Q&A with The Allergy Chef

The Allergy Chef

Kathlena, The Allergy Chef, has been helping people with (and without) food allergies and special diets find safe food for over ten years. She has published several cookbooks, does local and nationwide outreach, and has founded a company with a grand vision of bringing delicious food to people all over the country. She has a background in teaching, print and digital media, and marketing; all of which work together and give her a unique set of skills for success.

Can you tell our readers about your background?

My professional background is all things digital. I took to computers at a young age and was a natural. By the time I was a teenager, I had dived deep into graphic design and had a real passion for it. By the time I finished college at age 19, I had branched into IT, photography, video, web, and more.

Yet in my personal background, I struggled with misdiagnosed medical conditions most of my life. During my twenties, I became gravely ill and was given 30 days to live. I had also finally been properly diagnosed - allergic to everything. Turns out, I have over 200 food allergies and intolerances, as well as a chemical and environmental allergy. I couldn’t drink most water because of the processing, and also had other conditions such as Oral Allergy Syndrome. I lost over 250 pounds and was finally able to function, somewhat.

After not dying, I turned my attention to what I do now, living as The Allergy Chef. I help people with food allergies, food intolerances, and special diets find safe and delicious food to eat.

My journey has been nowhere near the path I thought I would follow, but it’s been something that’s helped a lot of people, especially children. In the past 18 months, my partner and I have published 3 cookbooks, started a bakery, grown social media to about 30k followers over several platforms, shared hundreds of recipes on the blog, and have done local and nationwide outreach. My business partner and I have been best friends for over 20 years, and we raise his 4 children together (I have always been a parent to them).

What inspired you to start your business?

There were two key things that got our business going, one for each of the major branches. When our allergy kid was about 8, I started to worry about him going off to college. I needed to know that no matter where he would end up one day, there would be safe food for him. This worry, along with a few other decisions is what got the bakery going.

When starting the bakery, we weren’t looking to start a bakery at all. Originally, the plan was to start a full range of freezer foods so I would have peace of mind knowing that our allergy kid could buy safe food all over the country.

However, we saw how the bakery could be a great stepping stone in the right direction, raise brand awareness, and introduce us to the food market. There were also a lot of opportunities that popped up and the bakery allowed us to take advantage of them, including local food shows.

Given the allergy free nature of our product, shared commercial facilities were out of the question, however, in California, we were able to use the Cottage Food Act to keep strict controls in our residential kitchen to ensure the safety if our product.

For the books, blogs, and speaking engagements, the key factor was our family life. Over the years we had amassed a wealth of information, much of which we created ourselves. There finally came a point where we thought, surely we can’t be the only ones in need of this information. Turns out, there were millions of people that could learn from our knowledge.

Where is your business based?

Our business is based in San Bruno, 10 minutes away from SFO, and 20 minutes south of San Francisco, California.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

The real first steps of starting the business, once we had a name, was to take all of the necessary legal steps. That included getting our domain name(s), setting up emails, applying for our LLC thru the state, getting bank accounts, and business licenses.

Since we started as an LLC, there was a lot of extra paperwork, and fees involved, however, we knew it was best for us to protect us long term. From there, we created an online presence and got busy spreading the word about what we had to offer. Having a business plan and marketing plan was a huge part of getting started as well.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?

Social media has been the most effective way of raising awareness for our business. Unlike a localized business, such as a restaurant, our customers are all over the world really. Food allergies and special diets effect people of all ages, ethnicities, and geographic locations. By taking to social media, we’ve been able to start reaching our target audience which has in turn started the word of mouth advertising within the food allergy community.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

There have been so many challenges in getting this far with our business. There have been a lot of financial struggles mainly because we are self-funded. Time has been another big problem in that there’s simply not enough time in the day to get everything done. The way I’ve worked to overcome this is by keeping a realistic approach to things and constantly reassessing the previous decisions that we’ve made to make sure that we aren’t hurting ourselves. For example, we use to stream a live cooking show each week. After several months, we realized it wasn’t increasing sales or awareness, and the ROI was little to nothing. We’ve opted to eliminate the weekly stream to make better use of that time.

How do you stay focused?

I stay focused on lists, and sticky notes. I generally keep a long but organized to do list on my local hard drive, as well as keep sticky notes around for short-term items, or day-to-day items that I need to get done.

I try to not overbook myself so I don’t get distracted by the feeling of having gotten nothing done in the day (because the list was unreasonable). I have a quiet workspace with low amounts of external stimulus, and that’s what allows me to work uninterrupted for long periods of time.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

We have a few factors that set us apart from the competition. First, we have a very visually striking face of the business. It makes it hard for people to forget us, as I have to wear a large full-face respirator for medical reasons. Our audience sees this, and will generally remember The Allergy Chef.

