Lucy Gibney, MD Interview about Lucy’s Cookies
Date: July 1, 2013
Interviewee: Lucy Gibney, MD
Interviewer: Amanda Greene
Interview executed via email.
Amanda: Tell me a little about yourself. What is your background?
Lucy: I’m a little bit like our cookies and Brownie Cakes, made from several surprising ingredients! Though my current “job” is Food Industry Executive and Entrepreneur, I am also an Emergency Physician. I also have significant experience in public health policy development and advocacy. You could add to the list, Passionate Baker, Deeply Dedicated Parent, Nutrition Advocate, Health Advocate, Food Enthusiast.
Amanda: What first inspired you to start Lucy’s? When did you know you wanted to make your cookies on a commercial scale?
Lucy: I’ve always loved good food, and I believe that great nutrition can also be very decadent and indulgent. With that as a backdrop, Lucy’s grew out of our family experience with food allergies. My son was diagnosed as an infant with several severe food allergies, which lead me to experiment with baking gluten free and vegan treats for him. Thankfully I’m a persistent and driven person, because otherwise I would have given up! I was shocked at the challenge. I’ve always tinkered with cookie recipes to make more nutritious and interesting versions of classics. I thought the gluten free and vegan quest would be just a tinkering project, but found out differently! I worked at recipes for weeks, just trying to make something good for us to eat at home.
I was driven to the kitchen because at the time I couldn’t find anything on the market that came close to my standards for taste and texture. Also, I was unsure about food safety with small, unknown producers. I eventually I tackled the taste and texture challenge. The food safety concern remained, because just as I had doubts about cookie producers, I wanted to be sure about the ingredients I was using. The path toward Lucy’s was unfolding.
My husband and I decided to launch Lucy’s so we could impact the gluten free, allergy friendly marketplace with high standards for:
- Taste and texture
- Food safety
- Beautiful packaging with clear safety information
- Convenience, including wide availability and portability
We wanted to make life “normal” for people with special diets. Tasty food, easy to find, enjoyed by all.
Amanda: When did you found Lucy’s, and how long did it take to get off the ground?
Lucy: 2005 was the home baking year. By early 2006 my husband began to jokingly suggest that we start a business. He loved the cookies I created and was amazed at how “normal” they were; so much better than anything we could buy. I laughed every time he suggested starting a business. Then we both realized that it didn’t have to be a joke.
I took the first steps by looking at market size. I gathered stats on how many people had been diagnosed with celiac, how many were undiagnosed, how many had food allergies. And, since the products are vegan and kosher pareve, I looked at those stats too. Quickly I could see that the market was huge. We already knew it was underserved. The business question became focused on how to do it, not whether there was a market.
In July 2006, my husband and I attended the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City. It’s a huge, international show put on by the Specialty Food Association each year. The association also offers courses on an array of topics, some on how to start a brand and make it in the market. We spent two whole days, each attending a separate set of courses. We walked the aisles of the show, and decided there that we would launch Lucy’s.
Our decision to make Lucy’s products in our own dedicated bakery was different from most start-up food companies who use manufacturing partners (co-packers). We decided to do our own production so we could directly control all aspects of product quality and safety. We knew this was important from our own personal experience. It required additional capital, expertise and management but was worth it considering the risks of allergen contamination. It’s really part of our brand. It’s a differentiator for the company today.
We built out our facility and started production in late 2007, selling our first package of Lucy’s cookies in November 2007.
Amanda: Where is your production facility/company HQ located? How many employees do you have?
Lucy: We now have a 15,000 square foot bakery facility in Norfolk, Virginia. We started in a much smaller space in 2007, and went larger in 2010. Already we’re planning to double this space in 2014. Now we have anywhere from 40 to 60 employees, depending on the time of year and the size of our orders.
Amanda: Do you have an R&D team, or do you still develop Lucy’s cookies yourself? How do your new products/flavors get made?
Lucy: I’m still at the center of R&D. I still do the core work in my kitchen at home. Right where the cookies happened! Thankfully we have a team that helps with the next steps. We have a fantastic lead baker who loves to work through the steps of taking a small batch recipe from my five quart mixer at home to our 320 quart bakery mixer. It’s not just a math problem, it takes tinkering too. Baking is such a fun combination of art and science.
Amanda: Why GF? What are your main concerns regarding gluten? I’d like to hear your stance on this burning issue. Is GF for people with celiac disease, wheat allergies, and other intolerances only? Do you think “healthy” people should be worried about gluten too?
