Thursday, July 29, 2010

Running a Gluten Free Business

A few Sundays ago was the 30th Annual Tibbetts Point Lighthouse 5K/10K Run in Cape Vincent, NY. Since I was in the Thousand Islands for the weekend, I decided on a whim to run the 5K leg of the race. It is a small, scenic, family-oriented race that runs through a residential portion of the town and along the St. Lawrence River.

Over the years, I have run the race a number of times in all kinds of weather conditions. What was different this year was that I hadn’t run a race in over two years. Actually, since starting the business, I have found it harder and harder to find enough hours in the day to do all the things I want.

Although I told myself that I was just running the race for the camaraderie and to enjoy the optimal weather conditions, I felt some of my competitive spirit kicking in at the line-up. The woman next to me struck up a conversation, and I learned that she was almost exactly my age, and she, too, was running her first race in several years. Her name was Gail, and she told me she just hoped to break 30 minutes

“Well, don’t follow me,” I laughed as we took off with me following her. I was feeling pretty good-- not beating any land speed record-- but we hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before I passed her by. All went well for about ¾ of the race until I hit a long, unshaded stretch. It was HOT!

“I don’t have to do this,” I said to myself. “I don’t need to prove anything,” and I stopped running and started walking. Physically I was fine, but mentally I just wasn’t there. Just after I started walking, another silver-haired woman, ran by. I had been walking only a minute or so when I heard footsteps, and a voice called out,

“You can’t stop now. I’ve been pacing on you the whole race. Come on we’ll run together.” It was Gail, and she and I vowed to cross the finish line together. It was a scene demonstrating just why I love the friendliness of this race. Right after crossing the finish line, the grey-haired woman who passed me walked up and said ,

“Good race. I was so surprised when you stopped-- I was following you the whole way.”Gayle and I barely missed her 30 minute goal, and in that half-hour, I learned several life lessons that are particularly appropriate to my role as an owner of a gluten free business:

1. PEOPLE YOU DON”T EVEN KNOW RELY ON YOU. In that small race, I had no idea that not one, but two runners my age were relying on me for pacing. I would never have stopped and walked had I known. Every day we get calls and e-mails from fans of our bread, but at least once a week, we get an impassioned plea to “never stop making your bread.” People all over the eastern part of the US have come to rely on us for the taste, quality, and purity of our gluten free bread. That is a lot of responsibility, and we take it very seriously.

2. MENTAL STRENGTH IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS BEING STRONG. There was absolutely no reason physically why I stopped and walked towards the end of the race—my head just wasn’t into it at the moment. In fact, Gayle jokingly admonished me for not even breathing hard. In fact if I hadn’t stopped and walked, I would have finished third in my age group. Instead, I literally let someone pass me by. In the gluten free business, we need to be agile. It just isn’t enough to be out front, operating from a position of strength. As a gluten free manufacturer, we need to constantly strive to improve our products without compromising the quality and integrity of our ingredients. We need to look at baking new and innovative, naturally gluten free products without relying on ingredient science to trick the palate and extend shelf life. At Against The Grain, we are always looking 12-18 months out at new product development (our new Nut-free Pesto Pizza, for example, was several years in the planning.) Stay tuned for some really innovative gluten free products!

Post Script: Last weekend I bumped into Gail again at The Save The River 5K in Clayton, NY. The humidity was a killer, but I beat the 30 minute mark by 30 seconds. Gail, on the other hand, came in third in our age category with a terrific 28:06. Way to go Gail!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tour de Gluten Free

This past weekend, Alex and I decided to go out tandem bike riding. Although Alex will be 21 this month, he has never had the balance to be able to ride a two-wheel bike by himself. But that doesn’t stop him when it comes to tandem bike riding.

Starting out from Against The Grain's parking lot
He’s a real trooper, and both of us are suckers for what we call “river rides.” Those are looping bike trips that cross over a river, and then cross back at another point. By far, our most ambitious ride has been 70 miles, with two international crossings of the St. Lawrence River into Canada and back. Locally, we have a neat Connecticut River ride that takes us into New Hampshire, across a lower ridge of Mt. Wantastiquet, and back into town. This past weekend, we tried a new one—the West River ride.

