By Vic Dolcourt
Of all of the world’s great cuisines, Chinese has been one of the more difficult for the gluten-free consumer to find, both in restaurants (due to the ubiquity of wheat-based soy sauce and noodles) and at the supermarket. But gluten-free food manufacturers are becoming more creative, and market innovators stretch well beyond just plain meat and potatoes. Case in point is San Jose couple, Ivy Lau and Mark Ivey (pictured), the owners of Ivy’s Garden Foods, who have brought three authentic Chinese chicken entrees as close as the freezer section of your neighborhood Northern California supermarket.
Good luck and serendipity
Ivy and Mark started planning their business venture after a serendipitous encounter during an extended sabbatical from the pressures of high-tech marketing. “We were at a gluten-free support group meeting in Portland because I need to eat gluten-free,” said Ivy. “It was there that the 9-year old daughter of one of the attendees asked me if I knew how to make gluten-free sweet and sour chicken. Of course I know how to make sweet and sour chicken. My mother, sister and I cooked extensively in Hong Kong, where I grew up. Ours was a household where we cooked healthful and enjoyable food, and appreciated the celebration that goes with good dining. We were and are very good cooks. But I didn’t tell the little girl that. I told her, yes, I’ll make some for you and bring it to your home. She loved the food.”
“Mark and I understand the market,” Ivy said, “and we thought that the gluten-free community would benefit from really good and authentic Chinese entrees that were delicious, healthy and gluten-free.” There were no real gluten free Chinese entrees on the market at the time, and Ivy knew from feedback at support group meetings that people craved gluten-free Chinese food. “Gluten free people always miss what they can’t have, and I found out that Chinese food was high on their list. Much of the Chinese food, both in restaurant and supermarket entrees, contains conventional what-based soy sauce.”
So Ivy enrolled in classes at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center. The university offers classes on food entrepreneurship, among which is a seminar series entitled “Get Your Recipe to Market.” After a year of classes, Ivy and Mark realized that they would need the help of a food consultant to translate Ivy’s home recipes into a preparation process for a large commercial kitchen.
Regulations, regulations, regulations
“Mark and I picked a type of food that needs to be prepared in a special kitchen,” said Ivy. “Commercial kitchens and food manufacturers that produce foods containing meat and poultry must be inspected by USDA food inspectors, in addition to local health inspectors. The complexity and expense of USDA inspection means that our products have to be prepared by a contract manufacturer with substantial know-how and good volume. As a newly minted food insider, I can see how the USDA provides a real service to keep our food channel safe.”
“Mark and I located a California-based, USDA-approved manufacturing partner who understands gluten-free, fresh, local ingredients, and the free-range grain-fed chicken we demand for our products,” said Ivy. “We also had to find sources for all of the ingredients, as well as creating the packaging for the frozen entrees. There are a lot of moving parts involved with making food for sale at supermarkets.”
I asked Ivy how the frozen entrees stacked up to the authentic taste of her home-cooked meals. “I’m there during the entire preparation and packaging process,” Ivy said. “I taste the food while it is being cooked, and it has to be delicious and authentic or I won’t sell it. I want to make sure our consumers are going to be satisfied. We also take special efforts to minimize processing and make sure our food is as natural as possible. We use the term “frozen fresh” because the vegetables are picked fresh and quickly cooked, and the food retains the nutrients because of the way we manage the process.”
It gets even more complicated
“If you aren’t one of the big guys, you have problems getting your products into grocery stores,” Ivy said. “It’s a supermarket buyer’s market, and it takes a lot of convincing to get them to take on your products, especially frozen products, because the freezer section is expensive for the markets to operate.” So Ivy and Mark enlisted the aid of a food broker to help them gain visibility by local supermarkets.
The big kahuna
The patience and effort paid off. You can now buy Ivy’s Garden Foods at 82 Northern California Safeway stores. “It was thrilling to see our foods in Safeway”, said Ivy. “Our products might not be available at the Safeway in your neighborhood, but they will be at a Safeway not far away. Our website lists the Safeway stores that carry our brand. If you are in Portland, New Seasons Markets carries Ivy’s Garden Foods. We also take orders directly from our website. We’ll be expanding quite a bit during this year, and we’ll be making important announcements on our website.”
Currently Ivy and Mark are doing what they know best: exploring new markets for expansion and making Ivy’s Garden Foods available to more consumers, while serving as a resource to the gluten-free community. “We feel like we’re making an impact and helping others who desire or must have gluten-free food; we’re giving them another option – authentic, tasty Chinese food – and that feels good.”