Lucy: As you know, our story is very personal. We wanted to address food allergy concerns in our family, and in doing so help others. So, our personal focus was on a true “allergy” to wheat and barley. Allergy technically refers to a hypersensitivity reaction that causes the release of histamine and other body chemicals which lead to a range of changes in the skin, respiratory and circulatory systems. Allergic reaction is usually fairly quick after exposure/ingestion and can be mild or deadly. The increasing availability of “gluten free” food items is great for people with allergy to wheat, barley or rye. Gluten is a storage protein in wheat, barley and rye; so if something is “gluten free” it’s probably ok for those diets.
Though helpful for people with certain allergies, “gluten free” is a term more closely linked to treatment/management of celiac disease, and more recently a diagnosis called “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”. Celiac is an auto immune disease triggered by gluten in the diet. In celiac, gluten causes inflammation in the small intestine, leading to nutritional problems and often triggers inflammation and auto-immune problems in other body organs.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a new diagnostic term for a phenomenon that is still being discovered. It describes people who have symptoms similar to celiac, but who do not have the inflammatory or auto-immune changes that go with it. The symptoms resolve on a gluten free diet. No one knows if it’s “pre-celiac” or why it’s happening. This might seem alarming, but really it how all medical information evolves; even in our super-fast technological world.
We hear more about celiac these days mostly because it is much better understood; a change that’s occurred over the past twenty years. More celiac research has been done and now we know that someone with celiac may or may not have any gastrointestinal symptoms. Previously, the diagnosis was not considered without belly pain and bowel issues. Now celiac is considered when the more vague autoimmune diseases and symptoms occur. Doctors now diagnose thyroid disease, early osteoporosis, certain skin diseases, headaches, nerve tingling and they automatically want to know if celiac is the underlying cause. This greater understanding, along with better diagnostic tests, is leading to more diagnosis. Also, there is a concern that besides better diagnosis, something else is causing celiac to happen more. More research is needed to determine if this is true and why.
So, on the question of whether gluten free is healthy for people without a diagnosis, I say the following: Gluten free food is food. If diet changes can be made while keeping in line with important nutritional parameters, there is no known downside to gluten free. Sometimes doctors caution about missing certain nutrients if the new diet is too high in starch and weak in fiber, protein and certain vitamins and minerals. In the past folks turned to white rice and potato starch based alternates that were poor in nutrients and high in simple carbs. That’s changing.
Thankfully, quite a few of the newer gluten free packaged foods available are nutritionally comparable to gluten containing items. Now most people who go gluten free also go higher in their vegetable and fruit intake, and the word is out that a basic multi-vitamin is generally recommended for those eating gluten free. These are the nutrients to watch when going GF: B vitamins, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, fiber. One of the reasons the switch is tricky is that most wheat flour is enriched with these vitamins and minerals. As long is the new diet provides these either via the new food choices or a supplement, all should be well!
It’s important to note that a gluten free diet means certain challenges with eating out, traveling, social occasions like parties. It definitely impacts overall convenience food purchasing. These things can cause social and emotional stress, and cannot be taken lightly. Some people emphasize these matters when cautioning about a gluten free lifestyle as a choice, without a diagnosis. I take this very seriously. In fact, so far I haven’t said much about the social and emotional factors as a motivator for launching our business. These have been very much part of our story. Obviously safety is tops, but the social and communal aspect of eating are critically important, especially for children.
So in summary, I say that for people without a specific diagnosis requiring the switch, a gluten free diet is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, as long is the nutrition is in check. However, there’s a risk that the new diagnostic category called non-celiac gluten sensitivity is still largely unknown. We don’t know what we don’t know, and that could hurt us. So, if the nutrition is there, gluten free is just fine and might be ahead of new science. And, if eating gluten free means eating along with a friend or family member who must be gluten free, that’s social bonding and that’s usually a great thing! It shows support for some you know, and perhaps love!
Amanda: Why did you choose cookies/sweets/baked goods as your main product line?
Amanda: Tell me what sets your cookies apart from other GF cookies. Is anyone else trying to do what you’re doing?
Lucy: Our cookies were the first on the market with our unique combination of flours. I worked out that combination to get the right balance of starch, fat and protein while also balancing flavor. Wheat flour is so ubiquitous and loved because of the way it performs in baked goods. It has just the right starch, fat and protein profile. I replicated it for taste and texture. And by the way, our blend is a match nutritionally when compared with enriched whole wheat flour: carbs, fat, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising.
At the time we launched in 2007, no one else was doing anything close. Since then a few brands have popped up with some of the same ingredients, but they aren’t exact copies. Ours are much better!
