Naomi Poe & Better Batter Part 2: Personal Struggles Lead to Business Big Bang

What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you see yourself as an entrepreneur or business owner?

I didn’t set out to go into business. I wanted to be a writer. First I was going to be Emily Dickinson, but then [after college] I was just going to be a mom and not have cancer. I never thought I’d go into business. Although my mom said to me, ‘Naomi, when you were in third grade you wanted penny candy money, and I said no, I’m not giving you money for candy. It’s not good for you. If you want candy, you can buy it yourself. So you took your embroidery thread and made friendship bracelets and sold them so you could get money for penny candy.’ It’s funny because now I look back and I go, oh yeah. And then I took that money, went to the store, bought the whole bin of penny candy, and resold it. If it was normally two cents, I sold it for five cents, so I could go buy more. My mom said, ‘You were always an entrepreneur. You just didn’t know it.’

What field did you pursue in college? Did you still plan to be a writer at that point?

I started as an English major in college, and then I started taking all these food and nutrition classes. I was so fascinated by it, and there’s a side of me that’s very much like a scientist. I started taking more and more of these classes, and I realized I was either going to be in school for six years or I was going to need to switch my major. So I switched my major. My mom about blew a gasket because from the time I was little, I knew I was going to major in English. And then I didn’t.

My education was very expensive. (My scholarship was only for four years!) And I was going into foods, which is one step off of restaurants, which was (of course) a big no-no for me. My mom is super supportive though, so she told me to do what I thought was best. I got a bachelor’s in family and consumer science with my concentration being in foods and nutrition. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t know what I’d do with the degree, but I was certain it would work out. And it has—rather well!

How did you first learn of celiac disease?

My oldest son is autistic. When he was about eight months old, he went from developing normally to nothing. He was nonverbal and nonresponsive—classic autism pattern. We tried speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy; we were hitting it from everywhere and with nothing to show. By that point his gums were bleeding. His teeth were coming out. The lining of his intestine was coming out in his diaper. He was that sick. Finally, our pediatrician went to a session on celiac disease and gluten enteropathy at a symposium. He realized my son had all these symptoms of celiac as well as autism, and he took my son off gluten for six weeks.

Three weeks in, he started responding to communication. Six weeks in, he started talking. His first words were ‘I love you mommy.’ It was in the detergent aisle in the grocery store. To this day I can’t go down that aisle without bawling. He looked up and he focused for a second. He made eye contact with me, which was really difficult for him even after he became responsive, and he said, ‘I love you mommy.’ I left the whole cart with the ice cream and everything in it, and I rushed him home. I said, say that for daddy, say that for daddy! He tested off the charts for celiac disease, even after six weeks on the gluten-free diet. So it was never a question of it simply being an ‘autism diet.’

When did you discover that you had celiac disease?

After my first son went on a gluten-free diet, I had cancer. The doctor told me it had probably been slowly growing for about five years before pregnancy caused it to grow rapidly. And it was serious. I went on a vegan, no grain, low carbohydrate, high raw, high vegetable diet. I was hitting treatments, natural and medical, every way—supplements here, surgeries there. I felt great. Then I got through that whole thing, had my second child, went back to eating a ‘standard American diet,’ and went back to being sick all the time.

At this point, Zion [oldest son] is eating a gluten-free diet, and the rest of us are eating normal. Caedon gets to four months old where he goes on grains. Rice is great, but when we get to the oatmeal, he gets sick as a dog. Projectile vomiting, the whole nine yards. We take him to the doctor, and the doctor is like, ‘Oh yeah, we got another one.’

At that point my husband said, ‘We have two kids with celiac disease. It’s got to be you because you’re sick all the time.’ So I went and got tested, and oh look, I’m a celiac. I knew about the celiac diet because of Zion, but at that point I really had to start learning for myself.

What symptoms of celiac disease did you experience throughout your life prior to your diagnosis?

