The quality assurance specialist at Partake Foods is a six-year-old named Vivienne. She is the daughter of Denise Woodard, founder and chief executive officer, and the inspiration behind the fast-growing brand of allergen-free products.
Founded in 2016, Partake Foods offers a range of cookies that are free from the eight major allergens, including dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. Products include crunchy and soft-baked cookies in such flavors as birthday cake, triple chocolate and ginger snap.
When Vivienne was an infant, Woodard discovered her daughter had severe food allergies and began experimenting with safe recipes, seeking to create healthier options than what was available in the marketplace. After a number of failed attempts, she partnered with a product developer to perfect the formulations.
“When we originally got into the kitchen, Martha, our nanny, and I failed horribly,” Woodard recalls. “I quickly realized why so much gluten-free stuff on the market was filled with rices, gums, starches and sugars.”
Woodard, then national sales director for the Venturing and Emerging Brands division at the Coca-Cola Co., was surrounded by startup founders disrupting traditional grocery categories, including Seth Goldman of Honest Tea.
“I learned it is really important to be passionate and mission-oriented,” she says of the experience. “Wanting to be famous or rich is not enough to keep you going on your journey. It’s important to understand what your greater purpose is.”
Prior to finalizing the initial products, Woodard presented her business idea in a pitch competition and received a $10,000 prize and attention from local press. Soon after, she stepped down from Coca-Cola to pursue the launch of Partake Foods.
Finding a manufacturing facility that was free of the top eight allergens was an early challenge. Raising capital was another. Less than a percent of venture capital funding supports women of color. Woodard sold her engagement ring and launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to fund the business in the beginning. In 2019, she closed a seed round led by hip-hop artist Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, becoming the first female Black startup founder in the food industry to raise $1 million.
In the first six months of the business, Woodard hauled cookies in her car to natural food stores throughout New York every day to share samples and build brand awareness. Today, Partake cookies are sold in 5,500 retail outlets nationwide, including Whole Foods Market, Sprouts and Target, expanding significantly from just 350 stores in early 2020.
Most of the brand’s consumers do not have food allergies but purchase the products for the vegan claim, simple ingredient statement and social mission. Partake Foods partners with Food Equality Initiative to ensure families in need have access to allergen-free foods. Woodard also is dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion in the industry, leading a Black Futures in Food and Beverage fellowship program alongside historically Black colleges and universities, including Clark Atlanta University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Howard University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
In January, Partake Foods closed a $4.8 million Series A fundraising round that included Lotus Bakeries’ FF2032 corporate venture fund, CircleUp Growth Partners, Kevin Johnson’s Black Capital, Black Star Fund, Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner, Chuck Muth, John Foraker and Robyn Rihanna Fenty. Mr. Muth, chief growth officer at Beyond Meat, and Aditi Dash, partner at CircleUp Growth Partners, joined Partake Foods’ board.
The brand recently launched a five-in-one baking mix that is free of the top eight allergens and may be used to make pancakes, waffles, muffins, cakes and more. The mix is based on a blend of oat, buckwheat and tapioca flour. With Vivienne in mind, Woodard plans to bring allergen-free products to more categories in the future.
“You’ll see us do more in the baking products space and expand into the snacking aisle,” Woodard says. “As much as I like to think people could live off of cookies, we will add savory items eventually.”