By Vic Dolcourt
Berkeley’s Muffin Revolution, producing six crowd-pleasing flavors of Paleo muffins in a dedicated gluten-free facility and quickly scaling up, is an inspiration to those who follow their dreams. Co-owners Marirose Piciucco and Christy Kovacs created tasty and real food muffins that were originally conceived as pick-me-ups after strenuous exercise. Initially, they were only available at the rock-climbing gym Marirose and Christy attended. Four years later, their muffins can be found in over 60 locations, including Bay Area cafes and supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Andronico’s and Mollie Stone’s.
The earlier days
Marirose and Christy met at Bauman College’s natural chef training program in Berkeley. They hit it off immediately because they have a similar philosophy about the importance of eating real foods. One interesting aspect of this duo is their diverse backgrounds: Christy is an artist who graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in anthropology, and Marirose is a Hastings Law graduate who most recently practiced immigration and asylum law for over a decade before switching her attention to their passion: baking world-class muffins that are nutritious.
From kick-off to success
The company’s path to success traversed a route from experimentation, giving away a lot of muffins to get people’s feedback, sales at the climbing gym and the Uptown Oakland, Jack London Square and Alameda farmers’ markets, a shared Berkeley commercial kitchen, and finally to their own dedicated gluten-free space in Berkeley. The bakery currently sports a huge oven that Christy describes as an “elevator-sized machine that has the capacity to bake 1000 muffins all at once.” Recent additions, celebrated with their Facebook followers, have been a giant mixer and a machine that dispenses exactly one muffin’s worth of batter. “You can imagine how many sore muscles we saved with our batter depositing machine,” said Marirose. We used to have to scoop and weigh the batter for each muffin. It was incredibly time consuming. Our customers like the results, too. Food retailers want every muffin to look just the same.”
The possible versus the practical
The muffin flavors and ingredients have evolved as well. “Our goal has always been to create real food that is good for you,” said Marirose. “Originally, our muffins were prepared using conventional but nutritious ingredients and were not gluten-free. Working with climbers, bikers and CrossFit athletes, we realized that they wanted to move toward a Paleo product, a delicious grain-free muffin. Christy and I reformulated and found that the flavor of our muffins became more vibrant when we took the grains out. Without grains the fruit flavors really pop and the chocolate is even more intense. When we moved into our dedicated bakery space in 2004 we were finally in a position to label our muffins gluten-free.” Muffin Revolution’s gluten-free certification is imminent. Their most recent gluten-free test result, conducted by University of Nebraska, as part of the certification process, reflected below the limits of quantitation, which in their lab is 5 ppm of gluten. Muffin Revolution is also Paleo Certified.
“At one point in our existence our menu sported 18 muffin flavors, and we produced 11 flavors ‘to order’ for various cafes,” said Marirose. “Every day we were just spinning in circles trying to get that all done and delivered on time. We realized that in order to scale volume up, we needed to scale down our flavor profiles. Managing the large number of ingredients was neither feasible nor sustainable. So we picked our top 6 sellers and stopped producing the rest. We needed to take advantage of bulk ordering pricing. Unfortunately, economics dictated the business part of the equation, and we no longer bake a number of my favorites.”
The six muffin flavors Muffin Revolution bakes all have creative names. There is Cha Cha Cha (chocolate, cherry and chia) and Yam Good (roasted yams, apples and pecans). Banana-blueberry, known as Banana Bam Bam, is the number one seller. The bakery uses only brown-speckled bananas that are at their peak of ripeness and flavor. All of the ingredients that go into the muffins are whole foods, soy-free and Paleo-friendly. The main ingredients, almond meal and almond butter, are locally sourced.
High volume retailing
It wasn’t until Muffin Revolution successfully competed in a Whole Foods Next Entrepreneur conference in Oakland that Marirose and Christy began thinking about high-volume wholesale. Out of 600 applicants, 30 local entrepreneurs were invited to the Whole Foods conference. Muffin Revolution made the cut. Northern California Whole Foods executives sampled food and talked to the owners about scaling up production. Marirose and Christy prepared mock-ups of what their product might look like in a grocery store. It was clear that their product would have to be a frozen item because they don’t use preservatives or artificial ingredients. There was excitement from both the frozen buyer and the bakery buyer for a muffin unlike any other. After that conference, the two set their sights on large-scale production. They began with two Whole Foods stores and slowly added more. Today they sell in over 30 of the Northern California regional stores.
As a result of its success with Whole Foods, Muffin Revolution decided to reach out to Mollie Stone’s, Andronico’s and other local grocery stores. Now with two distributors, Muffin Revolution is ready to gear up for distribution to over 40 Bay Area Safeway stores and other chains. The summer months will focus on scaling up production, marketing and expanding their footprint.
Locals can get delivery through Good Eggs, or buy directly at a discount and arrange for a will-call pickup at the bakery in Berkeley (which is not a retail location) by emailing your order to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plans for the next phase
I asked Marirose what is next for Muffin Revolution. She said, “We are always looking for ways to create both more fun and more efficiency in our kitchen. Our stretch goal is to offer muffins in major Southern California cities by next year. We have plenty of capacity to grow. We are serving our current market volume with just three people and some very smart machinery, and we don’t bake every day of the week yet. But overall Christy and I want to be able to spend more of our time spreading the love of Muffin Revolution through our marketing and sales efforts. For example, this spring we were one of the sponsors in the Oakland Running Festival and provided energizing snacks for 5,000 participants and spectators.“ This summer they will donate muffins to delight and nourish hundreds of kids with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity at Camp Celiac in Livermore.