s health, despite the fact that it clearly does. And I think bakers have a huge opportunity here.

Miller Jones: That was so well said. I would just add, we also I think can pique the interest of young people because grains are sustainable. They’re economically and environmentally inexpensive. And I think that’s critical to women from all walks of life. And it is more and more important as we see what kinds of things are happening in terms of our climate.

Spencer: Yeah. Okay, ladies. So that pretty much wraps up the conversation around women’s health. And something that I really love about this episode is that, in the first four, we sort of attacked some misconceptions, we busted myths, but this one, I think we uncovered things that women maybe didn’t know or realize about how grain-based foods can impact their health. That’s really beneficial to bakers and producers in this industry. So I’m going to close out this season, and I’m just going to ask you for sort of some parting wisdom. What do bakers need to understand about the real impact that their products have on American consumers? If you could impart just one closing piece of wisdom, what would it be?

Martin: I think my words of wisdom would be to innovate and educate. There’s a real opportunity to make bread a health food from a consumer perspective. And that may require some innovation to be able to offer products like we’ve discussed throughout this series, like smaller, more portion-controlled slices, breads made with different whole grain flours and other ingredients like seeds, minimizing added sugars, etc. And then a really important piece is educating consumers on how bread can and should be incorporated into a balanced, nutritious diet. This isn’t just about marketing. It’s about meaningful engagement and partnership with nutrition experts like dietitians, especially those who have a platform and can really influence public perception. So, I think they have an opportunity here to leverage their expertise to communicate the health benefits of these innovations.

Miller Jones: I think there’s also a missed opportunity. Bread for those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and certain ethnic groups provides a significant number of calories and nutrients. And somehow, [bread producers need] to get that information out and to build on it because as we move towards a plant-based, sustainable, nutritious diet, bread has got to be in the forefront. And so ways to leverage that, I think, would be a really, really good strategy for them. And just to tout the benefits of what’s there, rather than say, ‘Oh, yeah, well, we make bread.’ No, we make a significant contribution to the health and nutrition of people in this country of all socioeconomic walks of life.

Spencer: Julie, I can’t imagine a better way to close this season than those thoughts. Very poignant, very important. Thank you so much. Ladies, Charlotte and Julie, thank you for spending these five weeks with me and talking about these important topics and uncovering what consumers really need to know and how bakers can make products that are healthy, and communicate those health benefits to their end users. And it’s very important to say, thank you for your work with the Grain Foods Foundation! There’s a lot of good things going on, from communicating the benefits of bread to helping consumers build a better sandwich to helping grains sustain life for women at any stage in life. It has just been a joy and an honor to spend this time with you. Thank you so much.

Martin: Thanks again for having us, Joanie. This has been wonderful.

Miller Jones: Thank you!