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Debra Baretta, founder of Mama Baretta, is the 2nd Place Winner in the 2013 StartupNation Leading Moms in Business Competition. Mama Baretta is an organic baking company specializing in food sensitivities. They make award-winning baked goods that are endorsed by nutritionists as well as medical doctors. The company also donates a portion of proceeds to the Council on Aging for the Meals on Wheels Program in their local community.
Last year Mama Baretta won Double Gold & Best of Show for their Caramel Florentina Cookie at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Professional Food Competition. The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the largest harvest fair in the nation!
StartupNation had the pleasure of interviewing Debra and gleaning her insights into building a business. Read the interview below and see all that you can learn about the true entrepreneurial spirit from this inspiring entrepreneur:
What was the catalyst for starting Mama Baretta?
The catalyst for starting Mama Baretta was my son Cory. I come from a bread baking family, my father was from Italy and began baking at age 14. I worked in my family’s bakery in San Francisco as a teenager, and we always had fresh bread around the house.
When my son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, it changed my life. I had always cooked fresh foods as my Italian roots are strong, but this was going to change they way I cooked. After all, bread, pasta and garlic are a way of life for Italians, and now I was no longer able to include these ingredients in daily cooking. My son was only 6 years old and I wanted him to enjoy the traditional foods I grew up with, so I began converting foods to gluten-free, egg-free, soy-free, etc. Once I perfected bread I was on to cookies, cakes and pastries. No small feat when you take egg out of the picture.
I then realized I had great foods for Cory, but he was still isolated from friends and even family (except in our house). I began sending plates of cookies to school with Cory whenever there was any type of function and the same with family functions as our extended family would ask us to bring separate meals for Cory. I wanted everyone to try my baked goods and realize that they were so good, there was no reason to have to separate. Once I heard the approvals from friends and family I knew my baked goods had passed the test. You didn’t need to have a food allergy to absolutely love my cookies, cakes, pastries and breads. After winning a few awards in the amateur section of the local county harvest fair, I decided that I would share my baked goods with the world and start a business bringing families together at the table!
Tell us about your father and what he means to the spirit of the business.
I cannot deny that my father is and always will be a huge part of my business. Each and every time I speak of this it brings me to tears. My father was an immigrant and never finished high school. He lived through WWII as a child and we heard many stories about close calls. At age fourteen, in Torino Italy, his father asked that he find a job. My father wanted to swim in the PO river with his friends during the day so he took a job in a bakery. Delivery boy at first, he begged to be taught to bake and so he ended up a baker, working nights. In the Italian navy, he ended up in San Francisco for 3 months as they awaited the purchase of an American ship to sail back to Italy. He met my mom here and married and when his tour of duty was complete he moved to San Francisco.
He got a job in a bakery and eventually became owner. My father taught me so much about business and baking, but I never knew this at the time. Unfortunately, right at the time I found out about my son’s food issues, I also found out about my fathers stage 4 cancer. I was literally dealing with both at the same time, my son & my father both having food issues, as my father, who was also a wonderful chef, could no longer swallow foods. I was developing bread for my son but my father was unable to help me nor could he even eat the breads he so lovingly made all of his life.
About a year and a half after my father died is when I decided to start a baking business. So ironic as my father had asked me when I was 19 years old if I wanted to be a part of his baking business and I had said NO. There was too much work and I wanted to fly and see the world. And now here I am in the baking business!
I cannot tell you how many things have happened along my journey that could only point in one direction: my father is still here with me, guiding me along the way somehow. I can’t explain it, but I can feel his help or his pushing me. Mama Baretta is definitely guided by the spirit of my father and the drive of his daughter. I never wanted to be a baker but I inherited the genes to be able to create amazing baked goods without 7 of the most common food allergies and my father is here with me in spirit!
What makes Mama Baretta unique?
Mama Baretta’s baked goods are unique because they are organic, gluten free, and free of 7 common food allergies, made with NON-GMO ingredients, and have won several awards over wheat products. That is unheard of today!
However, I used to hear stories from my father and grandparents in Italy of war time and shortages of many ingredients. There are many old recipes that were made when times were very lean and people substituted ingredients and still the results were tasty. These recipes are long gone and along with them, the knack for cooking and understanding how to make something out of nothing. I learned at a very young age how to cook, how to use what we had to make meals, and Italians are good at this.
Mama Baretta’s products are a way of bringing the old times back, making foods that have substance, nutrition and real ingredients. In short, making my baked goods without wheat, gluten, soy, eggs, dairy or peanuts was not difficult but a challenge to bring back the old ways of solving a problem. The earth has so many ingredients to offer, and our mono-culture has taken away the variety we should have in our kitchens to nourish our bodies. Mama Baretta wants to bring this back to the food industry!
What do you feel are the best decisions you have made for the business so far?
