A dozen years ago, Jessica Mindell was newly-married and working in engineering when a vacation with her husband led her to a different way of looking at food, and ultimately, a new career.
"A little after getting married, we were on vacation and my husband was having some stomach pain," she said. "I thought cutting gluten would help the issue, and it helped with the pain. After that, I started making him gluten free food, and he said there weren't many other things like it on the market."
Seeing a need, her husband suggested Jessica look at marketing her food to others. She began making her own batches of food for feedback from friends. Soon she was experimenting with different ingredients and working with a bakery in Chicago to come up with a gluten free granola product.
"This was before Michigan's cottage food law, so I wasn't allowed to cook the products for sale at home. We found a bakery and worked with a team to make the granola, and we packaged everything personally and drove it back home and put it in the cases. This was right when the economy tanked, in 2008. I was thinking, 'What am I doing.' It ended up being an amazing time to launch it."
Not only did Mindell's granola, now marketed under "Jessica's Natural Foods," fill a need in the food market – it tasted delicious, which quickly became evident from the demand by local grocers.
"I went around to stores and gave them sample bags and asked them to try it," Mindell said. "Holiday Market in Royal Oak was the first one to order. They said they would take a case of each – I barely had enough product."
In addition to having a limited supply of product available, Mindell was completely new to the business, and hadn't anticipated the immediate interest.
"I had to learn how to make invoices on the fly," she recalled. "I dropped them off the next day. We got into Market Square, Plum Market, Hiller's, and others. They have all been really great. We got into Whole Foods eight months later, and we're in Wegmans on the east coast, as well as a lot of independent and natural grocers."
Offerings have since expanded from two granola flavors to six. Growing beyond granola, Jessica's now offers pre-packaged muffin mixes, each which are gluten free, non-GMO and have non-rice ingredients. The latest product was inspired by her daughter's avoidance of milk.
"She didn't like drinking milk, and my husband said he used to love strawberry milk, so we started making a homemade version," Mindell said.
With most strawberry flavorings containing loads of high fructose corn syrup and stain-producing and questionable food dyes, Mindell began making more natural versions. "We realized there wasn't that much out there," she said.
The organic strawberry syrup contains real strawberry puree and utilizes beet juice for coloring.
While Mindell said her own children enjoy her products, they aren't restricted to only gluten free food. Rather, she focuses on specific concerns and amounts.
"I was concerned with arsenic in rice, and someone on a gluten free diet could be eating that for several meals," she said. "It's easily five or six servings a day, so I wanted to give my kids, and others, some options."
Despite starting the new business with little experience, Mindell is now proud to be celebrating 10 years in business.
"It took some getting out of my comfort zone, but the stores were so supportive," she said. "I'm so grateful."
Photo: Laurie Tennent