An interview with Suzie Miller, Co-Founder; Lizann Anderson, Co-Founder; and Darcy Zbinovec, CEO
1) What is your personal experience with celiac or gluten/dairy-intolerance?
Lizann: Darcy Zbinovec is the CEO of Among Friends. Her dad was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1998 at the age of 73. He lived with Darcy, her husband, and two kids, and they all ate gluten-free while at home to ease the burden of multiple meals.
Darcy: It was quite the challenge. We ate brown rice pasta more nights than not. The bread was a brick and baked goods were virtually inedible. I was in the food business, and I knew what was out there. There were no good options.
Lizann: Fast-forward to 2013. My niece, Sarah Anderson, was diagnosed with celiac disease after a routine blood test that showed persistent anemia with no cause. She had an insightful doctor. After one last pizza meal, she embraced her new lifestyle with the ardor that characterizes her. She is a cook, so that helps a lot, and there are so many more flavorful ingredients available to her than were to Darcy.
Among Friends had been making gluten-free mixes for a few years before Sarah was diagnosed, and I was able to step in and make some suggestions about whole grain gluten-free eating. When her family of seven went on vacation in Montana, it was extremely gratifying to load them up with gluten-free mixes that the whole family would enjoy—and be able to stir up in a jiffy at their rustic cabin.
Suzie and I know many other people who pursue gluten-free eating to help mitigate the effects of autoimmune disorders or other sensitivities. Our goal always has been to bring everyone around the table for nourishing and delicious fare. We aim to create products that the whole family can relish with no sacrifice in taste and texture.
2) How specifically do you prevent cross-contamination, and how to you educate your team to ensure that your products are not contaminated?
Lizann: We are a GFCO (Gluten-Free Certification Organization) certified facility and are annually certified to ensure that all of our procedures and protocols meet the agency’s stringent requirements.
We take one or more samples of every batch we make and do on-site, immediate testing for gluten.
We do extensive training of our employees to ensure that gluten-free ingredients do not come into contact with wheat.
Previous to converting our entire line to gluten-free in June of this year, we had an enclosed whole wheat room and a second gluten-free room separated by our warehouse. No mixing or line equipment or ingredients were shared.
3) Why did you find it necessary to create mixes that are gluten-free and dairy-free rather than a baking mix that’s healthier than others but doesn’t exclude gluten or dairy?
Lizann: Let me first address dairy-free. Our customers control the fat and dairy they add to make our treats in their own kitchens. I make vegan crisp at least once a week using coconut oil with our crisp topping mix. It is my favorite dessert to take to potlucks because everybody loves it, and they don’t have to think about what they are missing, unless they are sensitive to blueberries. My kids get tired of me counting how many superfoods and antioxidants there are in an Among Friends crisp.
Why gluten-free mixes? Simply put, despite the explosion of gluten-free products, we felt the market was not serving the needs of customers. Don’t get me wrong. The early products were a godsend to celiacs, but the nutritional profiles of many were quite poor…white rice, tapioca starch, potato starch. All convert to sugar quite rapidly in the body.
So, yes, there is a plethora of new items in the marketplace, some with a bit of whole grain, but in reality just more of the same was being launched and touted as innovative.
Darcy: We recognized a need in the market that dovetailed beautifully with our whole grain idealism. We are the first baking mix company that is fully whole grain and gluten-free, with no added gums. We didn’t want to replicate what someone else was doing.
Lizann: For years, people believed that you could not produce gluten-free goods without xanthan or guar gum. I didn’t buy that. Other cultures had been using gluten-free grains for centuries without strange gums. There must be a path, I thought, albeit it’s not always a straightforward one.
Suzie: I remember Lizann pounding her fists on the counter, “we are not using xanthan gum.” We didn’t need to remove any fillers, because we never had them. We didn’t need to convert to whole grain because we have never used anything but.
4) Gluten-free foods are starting to taste better and better—is the company still experimenting with new recipes? For those who are averse to baking or short on time, will we see pre-packaged cookies for sale soon?
Lizann: We never stop experimenting. It is part of our DNA. Suzie will tell you that I have never discovered a recipe I didn’t want to tinker with. My husband doesn’t always appreciate my habit of experimenting on company. But I only have one life—and oh so many recipes to try.
