As seen in the pages of Sweet July Magazine. Get the Fall/Winter 2021 Issue here!
After her daughter Vivienne’s food allergy diagnosis, Denise Woodard was surprised to discover that there were no allergen-free, good-tasting packaged snacks on the market. Refusing to accept that Vivienne wouldn’t be able to enjoy a packet of cookies like other kids, Woodard quit her job and dedicated herself to creating her own treats. That’s how Partake Foods was born. The line of cookies and baking mixes is gluten-free, vegan, devoid of the top eight allergens and is available in stores nationwide. Just as impressive, Woodard is the first woman of color to raise $1 million for a food start-up. Read on to learn more about how this visionary worked hard to turn a family need into a budding empire.
What inspired you to start Partake Foods?
I worked at Coca-Cola for nearly a decade and had no intention of leaving. And then my daughter came along. Right around her first birthday, we learned that she had a lot of food allergies. She’s allergic to tree nuts, eggs, corn and bananas. After hearing me complain, our nanny, Martha, suggested I do something about it and start a food company. That’s when the wheels started turning. I didn’t think that foods in the allergy-friendly space tasted great. The ones that did were full of sugars, gums, starches and weird artificial ingredients that I wouldn’t want my daughter to have. I also thought about how food allergies would have an emotional impact on her.
There would be so many play dates, birthday parties, and celebrations that she wouldn’t be able to confidently participate in. And when I learned how many other millions of people in the United States suffered from food allergies [about 32 million, according to the most recent data], I knew I should try to create a solution.
Why did you choose to launch with cookies?
There was an emotional component and a pragmatic component. The emotional component was that I felt like there weren’t any good celebratory things that Vivienne could have. Pragmatically, there are only two food-allergy-free manufacturers in the country. They could make cookies, so cookies it was.
What has been the most surprising part of being the founder of a business?
Coming from a large corporation, I thought about the financial reward that could be associated with business. And being a food-allergy mom who truly wanted to create something better for my daughter, I thought about the impact that I could have on families like my own. But I didn’t realize that there were so many other communities we could help. The causes that are most dear to us are increasing diversity in the natural food space and working to eradicate childhood food insecurity. We’ve been able to feed thousands of food-insecure families by partnering with the Food Equality Initiative. We also launched a fellowship program alongside five historically Black colleges and universities.
What do you want other Black women to know about starting their own business?
For me, it was taking baby steps. I knew it was going to be even more difficult to raise capital—that I’d have to get even further with less resources. It made me a stronger businessperson because I had to watch every single penny. I sold cookies out of my car for a year, and I self-funded the business by selling my engagement ring and emptying my 401(k). Now you can find our cookies in over 7,000 stores. Where you start does not determine where you’re going to go.
Interview by Bethany Heitman; Photography courtesy of Partake Foods