By Kim Hasty The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.
It may be time for Betty Crocker to move over a bit: there's a new Betty in the baking business.
And though she had zero business experience and didn't even like to cook all that much, 25-year-old Betty Cogdell has managed to fill a tall order. Motivated by a personal health crisis, she developed Simply B Gluten Free baking mixes. Now sold in Lowes Foods in Cary, Whole Foods in Raleigh and The Pilgrim Gift Shop in her hometown of Fayetteville, the mixes yield brownies, breads and cakes that actually taste as good as the original baked goods they replicate.
"I think it comes down to the fact that I had a need and I had a dedicated mom who is a very good cook," Cogdell said, referring to her mother, Sandy. "We weren't satisfied with something that was just edible. So we kept going."
It all began when the 2008 Terry Sanford High School graduate was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder in her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the Yanuck Center for Health and Wellness in Chapel Hill, she was diagnosed as gluten and dairy intolerant. The news left her dreading the thought of giving up the foods she loved: her mother's yeast bread and the butter to go along with it, as well as biscuits, poundcake and other goodies.
"When you're suddenly told you can't eat something, that's exactly what you want," she said.
Her mother was quick to sympathize.
"No Papa Johns, no Chick-fil-A," Sandy Cogdell said. "It was a whole lifestyle change."
Mother and daughter spent the summer coming up with a plan for the holidays. Thanksgiving of 2012 would be the first test. The Cogdells' Fayetteville Thanksgiving table is traditionally filled with friends and family, with Sandy Cogdell in the kitchen doing all the cooking.
Mother and daughter first experimented until they came up with a suitable replacement for Sandy Cogdell's famous yeast bread. Then they moved on to pound cake.
"Over a couple of months, we got better and better," Betty Cogdell said. "It was weird. My mom had always wanted to master the perfect Southern pound cake. When she finally did, it was the gluten-free version."
At Thanksgiving that year, they served absolutely all the family favorites, from the turkey, the stuffing and the gravy, to the desserts. All were gluten-free versions. They waited to see their unsuspecting guests' reactions.
"They all loved it," Betty Cogdell said. "They thought it was just as good or better. We thought, 'Yay for us.'"
"My mom is very determined and she's a perfectionist," she said. "She made sure everything was perfect. I don't know many people who would go above and beyond to make sure I could eat everything on the table."
Meanwhile, back at school Betty needed an elective toward her undergraduate diploma, and signed up for a course in entrepreneurship. One of the professors was Fayetteville native and former UNC chancellor Holden Thorp. The class was assigned a project of coming up with a business idea.
"I guess I'll do these recipes," Betty said.
She and her mother whipped up a slew of samples and Betty set up a booth in the middle of campus.
"I did a blind taste test," she said. "I let people try a Pillsbury biscuit and my yeast bread and I didn't tell anybody which was which.
"When they were asked the question, 'Which one do you like better?' 86 percent out of a couple hundred said they liked mine better. That's when I knew it wasn't just my family being nice about it."
"I met with every business professor who would answer an email," she said. "I had to learn business in, like, a month." She went on to enter the Carolina Challenge. Established in 2005, the contest gives students, staff, faculty and alumni the chance to win seed funding for an idea in its early stages.
As she advanced through each of the contest's stages, her confidence grew. While other contestants had concepts, she had baked goods to put in front of the judges' noses. In April of 2013, she was announced as the winner of the $15,000 first-place prize.
Since graduating in May of that year, her life has been a scramble along a steep learning curve. Quick lessons in marketing, business plans, financial considerations and, finally, a move to Raleigh where she spends her days working on producing her mixes. Though she's still in the fledgling stages of her operation, her business is growing.
"Her products are doing well for us," said Joan Poole, who owns The Pilgrim in Fayetteville. "We've had to educate people, but one lady came in from Lumberton and bought one of everything we had."
Best of all, Betty Cogdell's symptoms disappeared within a month of going gluten and dairy free.
"I had been lethargic, in a brain fog, with moodiness," she said. "I have more energy now and I was able to concentrate and focus better ... I was nice again."