When Becca Williams, co-founder of Red Plate Foods, was diagnosed with a severe dairy allergy as an adult, she and her family found out first hand how difficult it is to find foods that taste good while fitting into their diet.
“We looked at what was available in the grocery stores, at the restaurants, in the marketplace, trying to fulfill our family’s needs and found that nothing was there,” said Chell Williams, Becca’s husband and Red Plate Foods co-founder.
The couple decided to fix this problem by starting their own business in April 2013. The muffins, cookies and granola produced by Red Plate Foods contain none of the top eight allergens recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. They are responsible for around 90 percent of food allergies, according to the FDA. Additionally, Red Plate products lack sesame seeds, mustard, celery and flaxseed, in addition to being vegan and gluten-free.
Dietary restrictions have seen a sharp uptick in America over the past two decades, with around 18 million people reporting either a food allergy or celiac disease, an immune reaction where sufferers can’t tolerate gluten, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, millions of people avoid gluten out of choice. Despite this demand, Becca Williams said foods tailored to people with dietary restrictions haven’t kept pace. In food sectors such as desserts, the offerings are limited, expensive and not particularly tasty.
“We looked at the market and saw a hole in it,” she said. “We saw kind of mediocre offerings and thought we could offer a gourmet, fresh-baked option.”
Making foods without allergens is not without challenges. When the company began, Becca Williams said it took five months to source dessert ingredients that were not cross-contaminated with wheat.
Red Plate’s kitchen, which is attached to the Williams’ Bend house, features safety standards that go beyond standard food-handling requirements. Employees cannot bring in outside food or drink other than bottles of water, and visitors must wear special shoes to avoid tracking in allergens.
“We feel strongly that it provides an extra level of protection,” Becca Williams said.
After starting in a few local stores in August 2013, Red Plate’s products are now in around 60 stores in Oregon and southwest Washington, including 12 Fred Meyer stores. Going forward, Fred Meyer will be adding Red Plate products in 20 more locations, as far north as Seattle, by Labor Day.
While the company’s core market will always be people with allergies, she said, many customers are gluten-free by choice without any dietary restrictions. Chell Williams added that the overall goal is to provide a mix of foods that everyone can eat, regardless of dietary restrictions.
“If you’re a kid going to a birthday party and you have a nut allergy, you don’t just want a piece of cake that you can eat that’s different from everyone else,” he said. “So how do we get something that’s not just an alternative but something that everyone enjoys where we don’t even have to think about food allergies?”
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Q: What’s the story behind the company’s name?
A: Chell Williams: We had a red plate that was used to give someone credit for something special, and the plate actually has engraved on it, ‘You are special today.’ So it just had this really great connotation of celebrating over something special.
Q: How have you seen the market for gluten-free and allergen-free products change since 2013?
A: Chell Williams: The market for gluten free has become more competitive, more relevant. Food allergies is starting to come around, but we feel we’re still substantially ahead of the trend, because of the long list of allergens we cover.