When we were working on our newest product, Darcy’s Delish Old Fashioned Chocolate Chip Cookie, I made different versions for weeks, using sorghum, brown rice, oats, millet and nut meals. In the end, we elected to go with all oat flour, after multiple tastings. But all that learning about the different behaviors of flours will instruct our next phase of development.
Suzie: We feel as if we are just getting started. There are a whole lot of gluten-free options to be improved upon, from a taste and nutrition perspective.
Darcy: Taste, texture and nutrition. Those are the big three that guide our research and development. We don’t like to rule out possibilities at Among Friends. But at this point, we don’t have any plans to make ready-made cookies. We believe that there is no real substitute for home-baked treats fresh from the oven.
Lizann: From the first, we talked about Among Friends as enabling an experience as much as selling a product. We were our own target audience. We wanted other time-pressed folks to be able to turn out scratch quality baked goods (cookies, brownies, crisps) packed with flavor and whole grain nutrition at a moment’s notice. We wanted to get people back in the kitchen, but not strand them there.
Suzie: Time and again, talking to people has showed us that baking is an emotional ritual. People want to bake for the people they love. Lizann and I refer to each other as the founding friends, but with our mixes, we are widening our circle of friendship and love all the time.
5) What is your take on the social implications of being free-from? How does your company handle the stigma of being different—a company with a niche market, possibly scorned by those who aren’t gluten- or dairy-free?
Darcy: We like to say our mixes are all-inclusive. We mean several things by that statement. One meaning is that they are perfect for busy moms, teens, grandparents baking with young kids, teams and coaches, 30-somethings, young professionals, and people with limited pantries.
All-inclusive also suggests something about our philosophy. We believe at its best, a meal or a treat is a source of communion, not a division along dietary lines. Sharing food is a central part of our experience, so break bread, or not bread. The important thing is to gather.
Lizann: I regularly gather at my round table people of all dietary stripes. Amongst my dearest friends are vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, dairy-free folks, those who avoid nuts, soy, white sugar, etc. I can usually accommodate all.
That said, we delight in exposing people to gluten-free grains that have been consumed for millennia by different cultures. We are a bit of a wheat-obsessed culture, with wheat at every meal. Perhaps our biggest challenge is convincing people that we are baking with alternative grains, not just because they are gluten-free, but because they are delicious.
Suzie has two daughters and a son, and I have three boys. We are fortunate in that none of our kids have dietary limitations or allergies. The beauty of that is that they make a great taste-testing panel, comparing what comes out of our kitchen with what’s out in the world—not the “free from” world.
Suzie: So when our picky kids and our friends give our treats the thumbs up, we know we are onto something. They are skeptics at heart—especially when responding to their mothers.
Darcy: We have not veered from our whole grain platform, our grains just happen to be gluten-free. We just need to expose more people that gluten-free, if whole grain and delicious, can be the superior choice. It’s not about settling, but embracing.
6) Tell me about your logo. It appears to be youthful, fun, and inviting. How does your logo reflect your food philosophy?
Suzie: It’s difficult for us to separate the logo from the Among Friends concept. They go hand-in-hand. The brand name and story, visual identity, and packaging came quite naturally to us. We both have backgrounds in marketing–– Lizann is a writer, and I am a designer and illustrator.
I hand-drew the original flower, using colored pencils. We toyed with some different typefaces but in the end decided that my handwriting would be more fun and would better reflect the handcrafted nature of our product. I got the Among Friends trademark green from a leaf.
Lizann: Our original packaging was clear. We wanted people to see the ingredients, and convey the transparent nature of who we are. In the end, we added all the color so that the packages would act as their own display on the shelf.
Each of our products is named for someone we love and tells a story. CJ’s Double Chocolate Cookie Mix, for example, is named for Suzie’s son CJ and celebrates their family passion for chocolate. There is a yoga pose on the bottom of each of our packages.
We like to say that we like our food the same way we like our people: fun, fresh, straightforward and inviting.
Darcy: The visual identity, the products, the packaging all go back to the same thing. Baking is an emotional ritual, a way to connect. We love knowing that Among Friends mixes are making it easier for people to make fresh treats for the people they love.
Learn more about Among Friends at amongfriendsbakingmixes.com.