Woodard started Partake Foods after discovering that her daughter, Vivienne, had several food allergies including to most tree nuts, eggs, corn, and bananas around her first birthday.
Woodard wasn't satisfied with the gluten-free and vegan packaged snack food options on the market that were many times full of gums, stabilizers, and other additives that she didn't feel good about giving her young daughter. And the products that met Woodard's nutritional standards didn't pass her 1-year-old's taste test.
Woodard also realized, from a branding perspective, there was an opportunity to create a coolness factor around allergen-friendly products.
"I wanted to create a brand of products that tasted good, so that you could feel good about sharing with your family, but was also cool enough that people without dietary restrictions or food allergies would want to -- pun intended -- ‘partake’," she told FoodNavigator-USA.
After several trips and hundreds of dollars spent at Whole Foods to create the perfect, magical allergen-friendly cookie, Woodard enlisted the help of a professional food developer.
Partake Foods cookies are made at a Top 8 allergen-free manufacturer and are certified gluten-free and vegan made from a gluten-free flour blend (organic light buckwheat flour, cassava flour, gluten free oat flour, tapioca flour), organic cane sugar, gluten-free oats, non-GMO sunflower oil, tapioca starch, and other allergen-friendly ingredients.
The brand officially launched in the summer of 2016 as an entirely self-funded business with Woodard distributing the cookies herself to natural foods stores in New York and New Jersey.
The brand got its first break in retail distribution in May 2018 when it entered one region of Whole Foods and Wegmans stores after two challenging years of bootstrapping the business.
"We purposely kept things small because we wanted to understand who our consumer was, if we were adequately serving them, if there were any innovations we needed to make before we scaled too broadly and it would be hard to make those changes," she said.
"From a funding perspective, we initially bootstrapped the business and started to raise friends and family funding when we got into Whole Foods and Wegmans, but that money came in very small checks," Woodard said.
To supplement the business, Woodard ended up selling her engagement ring and emptied her 401k account.
"There were definitely some rough times to keep the lights on, but I believe so strongly in the mission, and our reception at retail was so positive that I knew we needed to keep going."
Just when it seemed like she would reach the "end of her rope" during the very early days, Woodard would receive an email from an appreciative customer or get a meeting with an investor that encouraged her to continue building the brand.
"I think because the mission is so personal to me, that’s what kept me going because I am our consumer and I know how big and strong the food allergy consumer is that I know there’s a need for it. I think entrepreneurs have to be a bit foolishly optimistic."
'You're too early....The category's too small'
With some steam building under the brand, Woodard knew that significant outside funding was a necessary element to take Partake Foods to the next level.
"I knew as a woman, and as a woman of color, how hard the fundraising journey was going to be so I wanted to keep things small for as long as possible until we had really gained traction and had the data to back up the funding that we were going to be looking for," she said.
To get to where the brand is today (in over 3,000 stores including nationwide distribution with Target), Woodard faced a great deal of reluctance and skepticism from potential investors and retailers, she said.
"We got lots of 'nos' along the way from a fundraising perspective," Woodard said, hearing every critique from: “You’re too early, the category’s too small,” to “Oh, you’re just another gluten-free cookie.”
The brand's "big break" from a fundraising perspective came in the form a $1m investment from Marcy Venture Partners in 2019, a venture capital fund co-founded by Jay-Z, and then another $1m cash injection from the firm this summer.
The allergen-friendly market
Woodard is firm in her belief that the market and consumer audience for allergen-friendly foods is much larger than it may seem at first glance.
According to the CDC, 32 million Americans have food allergies, 1 in 13 being children, representing a large audience for Partake Foods. However, Woodard is intent on building appeal across consumer demographics and needed to build brand credibility before she could expect acceptance from food allergy parents.
"I learned first hand that I was totally wrong about our audience when we launched," said Woodard.
"The food allergy mom is a very discerning customer and they wanted to see us in thousands of stores and to have heard about us from their food allergy community or their family allergist. Thankfully, there are these much broader consumer groups like people who are on a restricted diet by choice, moms looking for a school safe, and health conscious millennials... I didn’t realize how many just regular younger people wanted better-for-you snacks that tasted like normal snacks."
Building a platform brand
Partake Foods is still very much in cookie mode with new seasonal flavors including pumpkin spice launching this later this year, but Woodard would eventually like to see the company become an allergen-friendly platform brand a few years down the road.
"We’ll continue to innovate across different pack sizes and different flavors and different formats of cookies for a while, but my goal is to create a platform brand that can really translate across multiple parts of the grocery store," she said.