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Big Interview: Maggie Radzwiller, Maggie's Conscious Vegan Cuisine

Vegan, gluten-free meals founder: I started with clean food; others had to backpedal there

Post a commentBy Maggie Hennessy , 29-Jul-2014
Last updated on 29-Jul-2014 at 14:46 GMT

Chef Radzwiller: “The truth of the matter is if you season something properly you don’t ever have to use salt. If you’re a lousy chef and if you don’t care about health, salt can make everything taste good. It’s right up there with sugar.
Chef Radzwiller: “The truth of the matter is if you season something properly you don’t ever have to use salt. If you’re a lousy chef and if you don’t care about health, salt can make everything taste good. It’s right up there with sugar."

A chef and caterer was motivated by her special diets customers to launch a vegan, gluten-free line of globally inspired meals with no added sodium or oil to provide clean, flavorful meal solutions for everybody. 

“This product line came about by listening more and more about what people really wanted who were willing to speak up for themselves,” Maggie’s Conscious Vegan Cuisine founder Maggie Radzwiller told FoodNavigator-USA. “I’d always ask about guests who might be lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc. But a lot of customers would push back and say, ‘Surely they’ll find something to eat.’ And I’d say, ‘Then you can find another caterer because you’re asking me to not do my job.”

Radzwiller began selling the line of 32-ounce microwaveable jarred meals (four servings per jar) three years ago at the Saturday farmers’ market in Durham, NC, while she was still working as a caterer. The six or seven varieties (one seasonal) are inspired by different global cultures, including Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian and Israeli.

“Veganism and health is a global issue, not just one for the US,” she said. “I didn’t want to make an American line; I wanted to make dishes that speak to different cultures.”

And whether it’s high blood pressure, lactose intolerance, obesity, a general desire to live a little healthier or eat more responsibly, plant-based meals are playing a more prevalent role in diets worldwide. And this is likely to continue as consumers move toward a more holistic approach to health and wellness, Radzwiller noted.

Maggie Radzwiller

“I think people are getting it,” she said. “Think about all the ways a plant-based diet can help you in place of pharmaceuticals. If you’re overweight, try a plant-based diet, if you have high blood pressure, try a plant-based diet. This is coming to a crescendo in this country, especially with the Affordable Care Act, which is forcing people to figure out who is going to pick up the ticket. I think that’s going to lead a lot of people to a plant-based diet. I’m not saying they will do it universally day in and out. But I think more and more people will choose to eat meat once a week as opposed to every day.”

If you season something properly, you don’t need to add salt

Because Radzwiller doesn’t add sodium or oil to the meals, she relies largely on the flavors of hearty, locally sourced vegetables; heady, rich spices and citrus juice to deliver flavor, umami and zing: poblano and arbol chiles in Heirloom Bean and Vegetable Chili, sweet yellow curry and tomatoes in Super Saag, and kale and Berbere spice (a blend of garlic, ginger, fenugreek and dried chilies) in the Israeli-inspired The Green Life.

“The truth of the matter is if you season something properly you don’t ever have to use salt,” she said. “If you’re a lousy chef and if you don’t care about health, salt can make everything taste good. It’s right up there with sugar.”

Her first client was Whole Foods Market in the Durham region, and she’s since expanded to 21 Whole Foods locations in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. This summer, she added 25 Wegman’s locations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, along with all three locations of regional specialty foods chain Southern Season.

To keep up with demand, Radzwiller signed a co-packer in New York. But scaling up by volume has been surprisingly easy from a formulation standpoint, partly because she began with a clean ingredient deck instead of cutting back, as her competitors have done.

I looked at all the other product lines on the market; everybody in the industry backpedals, whereas I started with a product that’s vegan gluten-free with no oils and no sodium, in a BPA free jar that’s ready in four minutes,” she said. “That’s the ingenuity of doing clean food in a jar. It’s the easiest thing to scale because it contains the least amount of crap possible.”

Until it tastes as good in a single-serve pouch, I’m not going to do it

But the family-size, microwaveable jar does limit the customer base, particularly with a $12 price point and no clear indication on front of pack that one container serves four. Still, on a per-ounce basis the product is just 37 cents compared to her chief competitor Amy’s Kitchen’s 60 cents an ounce, she said.

“My original clients were families whose meals were suffering because they had kids and no time to feed them,” she said. “The product is also great to take to work for four lunches, but I have to make that much clearer on the label, which I plan to do on my next printing this fall.”

Until then, “Serves 4” stickers have been added to the jars. Radzwiller also has plans to expand the line to include single-serve pouches, though she has yet to get the flavor and texture just right.

“Once the product goes into the pouch, it has to undergo a process of going to 220 degrees and up, and that’s how you end up with baby food. Until it tastes the same in single serving pouch, I’m not going to do it. I won’t serve substandard food.”

Radzwiller approaches the company’s growth in much the same way. While she’d eventually like to be in every Whole Foods and every Wegman’s on the planet—not to mention the lofty (pun intended) goal of being the standard vegan option on every transcontinental flight, she knows it will take time.

 “What this is really about is being respectful of people instead of making them feel like they’re a burden,” she said. “And that means the product has to be perfect. I get a different lead almost every day, but I only want to grow in increments that will allow me to keep the product at 100%.”

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