January Entrepreneurs // Lizann Anderson, Suzie Miller & Darcy Zbinovec | Among Friends
This week, we caught up with the ladies behind Among Friends; a wholesome, hand-crafted baking mix company, to pick their brains on the perfect recipe for success in starting a business.
Created by two friends (and moms), entrepreneurs Lizann Anderson and Suzie Miller began their journey over a cup of coffee…and a cookie, of course. These busy moms vowed to craft tasty treats packed with nutrition – without sacrificing flavor.
With a commitment to bringing whole grains to every kitchen, Lizann and Suzie started out small, sharing their creations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When CEO Darcy Zbinovec joined the team in 2014, she paved the way to Among Friends’ baking mixes now being sold in more than 6,000 stores. That’s a lot of cookies.
Read more about their journey below.
Tell us about yourself and how you got the concept for your business.
Lizann Anderson: We grew our business slowly with our children. We started in an 8×10 workroom off my garage, proudly bearing a world headquarters sign. We listened to oldies and hand packed mixes. (Only two kid visitors were allowed in at a time.)
Both Suzie and I each had a picky eater who tried our patience and palates. My middle son—and Suzie’s oldest—known collectively as the blood hounds sniffed everything before tasting, searching for unidentified specks. We knew if we satisfied our panel of six kid taste testers, we would appeal to lots of folks without sacrificing quality or nutrition.
We are truly Among Friends. Our friendship inspired us. We are a writer (me) and designer by training (Suzie). We loved the conceptual part, the naming of our products after our loved ones, the colors, the packaging design, the evolution from the closet off my garage to our current facility. And we love to tinker in the kitchen. Even now, immersed in production and distribution issues, the friendship that fueled our ideas and ambitions remains strong. Most of all, we love to share our recipes with an ever-widening circle of friends.
“It’s inspiring to think we might play a small part in bringing people around the table, where they can talk, laugh, connect, and make memories.”
As a business owner, how would you describe success?
Suzie Miller: That’s a complex one. First measure of success in our business is: How does the product taste? Is it filling an unmet need in the marketplace? And perhaps then, do you feel good about what you are putting out into the world?
Lizann: What about taste? One bite will convert the most ardent skeptics. I wish had a dollar for every time I heard someone say: “This doesn’t taste like a mix, or “this cookie can’t be gluten-free.”
Are you filling a need? Our commitment to whole grains is steadfast. At Among Friends, we have a saying, “friends don’t let friends eat white flour.” Our mixes are free of the white stuff: no gums, starches or fillers. For years, brands touting whole grains were adding back a smidgen of whole grain. Our whole grain idealism truly departs from the traditional gluten-free world, where tapioca starch, xanthan gum and white rice have reigned supreme.
Suzie: Are you values aligned with your product? Like our packaging and our people, our products are transparent. Our business bears the fruits of our friendship, and the friendship of others who have gifted us with their time and talents at key moments. At root, we are helping people to create an experience in their own kitchens. Among Friends is more than just a baking mix company.
Darcy Zbinovec, CEO: Success for us is also about how many people we can share our mixes with. When Suzie and Lizann first started out in 2006, it was very much about sharing locally in Ann Arbor, Michigan with friends. When I came on in 2014, I focused on increasing our distribution to a national level. And I’m very proud to say that you can now find Among Friends in more than 6,000 stores, including Target and Kroger.
What makes your company unique?
Lizann: First and foremost, the company emerged from friendship and the mutual experience of mothering young children.
The second comes from personal experience. I went through a period in my early 40s, after a late miscarriage, where I experienced a cluster of symptoms ranging from numbness in my face and feet, to extreme fatigue, hair loss and depression. Despite the fact that I exercised, ate well, stood on my head, etc – I was eventually diagnosed with autoimmune thyroid disease, Hashimoto’s.
This was more than 10 years ago and the available products were just plain awful. What was just as distressing for me, the products were void of nutrition. So much white rice. I have always been interested in nutrition, but never content to sacrifice flavor. So I thought, there has to be a better way.
Perhaps the third point of difference is philosophical; a sentiment I share with Suzie. I believe breaking bread with family and friends in a spirit of gratitude is one of the most profound and satisfying ways we express ourselves as human beings. Three times a day, we pause to eat, to reflect, refresh, and nourish ourselves. My husband, in our blessing, often says, “may we use the strength that this food gives us wisely.”
“I want everyone, including people who can’t eat gluten, to find something to enjoy at my table. So why not look to ancient grains and food that is delicious and naturally gluten-free? I wanted to open the world of grains to myself and others.”
Darcy: We like to say that we like our food the same way we like our people: fun, fresh, straightforward and inviting. The visual identity, the products, the packaging all go back to the same thing. Baking is an emotional ritual, a way to connect. We love knowing that Among Friends mixes are making it easier for people to make fresh treats for the people they love.
How do you find inspiration for new ideas within company?
