The phrase ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ could definitely be applied to how Arnel’s Originals got its start. As a mother, founder Arnel McAtee used her research and cooking skills to prepare food her children could eat without the risk of suffering from the symptoms of gluten. From those humble beginnings, Arnel’s Originals has grown into a successful company selling whole grain organic non-GMO gluten free mixes that are not only nourishing, but delicious.
Based in Ventura, California, Arnel McAtee spoke extensively about her company and how she was compelled to start making gluten free baking mixes. Back in 1996, McAtee had two girls, ages four and six who were emotionally volatile, dealing with eczema, and weren’t able to sleep through the night. “Something was wrong and I was determined to find out what it was,” McAtee says.
That ‘something’ was their diet. McAtee followed the advice of a friend and put her kids on a diet that would eliminate 11 of the most common foods that trigger allergic reactions. McAtee discovered that her kids had adverse reactions to food coloring, corn, dairy, and gluten. As her children grew up and went away to college, one of her daughters who began to “eat whatever she felt like” began to re-exhibit the symptoms that had caused her so many problems when she was younger. McAtee explains, “So we got formally tested and subsequently diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Both daughters and myself are Celiacs.”
Before she was a parent, McAtee was a Special Ed teacher. After 11 years of teaching, she decided to get into the medical field and attended UCLA to become a Prosthetist, and began making arms and legs. After earning her degree, McAtee was offered a prosthetic teaching position at Northwestern University in Chicago where she combined the knowledge she’d gleaned about the human body with the chemistry of foods. Later, this helped her fine-tune the foods she was cooking at home in order to address the allergies and keep her family gluten free.
Her first roaring success was an amazingly soft, satisfying loaf of whole grain gluten free bread, which took her eight years to perfect. “Learning how to blend flours in just the right proportions to yield the most deliciously moist and satisfying gluten free foods on the planet was my goal,” McAtee shares. “When my kids and husband gave me the two thumbs up, I knew I was onto something. It was friends, however, who propelled me to share the bread and the bread mix with the world and that’s how Arnel’s Originals began in 2009.”
All Arnel’s Originals products are not only gluten free, but also organic, free of GMOs and are produced in a completely allergen-free facility. Today, the company has greatly expanded its reach and its products are sold in retail stores sprinkled throughout the country, but concentrated mostly on the West Coast in grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Vons, Haggen, and Albertsons. If you are lucky to live near a Ross Store, you might be pleasantly surprised to find these fine products sporting their shelves as well, especially as the holiday season approaches. Although they are distributed by two smaller distributing companies, McAtee makes it easy for small companies to order directly. Arnel’s Originals products also debuted at a few Costco Stores throughout Northern California and the company also sells its products online (via Amazon, Vitacost, and ArnelsOriginals.com) both domestically and internationally, exporting to Canada, Iceland, and soon, Spain.
Indeed, Arnel’s Originals has come a long way from McAtee blending flours in her kitchen thanks to the growing demand for more gluten free products. “When my company was smaller, I was blending my own flours in mixing bowls and printing out labels on my own computer,” she recalls. “But when you get bigger, you need to find a facility with big drums that can blend thousands of pounds of flour at a time. You have to talk to companies and make sure they’re certified gluten free and responsive to your needs as a growing company.”
After trying a number of manufacturers, McAtee finally found a facility to meet the needs of her company. McAtee says the facility is a “place that I love.” They are on top of all the details and quickly handle the challenging minutiae that sometimes crops up.
Arnel’s Originals products are made to meet the gluten free baking needs of its customers. The Buckwheat Bread Mix can produce a one-pound eight-ounce loaf of bread or can be used to make buns and rolls. The All Purpose Flour & Pie Crust Mix can be made into not only flaky pie crusts, but also cookies and biscuits. The Pancake & Waffle Mix is filled with goodness, not empty carbohydrates, and the high protein flours produce delicious pancakes, waffles, and crepes; consumers can also use this mix to create a gluten free batter for fish or chicken when combining the flour with mayonnaise or an egg. And just one cake mix, Make-A-Cake, your way Mix, can bake any flavor cake under the sun. In addition, this versatile cake mix has no sugar added, so people can add as little or as much of any sweetener as they want.
“Other companies that are gluten free will have multiple cake mixes,” McAtee explains. “I thought, why not make a basic blend of cake flour that a consumer can use with whatever ingredients they want? This mix can make a chocolate cake and brownies just by varying the egg, water, and oil volumes. There is nothing like this out in the market today, at least in the gluten free world. In addition, I made this flour blend moist, like gluten free cakes usually aren’t. To make their gluten free cakes moist, other companies add creams, butter, fruit, and sugary frostings. Arnel’s Originals Make-a-Cake Mix uses none of those to achieve moistness and has only six easy to read clean ingredients. This cake mix parallels the cake flour professional bakeries use. My blog highlights a variety of sweeteners consumers can use and I go wild with details and reveal my secrets; a typical cake mix on the shelf is 50 percent sugar; Arnel’s Originals has none. Because of this, a one pound cake mix can yield two pounds.”
