Good, healthy food should be enjoyed by all. It’s a simple principle, but food allergies can make that hard to execute.
“Our goal when we started 88 Acres was really to bridge the gap between those who had food allergies and those who didn’t have food allergies,” said Nicole Ledoux, who co-founded the bar and seed butter company in 2015. “So, we wanted to create this inclusive, non-stigmatizing, empowering brand.”
A series of moments brought Ledoux from the 88-acre farm she grew up on in North Brookfield, Massachusetts to where she is today. She has moved from a decade-long finance career to a food entrepreneur. Ledoux now makes bars and seed butters that are free from the top eight allergens out of a dedicated bakery in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
Ledoux is one of those people who doesn’t have any food allergies. Rob Dalton, her co-founder and husband, is not. A life-shaking moment happened on their fourth date, back in 2010.
They both saw how severe his peanut and tree nut allergy was when Dalton was unknowingly served a contaminated dish at a Boston restaurant. He went into anaphylactic shock.
“I found myself rushing him to the emergency room; driving like 100 miles per hour down Comm. Ave. in Boston,” Ledoux said. A note for readers unfamiliar with Commonwealth Avenue: it is a highly traveled road that has two lanes in either direction. It is not the kind of thoroughfare where driving at a high speed is easy or advisable. But as Ledoux found out, any street can become a speedway when lives are at risk.
Ledoux remembers Dalton clutching an EpiPen in one hand, asking her if she knew what to do. In the other hand, he called his parents on his cell phone. Ledoux zoomed toward Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. There, in the emergency department, she met her future in-laws for the first time.
Dalton received the medical attention he needed. Ledoux now jokes that heroically saving her future husband’s life was a solid way to get in with his family.
That night opened Ledoux’s eyes to the sometimes-scary world of dietary restrictions. Her experience had always been full of unlimited options and safety. Growing up on a farm with no allergy concerns shaped how Ledoux views and respects food.
“Being able to go out to the garden and pick our dinner sort of cemented my relationship with food,” Ledoux said.
Seeing her partner have to treat food “like a potential minefield,” created another moment. Ledoux didn’t want a future with “his and hers” pantries. She thought that all the food between them should be safe, enjoyable and shared.
Ledoux started messing around in the kitchen. Early on, she homed in on foods that they wanted, but were rarely sold nut-free. At the time, the pair was training for half Ironman so granola bars were a desired, but difficult to come by snack.
The couple was training with a large local group, which turned out to be a built-in test market for their future business. Athletes would try her seed-based bars, like them and want more.
“That turned into us passing out hundreds of bars before workouts in the morning,” Ledoux recalled.
“In that sense, we were kind of like accidental entrepreneurs,” Ledoux concluded.
After earning buzz in the athletic community, the upstarts had an opportunity to pitch their bars to Whole Foods. While the bar category is crowded, there was nothing that was multi-allergen free like 88 Acres.
It was another defining moment.
They left the meeting with an offer to sell in the North Atlantic region. Having an anchor customer gave them the confidence to move forward with the business. They quickly scaled from making bars at home to searching for a co-packer or manufacturing facility.
After vetting a long list of co-manufacturers, 88 Acres made the decision to open their own dedicated bakery. They signed a lease for space in a long-shuttered food manufacturing facility in Dorchester in 2014.
“Our whole brand is built on manufacturing care and safety,” Ledoux said. “Controlling our own destiny by controlling our own manufacturing was really important to us.”
Having their own facility not only provided quality control, but it opened the company to rapid product development. Ledoux could innovate after production runs without incurring the cost for using someone else’s equipment and team.
That’s part of the reason they’ve been able to grow both in staff and product offering. Today, they have nearly 50 employees between the office and manufacturing. They’ve also seen a steady growth in product offerings. They started with the bars, then expanded to seed butters in jars. They now have single-serve seed butters.
Bay State Milling will be sampling the seed butters and bars at IBIE 2019. Visit Booth 7723 from September 8 to 11.
Bay State has supplied 88 Acres with several ingredients since Ledoux met Michael Buscaino, Director of Emerging Business, at a trade show.
“Because transparency is such a cornerstone to our brand it was really important for us to partner with an ingredient supplier who had similar values and where we knew we were getting the highest quality products possible,” Ledoux said.
Aside from the foundational seeds, 88 Acres is an early adopter of SowNaked Mindfully Farmed Oats. Ledoux said they were initially sourcing purity protocol oats, which go beyond certified gluten free to ensure there is no gluten contamination.
SowNaked Oats are purity protocol, but they have additional benefits. The naturally hull-less oat variety, which is grown in Montana, has a lower environmental impact. Traditional oats need to be kilned—a water-intensive process—to remove the hull. Beyond a smaller carbon footprint, SowNaked oats are considerably higher in protein than traditional oats.
While Ledoux says 88 Acres isn’t expressly in the protein business, they do consider micro and macronutrients when assessing ingredients. SowNaked Oats provide a boost to their already healthy bars.
“It’s an oat flake that works harder for you,” Ledoux said. “The ability to get more protein out of an ingredient that we were already putting into our bars, for us was a no-brainer.”
Now, nearly five years into the world of accidental entrepreneurship, Ledoux is ready for the next moment.
“Our brand platform is seeds, so we make healthy food on a platform of pumpkin, sunflower, watermelon and flax seed,” Ledoux said.
Earlier this year, they launched watermelon seed butter. Ledoux hopes to bring new seeds to the marketplace. Each step along the way will be done in service to the principle that we should all have access to good, healthy food.