Before diagnosis, it’s hard to say how I felt. The cancer that I had probably developed five years prior to being diagnosed, and it had already spread quite a bit before they found it. So I don’t know how much was due to the cancer, which I was diagnosed with a year after I had my first child and several years before I was diagnosed with celiac, and how much was due to celiac.

I can tell you from being a teenager, I was always very quick to get sick. Food was always a problem, and eating always left me with diarrhea, brain fog, and intense stomach pain. I also had chronic depression and (when I moved up north) Seasonal Affective Disorder. That’s how it manifested in my body—digestive issues and depression issues.

When I went on a gluten-free diet, the pain, suffering, intestinal issues, anxiety, depression—gone. Just gone. I don’t have those anymore. I remember what it was like. I pray all the time that I will not go back to that.

How did Better Batter start and evolve?

Part of my stress outlet when we discovered Zion had to be gluten free was baking, finding ways to make food gluten free. Originally, I was baking using gluten-free cookbooks, and for what was available, the food was pretty good—good enough that people wanted to buy it. I started a baking business and had a consumer base who purchased my baked goods, but I was tired and the margins were tiny. You have to eat failures, quite literally, and gluten-free failures are just no good at all!

I had decided I was going to shut down my business. At the end of the day, it was too exhausting. Part of that exhaustion was that I just wanted to make my mom’s pie, the way she made it, not some funky cookbook way that didn’t really work consistently. I was crying and praying out of frustration and exhaustion one night when I went to bed. That night, I had a dream [about how to combine ingredients into a gluten-free flour mix that would mimic an all-purpose flour]. I woke from the dream and went downstairs and made the mix. I had all the components, and sure enough, I made my mom’s pie. From there, I started baking real food again. I shut down the business with $500 left over and breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I had this mix I was using for everything. A friend came over and tasted a pumpkin bread I had made. She took some mix home to try for herself and found that it worked just like normal flour in her family recipes, too. Then she told a friend who started buying in gallon bags, and she told a friend, who told a friend, who …. It grew until people suggested I put the flour mix for sale on the internet. It went from a couple people buying in three months to $3,000 worth of sales. So I said, I guess we’re in business. By April of that next year I had my board, I had my investors, and I had my business license. It all started with my all-purpose flour.

Since then, I’ve learned the art and science of running a real, sustainable business on the fly, and hopefully we’ll continue to do so. I’ve had a lot of great mentors and supporters.

Your business started in your kitchen. How did you manage that, and when did you know it was time to relocate?

I knew I would need to do it right, so I became obsessive about following the guidelines for legal manufacture. I’m hyper controlled. The whole time we’re doing it, I have no allergens in the house. I have no plants in the house. I have everything six inches off the floor because I’m a manufacturing plant at that point. Did I mention I can be really obsessive?

I bought some basic mixing bins, shelving, and 25-pound sacks of ingredients, and off we went. My dad would come to visit and we’d mix in my kitchen. My grandpa who lives here would mix with me every day. We were mixing 3,000 pounds at a clip out of my kitchen. My back was breaking and my arms—I still have muscles from it.

We started packaging with zip lock bags. Then I found a company that did resealable bags and I used FoodSavers. When we got to about 3,000 pounds a month, I said I can’t do this anymore, physically. So we engaged a contract manufacturer, and we toured the facility and made sure they were pristine, certified, and ready to produce in quantity. My kids were so happy when we switched over to real manufacturing because they could have food in the house again like peanut butter … until I got allergic to peanut butter.

We had to have somewhere to put the stuff, so I rented this facility [the warehouse in which Better Batter is currently located]. We had one pallet of product sitting in that whole big warehouse. And I said, I can’t believe this. We’re in real business! I was so impressed. Then my board came out, and they’re like, ‘Naomi, this is not impressive.’ But that’s what we went through is a pallet a month, so to me it was impressive. The first year we transitioned, we did about $35,000 in business. Then it grew from there, and it just kind of exploded. We’re doing about a million a year right now, and we’re just getting started!

Next: Naomi Poe & Better Batter Part 3: GMOs, Fad Diets, and Making a Positive Difference

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