By Joann Mackenzie Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.
Lisa Griffiths has cracked the code -- the code being Whole Foods Market's notoriously tough list of standards that must be met by all food products sold on its shelves.
"There were three whole pages of very stringent requirements," says Griffiths, a Rockport resident who's due to see her Nutty Redhead brand of Praline Gourmet Nuts hit Whole Foods' shelves soon.
"They were all 'can't haves'," she says of the standards. "Can't have hydrogenated fats, can't have artificial flavors, can't have artificial colors, can't have sweeteners, preservatives, gluten, dairy, and on and on."
For Griffiths, who wouldn't make anything any other way, Whole Foods' code was a natural.
"I've been cooking and baking from scratch with natural ingredients from the time I could see over the kitchen table," she says. That was back in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where her maternal great grandparents once co-owned a candy factory family.
"Confectionary runs in my DNA," she says of their Swanky Chocolates brand, which was to the local coal mining families there what those swanky chocolates we know as Godiva are to upscale sweet-tooths today.
With a mane of ravishing red hair flowing down to her knees, Griffiths happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to that brand's namesake, Lady Godiva, but says she owes her brand's success to another high-borne English Lady: Queen Victoria.
All things Victorian Griffiths is a passionate -- and professional-- aficionado of all things Victorian, and her brand's recipes "were based on Victorian era recipes from one of my grandmother's cook books," she says.
In just a year and a half, she's watched those recipes turn ordinary cashews and almonds into extraordinary taste treats that have sold into some 29 local retail outlets, including one farmers' market where they caught the attention of one of Whole Foods new product "foragers."
Whole Foods' team of foragers are to indie food entrepreneurs like Griffiths what elite talent scouts are to Hollywood hopefuls. The innovative Austin, Texas-based retail chain dispatches these tasters across the nation in search of new natural, healthy organic food products.
While the Internet is full of tips for start-ups on how to pitch to Whole Foods, it's pretty daunting, says Griffiths, when Whole Foods actually goes out of its way to pitch you.
She says she was "pleased as punch" when they called her.
"They'd been following me on Twitter, and then last summer a forager showed up at the farmers' market and said they were interested in carrying the product, and I had to say I wasn't ready." By September, she still wasn't ready, but Whole Foods was still interested. "We understand and appreciate and want your product," they said.
So Griffiths and her partner John Grant -- who has a background in marketing and product development -- really got cooking. "The Whole Foods opportunity necessitated crowd funding," says Griffith, but the couple's first Kickstarter campaign failed to make its ambitious goal of $16,500.
"That would have covered everything," says Griffiths, "including stand-up packaging, and producing four flavors." Half the flavors
With Kickstarter campaigns, it's all or nothing at all, so when the couple came up empty handed, they lowered their goal, but not their standards, and tried again.
Griffith said that $7,500 would "only cover the costs of two flavors."
"But by then," she said, "we knew those flavors were consumer favorites."
This time, their Kickstarter campaign met its mark, and for Griffiths, who kettle steams their product in the couple's custom-made 'pralinator' things started getting nuttier than ever. "Steaming," says Griffiths, who uses only top quality almonds and cashews, "is way healthier than roasting, which is a form of frying, and you know, oil can go rancid."
Still working out of her Rockport kitchen, Griffiths says she goes through about "100 pounds of nuts in 3 to 4 weeks," and puts in fifteen hour days producing finished, packaged product.
'Soup to nuts' Why just nuts -- when, back in Pennsylvania as "The Victorian Tea Lady", she famously catered soup to nuts Victorian teas dressed in period costume?
"I could have done soup to nuts, " she says, but sugared nuts were a very popular part of traditional Victorian tea. And she adds, very much easier to produce commercially today because, among other things, they get around stringent state laws requiring investment in a commercial kitchen, which would be prohibitively expensive for a start-up.
The couple's long-term plans are expansive, and their Nutty Redhead brand New England Praline with sea salt and Breakfast in New England have recently been joined by an all-natural chocolate fudge, topped with their praline sea salt nuts.
"People just love the fudge," says Griffiths.
That means there's a good chance Whole Foods will be nuts about it, too.
------------- Where to get them? Local retail outlets already carrying Nutty Redhead brand Gourmet Pralines: The Cave, Main Street, Gloucester. Cape Ann Community Cinema, Main Street, Gloucester Cape Ann Farmers Market