When it comes to the bakery, we are one of only a handful that has created treats that are free from the top 8 allergies (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish), as well as coconut, yeast, sesame, and legumes.

Our product is vegan, and we also offer a line for people who are Paleo, Diabetic, and Corn Free. Here’s the kicker- we’re also one of only two bakeries in the country that we know of (and we have searched) that uses raw materials that come from top 8 allergy free facilities. What that means is that most raw materials, even if they’re allergy-free, come from a shared facility (and sometimes shared equipment) with some of the top 8 food allergens.

Unfortunately, these products cost a lot less than the ones that we use, however, we’re in business to make sure that everyone can have the product. What makes us so proud of what we do is that we’re the only place where people with food allergies have over 50 flavors to choose from, and something that’s gone head-to-head with major bakeries and won taste tests. Honestly, gluten free has never tasted this good.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

For our bakery, local trade shows, and our Neighborhood Project have been quite effective. Going to local food shows allows us to sell to people in the area with the potential of them becoming repeat customers. The Neighborhood Project was something I came up with for our bakery. We are a Cottage Kitchen (in a residential area), which means we have hundreds of neighbors very close to where we are located. We individually wrap one cupcake, and go door-to-door, introducing ourselves and the cupcakes to our neighbors. This has resulted in regular customers, as well as lots of word of mouth advertising.

For our blog and cookbooks, using Instagram and Facebook Groups has been the most effective. The Instagram account has 27k followers, and the Facebook Group posts have pulled in thousands of visitors to our blog. Although we use Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest, most of the return has come from Instagram and Facebook. With that in mind, I will often times prioritize those platforms over the others if I’m pressed for time.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

Be cautiously optimistic. One of the mistakes we made was over-projection of sales and the (non-food) products that we had.

Also be mindful of the type of product(s) you’re launching (this is where market research comes in). Are you better off being a B2B company, or selling directly to consumers?

Make sure you have accurate data on your cost of goods and cost of production. It can be easy to overlook these items, especially if you’re a small food company.

Finally, remember that your time is valuable. When you’re just starting, you’ll do most of the work yourself. Keep track of how long tasks take, and if they’re generating a return. As you grow, be ready to hire out some of the smaller tasks so you can focus on what you do best.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

My favorite computer application would be a tie between Text Edit and Photoshop. There isn’t a day that goes by where I haven’t used them both for business and personal use.

My favorite blog… does the BBC News site count? That’s a website that I enjoy reading. I like the BBC’s take on news as it’s a lot less biased than many American outlets, and you have a wider variety of news to read.

Finally, my favorite book is just about anything from John Grisham. His legal thrillers have always been favorites of mine since I was a teenager.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

There are a lot of great tools out there, and I’ve been able to try several. Currently, I’m really enjoying Tin Shingle. It’s a website that’s all about marketing and pitching. A great way to sum it up, it helps you connect with media in more traditional formats (news, print, and radio). Given that I do most of the work for the business at this stage, it has been a great way to make this element of marketing move faster and efficiently.

Who is your business role model? Why?

I adore my good friend Colleen Kavanagh. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in her teens and has since launched an allergy friendly product called Zego Bars. Prior to Zego, she was a big part of the team of people that worked on getting laws/regulations passed that went on to benefit the food allergy community. She’s a people before profits type of lady, yet driven to be successful. She makes sure that she gets the right people in place that can best get a job done for her, and it’s nothing short of amazing to get to chat with her about business. We also share another great connection with that one of her kids is allergic to corn, like me. A corn allergy is rare and extremely difficult to live with because it comes in over 250 names, and is in hundreds of products as corn derivatives, including gasoline for vehicles.

What do you have planned for the next six months?

In the next six months, three major ventures that I’ll be starting are a magazine, an online symposium, and starting to offer online support groups for people who have food allergies, especially the newly diagnosed. We’ll also continue to work on the current projects by releasing two more cookbooks, attending a few food shows, launching our podcast, and increasing production of food videos.

How can our readers connect with you?

TheAllergyChef.com is a landing page with links to our blog (foodandlego.com), the bakery & bookshop (freeandfriendlyfoods.com), and all of our social media pages. If you or someone you know is struggling with food allergies or a special diet, we’re here to help. We’ve put together a lot of resources and share them regularly.