In general, we use the very best ingredients available. Our flour blend is magic. We use very high quality vegan margarine. We use organic cane sugar, which is so beautiful and smells great. I love to open the big vats of ingredients and experience the look and aroma. You name the ingredient and I can tell you why ours is the best! Other than that, we do our own baking and have very high standards for each artisan batch.
Amanda: What do you think about how the market for GF food has changed over time? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as someone who lived first as a consumer, then a producer of GF foods.
Lucy: I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the growth surge in gluten free. When my husband and I attended the Fancy Food Show in 2006 and decided to launch Lucy’s, part of our confidence came from the many conversations we overheard about the need for more gluten free products in the market place. Well, gluten free has arrived. Now with many tasty products to choose from, consumers are looking for food safety excellence and the industry is coming along there as well.
Believe it or not, in 2006 when we began to learn the technical aspects of allergen safety most big food brands were doing the very least for allergen/gluten safety. Now more are willing to do more, just like we do! They know consumers need it, and have come to expect it.
Amanda: Tell me more about how you developed your GF flour blend. Oat, garbanzo, potato starch, tapioca, sorghum, and fava is quite a combination!
Was it mostly trial and error, or did you have a more concrete starting point? Did you attempt to mimic the protein : starch ratios of wheat flour, or do those ratios not applicable in your cookie (do they matter)? (I’m referring to protein and starch here from more of a food chemistry perspective—their role in the texture of a cookie—rather than a nutritional or “healthiness” perspective.)
Lucy: See above for more on this. To restate, I did it initially to replicate the fat, protein and starch in wheat flour so the cookie taste and texture would match “normal”. Not surprisingly, the nutrition does too. This is especially important for people following a gluten free diet. As, discussed above, there are risks with diet change. Picking the right alternative foods is one of the ways to manage that risk.
Amanda: Why so many different ingredients? What role does each one play?
Lucy: Definitely, each ingredient has its important role. I’ve talked about the flour blend, which adds six to the list! Then also, we use oat flakes in most of the recipes to add taste, fiber and nutrients. We list the component ingredients of our margarine too. This is because we want to provide the very best information for our food allergic fans. People with special diets need all the details! Otherwise, our ingredient list is typical of a homemade cookie.
Amanda: What was the appeal to these particular ingredients: functionality, cost, availability?
Lucy: Functionality is it. Cost and availability have always been a challenge. But, for us meeting that challenge is worth it! We work hard to find the right suppliers and we accept lower profits so we can provide the very best for our customers. Certainly, our product cost could be less with lesser ingredients, but that’s not Lucy’s.
Amanda: Rice is a go-to grain for many people who can’t use wheat, but I notice you don’t use any. Why is that?
Lucy: Rice has been a popular alternative to wheat for two reasons, low cost and easy access. We chose not to use it because of the grainy texture it adds to baked goods. Our blend matches the texture of wheat flour and we wanted to do that for our consumers. Yes, the cost is higher but we think it’s worth it. As a result, our product price tends to on the higher end, yet customers know the quality is there.
- Amanda: Some of the ingredients you use would be hard to come by for the home cook. How did these cookies evolve from a home kitchen experiment to a commercial product? (Any details you could share on learning about, sourcing, and testing these ingredients would helpful! How did you find suppliers, how did you know that, say, tapioca and fava bean were worth trying? Did the recipe change once you went large-scale? Thanks!)
Lucy: Let’s just say that I’ve tried every gluten free flour on the market! When I started experimenting with recipes I bought everything out there on store shelves or the Internet. It was obvious to me intuitively that wheat, butter and eggs are amazing, miraculous foods and that working without them would be very complex. I knew that blend and balance would be key. Also, that I would have to get really creative!
Amanda: Why three types of fat: palm, canola, olive?
Lucy: The three fats are part of the margarine that we use. I think our supplier also understands blend and balance!
Amanda: Why no dairy or eggs? It seems like enough of a challenge to simply cut out wheat! What inspired you to cut out dairy and eggs too, and what challenges did you face in getting the texture you wanted? How did you overcome those challenges?
Lucy: Well, this one goes back to the allergies. My son is allergic to wheat, barley, milk and eggs. Also peanuts and tree nuts.
So, the baking challenge was big. No wheat, butter, milk or eggs. As I started the trial and error process, I tried gluten free recipes and vegan recipes, thinking that I would learn how each dealt with the lack of certain ingredients and their function. Ha! Unfortunately, what I came to understand is that gluten free baking depends on milk and egg products. And, vegan recipes really need the protein and elasticity provided by wheat flour. So, when I produced failure after failure I proved that doing without all of these ingredients was nearly impossible!
