Feel Good Foods was launched almost by accident when founder Vanessa Phillips dropped a homemade, frozen, gluten-free potsticker into a plastic Ziploc bag and overnighted it to a buyer at Whole Foods. The rep loved it and Vanessa suddenly found herself the CEO of a frozen foods company, prepping for its first 27-store run. “It was a huge undertaking,” Vanessa says. “I knew nothing about retail or about consumer packaging. It was kind of a pipe dream to make this gluten-free dumpling available to everyone.” But nevertheless, she sold her stake in her celiac-disease friendly NYC restaurant and hit the ground running.
Six years later, Feel Good Foods is a favorite of more than the Whole Foods audience. The frozen, packaged foods made with ingredients you can pronounce is available in national chains that range from the conventional (Safeway) to the natural (co-ops). “We’re trying to bring more, better foods to everyone,” says Vanessa. “We don’t want our consumers to feel like they have to shop at a premium grocery store to get good food.”
And by “good food,” she means good-for-you food. Feel Good Foods only uses ingredients that you’ll recognize—they’re free of preservatives, GMOs, fillers and add ons, and all the line’s proteins are anti-biotic free. “It’s most important to us, and we’re most dedicated to a simple, short ingredient list,” says Vanessa.
Making Good, Gluten-Free Food
That mindset comes from her background in restaurants, and her personal journey with celiac disease (the auto-immune disease that causes the body to attack the small intestine when gluten is consumed). Vanessa grew up around restaurant food, as her dad owned a Chinese restaurant in New York. “We’d order a lot of takeout food, and dumplings were my favorite,” says Vanessa. But when she started having symptoms that she thought were a food allergy, her world shifted. “It was a six-year journey to discover I had celiac disease. And all along I thought that I could be okay if I could keep eating dumplings,” she says.
Her diagnosis led to the creation of a celiac-friendly restaurant in NYC where she served comfort food that was also gluten-free. “We would get so many people who asked if they could get the food outside of the restaurant. I wanted to make really good, gluten-free food available to more than just tourists in New York,” says Vanessa.
That’s when she started working on a gluten-free dumpling recipe with friend and well-known chef Tryg Siverson. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Tryg worked with fresh ingredients to formulate a recipe that was so good, you couldn’t tell it was gluten-free. It clearly convinced that first Whole Foods rep, and now, Feel Good Foods includes eggrolls, frozen Asian meals, empanadas and taquitos.
“Each recipe starts in our kitchen,” says Vanessa. “We get it right there, and then we scale.”
Making More, Better
Scaling is frequently an issue for small companies, and Vanessa says they’ve had their shares of failures. But, after six years, they’ve learned how to get their manufacturing process streamlined and easy. “I constantly wonder why other companies use so many ingredients. It would make our manufacturing process more expensive to have all these additives. We skip them because it makes the food better, and because it’s better for our company.”
Making the frozen food aisle better is one of the goals of Feel Good Foods. Millenials are not only attracted to healthier versions of comfort foods, but they’re also devouring the snack and app category faster than older generations. “Millenials are often using a snack or app food as a meal,” says Vanessa. “I do it. I eat dumplings for dinner!”
Vanessa also wants to continue to make foods available for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. “When you have celiac disease, you can get stuck in this ‘normal’ where you just don’t feel well all the time. Changing your diet can be really hard, but I want to make it a little easier.”
The company is also looking at new products to venture into. “We’re working on expansion in the snack category,” Vanessa says, “the handheld category and breakfast. I’d love to have a chip eventually, but right now we’re staying in the frozen foods section.”
Advice for Building a Brand
Feel Good Foods’ kind of grassroots story is nearly impossible to recreate now that Amazon has acquired Whole Foods, says Vanessa. “There are no more regional decisions being made. We were fortunate to launch when the market was different.” But that doesn’t mean the food industry is impenetrable.
Vanessa says to start small and think big. “People spend a lot of time waiting for the perfect product or idea. Just hit the pavement and it’ll evolve.” She’s speaking from experience: There was a time when she was biking all over Manhattan for her own homemade, gluten-free lasagna delivery service. “I started small—and I’m embarrassed by that product now!” she says. “But I just did it, and the rush of doing something you love will give you the momentum to keep going. It’ll have it’s own life!”
“If you’re an entrepreneur, you live this kind of manic-depressive lifestyle. I have that type of personality—I love riding the wave. But it’s not for everyone. It’s totally okay to go back to the drawing board, or to throw a ton at the wall and know that something will stick.”
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