Instagram - @theallergychef
Twitter - @freefriendfood
Youtube.com/TheAllergyChef
Facebook.com/freeandfriendly

Kathlena, The Allergy Chef, has been helping people with (and without) food allergies and special diets find safe food for over ten years. She has published several cookbooks, does local and nationwide outreach, and has founded a company with a grand vision of bringing delicious food to people all over the country. She has a background in teaching, print and digital media, and marketing; all of which work together and give her a unique set of skills for success.

Can you tell our readers about your background?

My professional background is all things digital. I took to computers at a young age and was a natural. By the time I was a teenager, I had dived deep into graphic design and had a real passion for it. By the time I finished college at age 19, I had branched into IT, photography, video, web, and more.

Yet in my personal background, I struggled with misdiagnosed medical conditions most of my life. During my twenties, I became gravely ill and was given 30 days to live. I had also finally been properly diagnosed - allergic to everything. Turns out, I have over 200 food allergies and intolerances, as well as a chemical and environmental allergy. I couldn’t drink most water because of the processing, and also had other conditions such as Oral Allergy Syndrome. I lost over 250 pounds and was finally able to function, somewhat.

After not dying, I turned my attention to what I do now, living as The Allergy Chef. I help people with food allergies, food intolerances, and special diets find safe and delicious food to eat.

My journey has been nowhere near the path I thought I would follow, but it’s been something that’s helped a lot of people, especially children. In the past 18 months, my partner and I have published 3 cookbooks, started a bakery, grown social media to about 30k followers over several platforms, shared hundreds of recipes on the blog, and have done local and nationwide outreach. My business partner and I have been best friends for over 20 years, and we raise his 4 children together (I have always been a parent to them).

What inspired you to start your business?

There were two key things that got our business going, one for each of the major branches. When our allergy kid was about 8, I started to worry about him going off to college. I needed to know that no matter where he would end up one day, there would be safe food for him. This worry, along with a few other decisions is what got the bakery going.

When starting the bakery, we weren’t looking to start a bakery at all. Originally, the plan was to start a full range of freezer foods so I would have peace of mind knowing that our allergy kid could buy safe food all over the country.

However, we saw how the bakery could be a great stepping stone in the right direction, raise brand awareness, and introduce us to the food market. There were also a lot of opportunities that popped up and the bakery allowed us to take advantage of them, including local food shows.

Given the allergy free nature of our product, shared commercial facilities were out of the question, however, in California, we were able to use the Cottage Food Act to keep strict controls in our residential kitchen to ensure the safety if our product.

For the books, blogs, and speaking engagements, the key factor was our family life. Over the years we had amassed a wealth of information, much of which we created ourselves. There finally came a point where we thought, surely we can’t be the only ones in need of this information. Turns out, there were millions of people that could learn from our knowledge.

Where is your business based?

Our business is based in San Bruno, 10 minutes away from SFO, and 20 minutes south of San Francisco, California.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

The real first steps of starting the business, once we had a name, was to take all of the necessary legal steps. That included getting our domain name(s), setting up emails, applying for our LLC thru the state, getting bank accounts, and business licenses.

Since we started as an LLC, there was a lot of extra paperwork, and fees involved, however, we knew it was best for us to protect us long term. From there, we created an online presence and got busy spreading the word about what we had to offer. Having a business plan and marketing plan was a huge part of getting started as well.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?

Social media has been the most effective way of raising awareness for our business. Unlike a localized business, such as a restaurant, our customers are all over the world really. Food allergies and special diets effect people of all ages, ethnicities, and geographic locations. By taking to social media, we’ve been able to start reaching our target audience which has in turn started the word of mouth advertising within the food allergy community.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

There have been so many challenges in getting this far with our business. There have been a lot of financial struggles mainly because we are self-funded. Time has been another big problem in that there’s simply not enough time in the day to get everything done. The way I’ve worked to overcome this is by keeping a realistic approach to things and constantly reassessing the previous decisions that we’ve made to make sure that we aren’t hurting ourselves. For example, we use to stream a live cooking show each week. After several months, we realized it wasn’t increasing sales or awareness, and the ROI was little to nothing. We’ve opted to eliminate the weekly stream to make better use of that time.

How do you stay focused?

I stay focused on lists, and sticky notes. I generally keep a long but organized to do list on my local hard drive, as well as keep sticky notes around for short-term items, or day-to-day items that I need to get done.

I try to not overbook myself so I don’t get distracted by the feeling of having gotten nothing done in the day (because the list was unreasonable). I have a quiet workspace with low amounts of external stimulus, and that’s what allows me to work uninterrupted for long periods of time.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

We have a few factors that set us apart from the competition. First, we have a very visually striking face of the business. It makes it hard for people to forget us, as I have to wear a large full-face respirator for medical reasons. Our audience sees this, and will generally remember The Allergy Chef.