Arnel’s Originals products have been well-received since joining the marketplace. The company won a “Best of Ventura Award” in December 2014 in the baking mix category, and McAtee also entered a winning gluten free pie at the Ventura County Fair. Even with these accolades, McAtee feels that her best rewards come from the happiness of her customers. “Rewards come from the tears in my customers’ eyes when they are able to eat our bread, or when they express their worries about what they were feeding their sensitive kids; the sigh of relief and hugs I get from customers have been my greatest awards.”
About 15 percent of company sales come from bakeries, delis, catering companies, and wholesalers who buy mixes in bulk and use them to make fresh products for their customers. For example, companies use Arnel’s bread mix to make fresh bread, its All Purpose Flour to make cookies and pies, one catering company uses the pancake mix to make specialty allergen-free delicacies for their clients, and another company uses the cake mix to bake brownies which are sold to Haggen and Albertsons stores.
“Eating gluten free is on the rise,” McAtee says. “Projected sales are increasing, showing that it’s not a fad. There are some people that eat gluten free because it’s ‘cool’ and feel they are healthier, but there are people with celiac disease, and other autoimmune deficiencies like diabetes, fibro myalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, thyroid issues, and arthritis who are realizing that by removing the gluten from their diets, it calms down the inflammation. This in turn alleviates a good percentage of their symptoms. With gluten sensitivity there are five common reactions – headaches, skin rashes (like eczema / psoriasis), body and joint aches [arthritis], central nervous system reactions (such as depression, anxiety, and irritability) and the most common, digestive issues. These reactions can be substantially decreased by eliminating gluten in your diet.”
McAtee shares an easy to follow elimination diet which she posts on her web site, http://www.arnelsoriginals.com/gluten-facts.html. Scroll down to the very bottom of the page to view the elimination diets.
Besides her extensive knowledge about gluten free baking and celiac disease, McAtee points to the strength of relationships as a driving force behind the company’s growth. One notable relationship McAtee established is with warehouse club Costco. “I was at a trade show and a buyer from the Northern California Costco division tasted my products. He was amazed and gave me a business card and opened the door for a personal conversation. I went to Livermore [California] and met with an assistant buyer. It turns out that one of the buyers knows about gluten free food on a personal level and he wanted to offer Arnel’s Originals to Costco customers.”
McAtee knows that these types of connections are invaluable for her business. “This is my third year working with Costco doing road shows; I do not have store placement. I know of other gluten free baking mix companies who have sent every region of Costco samples of their products to no avail, but I didn’t have to do that. That shows the quality of our products.”
McAtee’s start with Whole Foods is an interesting story. When she walked in the newly opened Santa Barbara, CA store and asked to speak with the manager, he told her how to contact the regional office for possible product placement. She told him that she had two mixes with her (Buckwheat Bread Mix and the All Purpose Flour Mix) and samples of what they made. “Can I show you what the bread tastes like?” she pleaded. After a nod and a long walk to his office, he took one bite of the bread, and a nibble of the pie crust, looked at her, reached for the primitive looking bags and said, “I’ll take 12 of these and 12 of these!”
Another way McAtee forms relationships to help her company grow is through her emphasis on customer service. With so much information out there about eating gluten free foods, sometimes things can get confusing or overwhelming, and McAtee feels it is her duty to share her knowledge. “Having the motto ‘at-your-service’ is very important to me,” she says. “Often, customers call with allergen concerns and if I don’t already have the answer, I do the research, such as the case with xanthan gum. Less than 1 percent of gluten free eaters have difficulties with xanthan gum and they think they are reacting to the starch it is grown on but most often it is the fermentation process they use to grow xanthan gum. For discriminating eaters, this is important – I give as much time to my customers as I can, and that has helped build my business. I speak to people newly diagnosed with gluten intolerances about what to eat and reassure them that their feelings are worse than their reality. I reach out to people and encourage them to pay it forward.”
In its six-year history, Arnel’s Originals has rapidly grown to address the demand for gluten free products. Under McAtee’s leadership, the company has grown substantially. In the future, McAtee plans to expand further by establishing partnerships and creating gluten free versions of more conventional foods.
Arnel McAtee’s best advice is that, “Before you start a food business, make sure you have an extraordinary product that is different than what is out there. Make sure you have enough capital not just for the first few years but for the middle stage when you are getting large orders and growing. Starting a business can wipe you out if you are not careful, so build a team. Get the expertise from those who have walked the path you are walking on. Keep your passion. Hang in there with the ups and downs and know that as you grow your business, the ups will be higher and the downs will be lower. Most of all, pay it forward. And share your knowledge with others. The more you give, the more you get!”
After being a teacher, a prosthetist and a parent, Arnel feels she has been very blessed to turn a diagnosis of Celiac Disease into a successful business known as Arnel’s Originals Good and Gluten Free. Visit the blog which has amazing recipes and gluten free info; peruse the website which has dynamic cooking videos; try the exceptional products, and if you have any questions, give her a call. Who knows, she might even answer the phone herself!