I first met Naomi Poe at a State College Celiac Support Group picnic, where she was slated to be the guest speaker, in July of 2011. She had traveled from Altoona, PA, her hometown and the location of her gluten-free baking mix company, Better Batter. At the time, Better Batter’s sole product was a gluten-free version of all-purpose flour, and I found myself wondering how much useful information a person could possibly provide about a basic flour mix. It turned out that talking about her company was not what Naomi had in mind.
Instead, she shared her own experiences with having celiac disease, an immune system condition that causes the body to attack and destroy the nutrient absorbing villi in the small intestine when gluten is ingested. She spoke of her two sons who have celiac disease, one of whom is also autistic. Naomi stressed her commitment to using quality ingredients (or, as she later put it, “no funky foods”), her quest to support sustainable agriculture, and her efforts to adhere to the philosophy at the core of her business and life; give freely.
I listened as Naomi fielded a range of questions—from nutrition, to product brands, to personal health issues—from a group of people whose lives had drastically changed as a result of gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye and, as such, a common component of the traditional American diet. After the presentation, group members migrated toward Naomi, who stuck around after dusk to share her expertise and offer advice to those struggling with their own diets, lifestyles, and continuing health problems.
I watched as Naomi chatted with the group of people surrounding her, giving her contact information to those who would need further help and offering specific advice to those with immediate questions. I walked to my car just after sunset, knowing that someday I would talk with Naomi again. I wanted to know more about this business owner who gave so freely of her time and knowledge. It would be two years before I found the opportunity to do that.
In those two years, a lot changed at Better Batter, but the important things, Naomi would point out, stayed exactly the same. True to her philosophy, she dedicated an entire afternoon to speak with me about her company, her childhood, her education, and her views on everything from emerging business models to core life values. What follows is a Q&A in which Naomi shares the events and circumstances that have shaped her life and led her, on what some might call a destined path, to where she is now.
A For-Profit Business with a Nonprofit Heart
What is Better Batter?
Better Batter is a gluten-free, casein-free, and allergen-free mix company with products like flour mix, cake mixes, brownie mix, pancake and biscuit mix. We’ve also now branched into nutrition bars. We’re dedicated to producing high-quality food that people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, autism, allergies and other food-related disorders can safely consume and enjoy. Better Batter products match the flavors, textures, and overall quality of regular food that isn’t allergen free. The purpose is to give people who can’t have those regular foods the same enjoyment and experience and to allow them to use regular family recipes again. Eat freely is the first half of our motto, and it’s just as important as the second (give freely). We should all be able to enjoy what we eat and not feel like we’re deprived of the foods we love and the memories we make around the table with our families.
Is Better Batter a nonprofit company?
No, we’re for-profit. We do have a nonprofit side, and that’s our financial aid, charitable giving, and free education side. The for-profit sales of our products subsidize the nonprofit and charitable side. I always have to maintain the balance between providing outstanding products, making money for my investors, and taking proper care of my employees’ benefits with providing low cost options for those who need it, support to local groups, and education for those who want it.
Gluten-free products can be expensive. How do you deal with customers who have trouble affording your products?
Producing perfect clones of regular foods is what we do; financial aid is the reason we do it. I started this company because I knew there were people who couldn’t afford the products that were out there, and our business model grew out of a desire to help these people. We have three options for people who want or need to save money: 1. We always have bulk pricing available via our website at a significant discount 2. Every week on our Facebook page we offer awesome deals and reduced pricing on damages (dents/scratches etc.) 3. We offer financial aid to those who need it. Our financial aid forms are right on our website, and they take about five minutes to fill out and mail.
Can you explain your financial aid a little more?
Our financial aid allows people to buy at our bulk pricing without having to buy in bulk. You have to be approved for the program, which is split between low income and autism right now.