When it comes to the bakery, we are one of only a handful that has created treats that are free from the top 8 allergies (wheat, dairy, egg, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish), as well as coconut, yeast, sesame, and legumes.

Our product is vegan, and we also offer a line for people who are Paleo, Diabetic, and Corn Free. Here’s the kicker- we’re also one of only two bakeries in the country that we know of (and we have searched) that uses raw materials that come from top 8 allergy free facilities. What that means is that most raw materials, even if they’re allergy-free, come from a shared facility (and sometimes shared equipment) with some of the top 8 food allergens.

Unfortunately, these products cost a lot less than the ones that we use, however, we’re in business to make sure that everyone can have the product. What makes us so proud of what we do is that we’re the only place where people with food allergies have over 50 flavors to choose from, and something that’s gone head-to-head with major bakeries and won taste tests. Honestly, gluten free has never tasted this good.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

For our bakery, local trade shows, and our Neighborhood Project have been quite effective. Going to local food shows allows us to sell to people in the area with the potential of them becoming repeat customers. The Neighborhood Project was something I came up with for our bakery. We are a Cottage Kitchen (in a residential area), which means we have hundreds of neighbors very close to where we are located. We individually wrap one cupcake, and go door-to-door, introducing ourselves and the cupcakes to our neighbors. This has resulted in regular customers, as well as lots of word of mouth advertising.

For our blog and cookbooks, using Instagram and Facebook Groups has been the most effective. The Instagram account has 27k followers, and the Facebook Group posts have pulled in thousands of visitors to our blog. Although we use Twitter, Youtube, and Pinterest, most of the return has come from Instagram and Facebook. With that in mind, I will often times prioritize those platforms over the others if I’m pressed for time.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

Be cautiously optimistic. One of the mistakes we made was over-projection of sales and the (non-food) products that we had.

Also be mindful of the type of product(s) you’re launching (this is where market research comes in). Are you better off being a B2B company, or selling directly to consumers?

Make sure you have accurate data on your cost of goods and cost of production. It can be easy to overlook these items, especially if you’re a small food company.

Finally, remember that your time is valuable. When you’re just starting, you’ll do most of the work yourself. Keep track of how long tasks take, and if they’re generating a return. As you grow, be ready to hire out some of the smaller tasks so you can focus on what you do best.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

My favorite computer application would be a tie between Text Edit and Photoshop. There isn’t a day that goes by where I haven’t used them both for business and personal use.

My favorite blog… does the BBC News site count? That’s a website that I enjoy reading. I like the BBC’s take on news as it’s a lot less biased than many American outlets, and you have a wider variety of news to read.

Finally, my favorite book is just about anything from John Grisham. His legal thrillers have always been favorites of mine since I was a teenager.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

There are a lot of great tools out there, and I’ve been able to try several. Currently, I’m really enjoying Tin Shingle. It’s a website that’s all about marketing and pitching. A great way to sum it up, it helps you connect with media in more traditional formats (news, print, and radio). Given that I do most of the work for the business at this stage, it has been a great way to make this element of marketing move faster and efficiently.

Who is your business role model? Why?

I adore my good friend Colleen Kavanagh. She was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in her teens and has since launched an allergy friendly product called Zego Bars. Prior to Zego, she was a big part of the team of people that worked on getting laws/regulations passed that went on to benefit the food allergy community. She’s a people before profits type of lady, yet driven to be successful. She makes sure that she gets the right people in place that can best get a job done for her, and it’s nothing short of amazing to get to chat with her about business. We also share another great connection with that one of her kids is allergic to corn, like me. A corn allergy is rare and extremely difficult to live with because it comes in over 250 names, and is in hundreds of products as corn derivatives, including gasoline for vehicles.

What do you have planned for the next six months?

In the next six months, three major ventures that I’ll be starting are a magazine, an online symposium, and starting to offer online support groups for people who have food allergies, especially the newly diagnosed. We’ll also continue to work on the current projects by releasing two more cookbooks, attending a few food shows, launching our podcast, and increasing production of food videos.

How can our readers connect with you?

TheAllergyChef.com is a landing page with links to our blog (foodandlego.com), the bakery & bookshop (freeandfriendlyfoods.com), and all of our social media pages. If you or someone you know is struggling with food allergies or a special diet, we’re here to help. We’ve put together a lot of resources and share them regularly.

Instagram - @theallergychef
Twitter - @freefriendfood
Youtube.com/TheAllergyChef
Facebook.com/freeandfriendly