I feel that the best decision I have made so far has been to maintain the integrity of my products. It’s easy in the current climate of the food industry to make a larger profit by purchasing conventional ingredients, substituting chemical ingredients and using preservatives. I vowed to make real food, the way we should eat food and to never succumb to higher profits at the expense of lowering my standards and doing what many corporations do today. I want Mama Baretta to become known as a company you can trust, a company that cares, and a company with integrity. With this decision, the values of the company are clearly defined. There is no question about the quality of our products.
The next best decision I have made has been to grow slowly and build the brand and it’s reputation. Though it has been difficult, I have managed to grow at a steady pace, taking on one account at a time. With slow growth, I have no debt and I have been profitable from year two.
My third best decision was to enter the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Professional Food Competition each year. Last year Mama Baretta won Double Gold & Best of Show for our Caramel Florentina Cookie. This gave my company some visibility and proved that a gluten free cookie CAN triumph over wheat products. We were written up in the local newspapers and appeared on the local radio. We will continue to enter the Harvest Fair with new products each year in hopes of becoming known as the gluten free experts. The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the largest harvest fair in the nation!
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced in running the business?
The main challenges in running the business so far have been learning how to operate a food business in today’s market. When my father owned a bakery it was much simpler. Today, FDA regulations, health department, environmental health, business taxes, etc. have made everything so complicated and expensive. It’s difficult for a small business start-up to get started or make a profit. So I would have to say capital is the challenge. Because you need so much capital to start a food business, especially in California, it’s hard to get a start. Running a food business necessitates having equipment, packaging, ingredient inventory, space, employees, not to mention the need for marketing, branding and networking.
Recently California passed the cottage food act to allow small low risk food businesses to get a start by using their home kitchens, of which I was an advocate. However, Mama Baretta began before this law came into effect and has surpassed the sales limits to take advantage of this new law.
What are some of the challenges in creating organic and non-GMO baked goods?
Yes, let’s talk about the challenges in creating organic and non-GMO baked goods. Organic ingredients cost a heck of a lot more. Now, on top of that, try to make gluten free products and you pay triple the price. Organic flours are milled in the same mills and trucked in the same trucks as conventional wheat flours, so they are cross contaminated. There are few companies milling organic gluten-free flours, which increases their cost, our cost and in the end the consumer’s cost to buy products made with safe ingredients. The challenge is more in finding the gluten-free ingredients that are also organic and NON-GMO.
Secondly, there is a limited supply of these good ingredients. Many alternative ingredients are not mass produced. However, demand for these ingredients is increasing. Once these ingredients reach a level of popularity, more companies begin using them leaving the little guy high and dry.
Recently there was a shortage of chia seeds. I couldn’t buy bulk chia anywhere also due to the growing season. The growers informed me that once Europe came on board with using chia seeds, they began purchasing all the surplus chia. I was told that I should calculate my annual consumption of chia and contract the grower for that amount. This is difficult for a small business financially and with space constraints, buying palettes may not be possible. This year we were forced to purchase 225lbs for $1300, which should last about 5 months. We were unable to purchase a year’s supply as financially we cannot sustain large purchases of ingredients.
This year we also created a new gluten free oatmeal chocolate chip cookie made with coconut sugar, making it a low glycemic treat. Unfortunately we are unable to obtain bulk coconut sugar as UNFI shows Out Of Stock. Seems some larger companies are buying large quantities leaving the little vendor out of luck. Buying power is everything in the food industry, making it difficult to compete.
What does your 2nd place ranking in StartupNation’s 2013 Leading Moms in Business Competition mean for you and Mama Baretta?
We are extremely proud and honored to have been chosen as one of the top 3 Leading Moms in Business! This means so much for our little company, and we have gotten so far in the 3 years in business.
Just like our Harvest Fair win, this is yet another win for Mama Baretta and should help bring our marketing to the next level. We have strong branding and very strong products, but we do not have enough visibility. This ranking will help bring more visibility and credibility to Mama Baretta. We can’t wait to participate in the high profile publicity! It is exactly what we needed to drive traffic to our company! We are excited to be able to place the Leading Moms in Business emblem in our e-mails and on our website for everyone to see. We are hopeful that the business consultation by Jeff and Rich Sloan will shed new light on our business with ideas and/or recommendation that we may not have thought of in the past. In short, this win means the world to Mama Baretta!
What does the future hold in store for Mama Baretta? What will the business look like in five years?
The future looks very, very bright for Mama Baretta. Sales are increasing by at least 60% per year.
We will continue to grow the business as a manufacturer of high quality gluten-free, allergy-friendly baked goods, to increase our retail sales through web orders and farmers markets and to increase our wholesale business to grocers and restaurants. This year we will add additional festival booths to increase retail sales, and we will add sales through distributors.
Our goal within the next 5 years is to continue our manufacturing process with an addition of a retail outlet in the form of either a bakery food truck for the San Francisco Bay Area or a retail bakery outlet.