Real and Wonderful finds niche with dehydrated snacks

A wide-open market and devotion to a quality product have set the owners of Hilliard-based Raw Real and Wonderful LLC on a fast track they never dreamed of only two years ago.

Specializing in dehydrated snacks, the company uses mostly organic and raw ingredients that are dehydrated at a low temperature to preserve as many nutrients and enzymes as possible. With a focus on vegan, gluten-free and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients, the idea is that customers can have a solid idea of what they’re putting in their bodies.

For Raw owners Angela Zody and Tricia Caldwell, a passion for fitness and healthy food turned into a business idea two years ago when they were chatting at their local gym.

“We had both worked for Frito-Lay years ago, so we had known each other from back when, and we both understood the best-of-the-best of the snack food industry,” Zody said. “Tricia had started on a raw food diet, and she kept telling me how great she was feeling and how much energy she had. When I tried the snacks she was making, I was amazed.”

Although neither had thought of starting a business, Zody said the possibility for Raw Real and Wonderful became clear after they taste-tested Caldwell’s creations with a group of local moms.

“They absolutely loved it, and their kids even loved it,” Zody said. “So we moved ahead and reached out to the Clintonville Farmers’ Market, because we thought, ‘Who better than this community that really embraces health?’ And they let us start in their market. It wasn’t long at all and people were going crazy for what we were selling.”

Zody and Caldwell labored in their home kitchens, making snacks to sell at the farmers’ market that included nut bars, macaroons, crackers and granola. The product moved so well that last summer they were able to branch out, selling snacks at farmers’ markets in Hilliard, Dublin, Worthington and New Albany.

“We were running ourselves ragged – we were there five days a week,” Zody said. “At that point we knew without a shadow of a doubt that people liked our product, and would buy it not only at farmers’ markets, but at the grocery store as well.”

Raw Real and Wonderful snacks debuted at Whole Foods Market’s Dublin location, and soon were available in all six Whole Foods locations throughout Ohio.

“Since we were initially selling from our homes, we were only able to sell within the state,” Zody said. “But other locations wanted to purchase our product, so we took a leap of faith and opened our little raw kitchen, and were able to sell to the rest of the country.”

Since production moved into a small office park in Hilliard, Raw snacks have been picked up by 33 Whole Foods stores nationwide, along with numerous independent natural foods stores and co-ops. Expanding allowed Raw to increase sales by 30 percent in less than a year – from $10,000 per month via the farmers’ markets last summer to current sales of $30,000 a month, Zody said.

Upper Arlington Whole Foods store Manager Jessie Starman, who was the bulk buyer at the Dublin location when Raw first was offered there, said the product showed up at an opportune time.

“It was the first local, raw product that I had seen, and raw foods were becoming a growing trend with our customer base,” Starman said. “The potential was a wonderful perspective. It’s been about two years now, and I’d say that I’ve really noticed an increase in demand for (raw foods). It was always there – a customer here and there would ask for it – but in the past two years it’s been an ever-growing trend.”

Starman said it seems local demand will plateau occasionally, but some new buzz always comes along and keeps the demand growing.

“Angela and Tricia have been very supportive in their demonstrations, and the customers are very receptive to that,” she said. “I think customers are starting to educate themselves and becoming more health conscious. There’s been media coverage on kale chips and raw foods in general that’s stirred the movement.”

Columbus-based Purely Simple Raw founder Jennifer Mrkobrad, who provides personal consulting and offers classes on a raw vegan diet, said people from all walks of life are being drawn to raw foods.

“Here you’re seeing people who have had a household crisis and are wanting to revamp their nutrition, and also those with the foodie mentality, who love preparing food but don’t want it to be heavy. They want their food to be healthy,” Mrkobrad said.

A vegetarian for nearly her entire life, Mrkobrad said she still experienced a notable difference in her health after she switched to a raw diet.

“I couldn’t believe the difference in energy,” she said. “For some it’s a good option for weight loss, but it’s also a great way to maintain a healthy weight. Just the benefits to skin clarity, overall health – it seems everything functions a lot better.”

The market for raw foods spans a wide range, Starman said.

“From people that are in their older years, to moms trying to feed healthy foods to their kids, to the younger generation that’s more athletic and health conscious,” she said.

Zody said the friendly nature of other producers in the raw foods industry was a welcome surprise, and a stark change from the larger consumer packaged goods industry.

“(That industry) was so competitive and cut-throat,” she said. “In this industry I feel like I can get on the phone and call any of these national brands, and they’re more than willing to help us – because their goal is making people healthier and giving them a choice. It’s not that they’re not competitive, it’s the fact that they welcome small guys like us to grow this category, because it’s not yet saturated. Ask the same question in 10 years and I don’t know what the answer will be, but it’s a very different group.”

As the raw food industry becomes more recognized in the mainstream market, Zody said Raw hopes to capitalize on the trend. Plans are in the works for acquiring non-GMO certification – Whole Foods Marketplans to eliminate all genetically modified produce and processed foods by 2018 – gluten-free certification and organic certification.

“Three years from now, it’s our hope to be national, to be in every state,” Zody said. “We’re getting more aggressive with looking at national brokers, and we’re also looking at people who can distribute for us. The ultimate goal is to have our products in conventional stores as well, because everyone should have an opportunity to eat good, high-quality food.”

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