So, I mentioned that I’m persistent and driven! I simply became determined to figure it out! I really wanted my son to have delicious treats just like other kids. I grew up eating the wonderful baked goods my Mom made. I wanted the same for my child.
I kept trying recipes and different approaches, different flour blends, different “egg substitutes”, different fats. Finally found a favorite for each. Then I just went back to my Mom’s old recipes and adapted them using my new tricks.
Amanda: How difficult was it to flavor these cookies? The ones I tasted were amazing, but how did you prevent off flavors (particularly beany and soybean) from coming through? Did you have to cover them up, or limit the amount of that ingredient (or some combination of methods)?
Lucy: It’s all about blending. Some of the flours do have a strong taste so I adjust and tinker the amounts of those ingredients to keep the flavor in check.
Amanda: What does your dough look like before it’s cooked? Is it similar to a regular cookie?
Lucy: The dough looks very much like “normal” cookie dough. I think it’s even prettier because it has more of a light and airy texture. It tastes great too and since it doesn’t have eggs it lacks the salmonella risk that come with them!
Amanda: Are there any unique cooking or prep requirements that are different from a normal cookie? (Do they cook up much faster/slower, need a hotter/cooler oven, difficult to mix properly?)
Lucy: Generally, the baking is just like for a normal cookie. (Remember, it’s a normal cookie!) I have noticed that our wonderful, very large and powerful mixer makes the most beautiful and airy batter. The mixing is so thorough! Also, our fancy bakery convection ovens provide such even baking that the cookies from the bakery are much nicer that ones I bake at home! That’s just cool equipment, and awesome ingredients!
Amanda: What ingredients did you have to add to approximate the texture of a wheat cookie (extra leaveners, gums, starches, acids, salts, etc)? What other components did you need to use that are different than the average wheat cookie?
Lucy: Besides the need for a balanced flour blend, I also use xanthan gum to help with the elasticity usually in wheat. And, as noted before, we use a very high quality margarine and sugar. These really make a difference.
Amanda: Why do the cookies come out crispy? Would it be possible to make a chewy version of your cookies? If yes, how; if no, why?
Lucy: We wanted a crispy cookie for a few reasons. One is that most Americans prefer crispy. Also, a crispy cookie does much better as a shelf stable product. To keep a chewy cookie fresh on a grocery shelf certain ingredients would be needed that we didn’t want to add. We would have needed artificial ingredients or natural ones with a taste profile that we don’t want. We were looking for a cookie that tastes like a cookie! Just a normal cookie!
If you like a more moist cookie, my Mom and several others have told me that you can sprinkle a few drops of water on the cookie and microwave it for a few seconds and it becomes warm and soft, like fresh-baked!
Amanda: What testing do you do to ensure your cookies are safe and comply with your claims of GF, vegan, etc? Does your method go beyond the GF food industry standard? If so, how?
Lucy: To support our gluten free, vegan and allergy friendly claims, we carefully select ingredients that come from the safest growing and processing environments. We’re looking for ingredients that don’t have a risk of cross-contact with allergens. If there are any risks, we test each new lot of ingredient in our own lab. So, if our baking powder comes from a supplier that also processes something with milk powder, we test every new lot of baking powder for milk contamination.
Since we have a dedicated bakery, where neither gluten nor the allergens are allowed, we greatly reduce risk. Also, we periodically test finished cookies to verify our processes.
The newest gluten free certification program available through QAI and NFCA is patterned after our process. We far exceed other testing and certification standards.
Amanda: What’s next for Lucy’s? Any new flavors, products, projects or ventures coming down the pipeline that you’d like to share?
Lucy: We very much love the baked treats venture we have going. Our products are nutritious, natural and decadent at the same time. They’re unique within the gluten free and food allergy friendly segments, and in every other aisle in the store. So, we’re going to stay on this path for now. This fall you’ll see our new Pumpkin Patch and Maple Crunch cookies. This pairing is new for 2013, after we had such a good time bringing out Chocolate Merry Mint and Holiday Sugars last year in December. Retailers and consumers seem to love something special for the season. As a follow up, we plan to offer something fun for spring and summer next year. Also, stay tuned for a new cake! Our Brownie Cake has been such a success this year that we want to provide another cake for folks to enjoy. Cake has such a fun look and texture. People love having our little cakes as a treat anytime, and especially for parties and special occasions.
Amanda: Any other thoughts, topics or industry insights you’d like to add? (More is always welcome!)
Lucy: Great questions! I’ll send along anything else that comes to mind!
Lucy Gibney, MD
July 1, 2013