The first bridge crossing

...and the second

The Dummerston Covered bridge was easily Alex's favorite part of the ride

The challenge in this ride was crossing up between Black Mountain and Prospect Hill on the East West highway in Dummerston, VT. The elevation gain was 400-plus feet over one mile, and it took a lot of team work in the 90 degree heat for us to keep moving forward and up. About 1/4 mile from the top, I had to resort to reminding Alex of the story of The Little Engine That Could. He started pedaling to the cadence of “I think I can, I think I can” and we made it to the top in style.

It occurred to me that our biking, and the teamwork involved, have a lot in common with Against The Grain. My favorite metaphor for starting our business was a trip we made to NYC with the then pre-teen boys for the Five Borough Bike Tour. At my brother’s suggestion, who had done the ride the year before, we didn’t start in Lower Manhattan; rather, we pedaled over from our hotel to join the tour just below Central Park. When we got to Sixth Avenue, there were barricades and people pedaling along the Avenue. We squeezed between two barriers, hopped on our bikes, and joined the crowd…or so we thought.

Within minutes of pedaling, we were startled by the sound of a bull horn announcing the arrival of the fast-moving, lead peloton. With barricades on both sides, it was either pedal as fast as we could and hope they could dodge us or get run over, a situation not at all unlike the current gluten free marketplace. Yep, initially we pedaled leisurely right into the front of the gluten free peloton. As a small, artisan manufacturer, we’ve been pedaling the bike really hard ever since. And there is a lot of creative problem-solving and team work involved in making our products a success. We work in small batches that require close coordination and timing between our bake team members. Baking with farm-fresh ingredients means we also work closely with our suppliers to make sure we have fresh ingredients on hand just when we need them. John,” the egg man” from Maple Meadow Farms, for example, monitors our supply and adjusts his deliveries with a certain degree of wizardry that always works.

Using team work to power a bike to the top of a steep hill feels really good. So does building a business from scratch with highly committed employees and crafting a premium product with team work, ingenuity, and clean ingredients.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gluten Free Eating From The Garden: Rainbow Chard and Kalamata Olive Pizza

It has been the hottest I ever remember in Vermont this past week. For three days, the temperature hovered in the three digits…and it was humid, like New Orleans humid! Never has going to work every morning seemed so appealing—leaving a hot, humid, home in the hills for an air-conditioned baking floor. Warmer weather has come earlier and hotter by Vermont standards, and our garden has been the major beneficiary. For several years now, we haven’t seen ripe tomatoes until September, just before the first frost. Not this year.

New to our garden this year is rainbow chard, a mix of red, orange, pink, yellow, and white with bold and streaked leaves (organic seeds by High Mowing, one of Vermont’s finest organic farms.) The chard is both visually appealing and abundant. For dinner the other night, we made a rainbow chard and kalamata olive pizza on an Against The Grain Gourmet pizza shell. We all agreed that it was one of our best veggie pizza combinations yet.

Instead of using a tomato base, I sautéed fresh small white onions with rainbow chard and topped the pizza with a one-to-one mixture of low fat mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

And while I can’t claim that the veggies were entirely local because I can’t grow kalamata olives here in Vermont (well, maybe I will someday if the trend toward hotter and hotter weather continues in Vermont,) my brother is growing a bumper crop of them in South Carolina.

Photo by Geoff Woodard

Rainbow Chard and Kalamata Olive Pizza
 Serves 4 with two ample slices each

A good handful of rainbow chard (approximately 30 leaves with stalks)
Six small white onions
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 C cheese mixture of low-fat mozzarella and freshly grated parmesan cheese
½ C chopped kalamata olives
1 Against The Grain Gourmet Pizza Shell (defrosted)


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Sautee onions and chard in canola oil until the stems are barely tender (approximately 10 minutes.)
3. Spread sautéed mixture evenly on pizza shell.
4. Sprinkle cheese to taste and top with chopped olives.
5. Bake directly on middle oven rack for 25 minutes.
6. Go outside and sit on the porch while it is baking ‘cause the kitchen gets HOT.
7. Allow to cool for several minutes, slice, and enjoy!