Suzie: Our kids remain our initial and ongoing inspiration. The best way to communicate this is to describe a few of our products and who they are named for:
SuzieQ: The original cookie is a classic oatmeal chipper, perfect for lunch boxes, coffee breaks, study breaks, pre-workout nosh, portable sustenance for a hike, even breakfast on the run for teenagers dashing out the door without a sit-down breakfast. It is named for me and the first completely whole grain oatmeal cookie our kids would consistently eat.
Shane’s Sweet-n-Spicy: Named for Lizann’s son Shane, who remains sweet and spicy, this mix really was developed because Shane wanted a cookie like his grandma made and I wanted to reduce the sugar, fat, and make it whole grain. The dough is lovely and fragrant and easy to roll out.
Alec’s Awesomely Fudgy Brownie: Alec is Lizann’s youngest and tallest son. He and his friends have spent hours around her island eating everything in sight and we believe Lizann truly influenced the development of their taste buds. The brownie was also a challenge to develop because we do try to keep sugar and butter in check. However, Lizann (who leads our research & development for all new mixes) relented and it is a good thing because it is a very good seller. Unlike other brownies, the Alec stays fresh and delicious for several days – it is very satisfying so you don’t need the whole pan.
Darcy’s Old-fashioned Chocolate Chip: This is our newest cookie, named for the CEO of our company. We were purposely trying to create something akin to the tollhouse with less butter and sugar. It’s a tricky business as absolutely everyone has an opinion about what a good chocolate chip cookie should consist of. Our families love these and they are gaining a foothold in the marketplace. Good to note, these deliciously made treats are vegan; cooked with coconut oil and egg replacer which gives them a shortbread consistency.
Lizann: We’d also like to share a customer story, and a friend we’ve made along the way. Every day they inspire us to do better.
Customer, baker, and devoted mother, Mallie Moyer, sent us an email:
“Ladies, I recently purchased “Phil ’em up” cookie mix. ..I am an avid baker but have almost completely stopped baking due to food allergies in my daughter. This is the first gluten free mix EVER that has not made my little girl sick. Even recipes made from scratch with honey, no sugar have made her sick. Great job and thank you! I was able to make a batch for her to eat during a birthday party we had Saturday and she wasn’t left out.
Mallie (her name also) wanted me to tell you they are delicious and to keep making more!
I will keep them in stock here in my house!!”
We were overjoyed to read Mallie’s heartfelt review and even sent her Among Friends paraphernalia..a hat, buttons, a shirt…but frankly the smile she wears is the best adornment.
What’s your productivity secret?
Darcy: Keep your ear to the ground and listen. To your customers, to the people you are leading, to what people are saying in the line at the grocery store. They have personal experience to share and may occupy worlds you don’t. If you listen well, you can shortcut your way to knowledge about products and markets.
Suzie: Balance. Not everyday is balanced, far from it. However, don’t lose your footing for too many days. We all need fresh air, exercise, healthy food and love. And nothing else can replace those. Sleep in on the weekends. Or take a nap. Catch up. Rejuvenate, stay connected to the people you love. Everyone on our team employs a version of this.
Lizann: I’m also a big believer in getting upside down.
What were the biggest roadblocks in building your business? How did you overcome those challenges?
Lizann: Every entrepreneur faces some classic obstacles: access to capital and know how as well as insight into markets and accurate information about distribution. In a natural food business, the costs of getting on shelf and getting the word out are particularly high. It is not a high margin business. Producing a quality product will not in the end keep you on shelf.
So in some sense, you have to be way ahead of the market to have any chance to build a sustainable business. Because you need the time to work out all the successive challenges you will face.
Suzie: We are firm believers in incubators and community resources. We learned a tremendous amount from a regional group about protecting our capital, our ideas, recipes, identity and early on understood the importance of patents and copyrights. That was a great use of early resources.
Three pieces of advice for someone starting out?
Lizann: Suzie caught me off guard when she replied to this very question in an on camera interview: “Don’t get too high, and don’t get too low.” Well put, because circumstances will throw you.
“Innovate from what you know because you’ll need your experienced instincts and passion to weather the inevitable entrepreneurial storms.”
That said, all the passion in the world will not sustain a business without access to capital, knowledge of the market and sage business counsel. Immerse yourself in professional education and read, read, read.
Never stand on your laurels. We are all perennial beginners and not acknowledging what we don’t know is perhaps the most dangerous pitfall out there. Even to this day, I’m always working on new recipes, whether it’s playing around with existing recipes or creating a brand new recipe for a sweet treat or other product. We can’t help ourselves. Experimentation is part of our DNA.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We believe it’s important to give of your time, talents and treasure to community. For us, we focus on basic needs such as feeding the hungry, and those organizations that empower youth to become better, more involved citizens. Among these organizations are: Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank, Ann Arbor Public Schools Neutral Zone, and a teen center Ele’s Place, a center for grieving children.
If you’d like to learn more about Among Friends, or experience their nutritional nuggets, visit http://amongfriendsbakingmixes.com.
Searching for some entrepreneur empowerment for your business? Sign up for your monthly inspirational toolkit at https://www.hustlehumble.com.