Low income applies to anyone who falls within federal guidelines for food aid and can show some form of eligibility (SNAP, WIC, etc). It also encompasses seniors on a fixed income and college students, who fall into the cracks of the system because they are still lumped under their parents’ income but can’t usually eat the college food. I remember being a college student and putting myself through, and I was poor. The average college student may live on ramen, and the average retiree may buy frozen meals. A celiac typically can’t, so I try to do my part to honor one generation and provide for the next.
How do you deal with financial aid requests that fall outside of the low income and autism categories?
Occasionally, we have had people who simply cannot afford even the three methods I told you about to purchase the product, and in extreme cases, we can, and have given a limited amount of free product to these special cases. One of the most controversial decisions we made was to allow parents of autistic kids to receive financial aid, regardless of income. I often get asked, ‘Why autism? What makes their kids’ needs more important than mine?’ As a mom of an autistic kid, I know firsthand that there are lots of autism therapies that parents pursue based on anecdotal evidence that the therapy ‘may’ help their child.
Therapies [like the gluten-free diet] that are not currently medically documented as verified and/or are based on lifestyle management are usually non-insurable and can be very expensive. In our case, the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet for autism therapy was significantly instrumental in helping my autistic son to interact with the world. It may not work for all families, but for those who pursue it and find a link, there’s no financial aid or funding for it by insurance or federal funds right now. I know they may also be pursuing other therapies (and even the ones that are covered can add up, with the cost of gas, etc. to get to the appointments), so I do my part as a member of that community to help bear some of the burden.
We’ve heard from parents of children with other disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, who say their kids do better on a gluten-free diet, so this year we expanded our Autism Financial Aid Program to include children with developmental disabilities, instead of just autism.
Can you give a few details about the nonprofit, education side of Better Batter?
We had a group of family physicians come to us and ask us to put together a hub for gluten-free information and resources—people we trust, brands we trust, writers we trust. It was about $75,000 worth of investment, and we created the hub, along with a website and some informational brochures. Any doctor’s office in America can get the brochures free from us. If a patient is newly diagnosed with anything requiring a gluten-free diet, physicians can hand them the brochure. It’s a starter thing with basic information. If they need more information, they can go to the website http://startglutenfree.com/.
We also do a video series on YouTube. So far we’ve done Stuff People Say to Celiacs and a series of how to’s and short FAQ clips. We played around with our formats and realized that a lot of people have a short attention span, but that everyone loves a funny video. With that in mind, we’re developing a series of web-videos that should be both educational and amusing. We’re going to do a series on how to identify hidden sources of gluten. We’re going to use a real person, and he’s going to be doing horrible things like laying on your table and licking your kid’s birthday cake to show, in a very practical way, the hidden sources of contamination and the traumas of living a gluten-free life that nobody understands. Hopefully, we’ll get the education across while we make people laugh (or cringe)!
We’re also going to start taking the seminars that I do around the country and turn them into a DVD series. I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about putting my face out there. I don’t want to be a celebrity. I just want to be a mom, but I know people need real information. And I know my kids still need me at home. With the web series, you can listen to a speech from the comfort of your home, and I can spend time with my family from the comfort of mine. I am excited about this one because it will allow me to limit my traveling to a few times a year, and I value my family time!
What makes you so protective of your time with your children and how does that inform your business philosophy?
I grew up in what you could call a very distressed financial situation. My dad left a high paying job as an executive chef because he was working up to 20 hours a day, all nights, all holidays, all weekends. My dad is a super, super chef—he was offered television shows and the whole nine yards. My dad said ‘I’m going to be rich, I’m going to be famous, and my children are not going to have a father.’ So he chose to leave that world and all that it offered, and my dad is my hero for doing this.
As the company grows, my time gets compressed from the professional side. I have to find some time on the personal side, and I’m not going to sacrifice my family to my career. My dad gave up fortune and fame to be my dad. He made me who I am and gave me my values. I am giving that to my children. I’m going to do for them what my dad did for me.
Your dad left the high-profile life of a chef to spend more time with his family. How did he feel about your going into the food business?
When I went into foods, my dad, at first, was a little conflicted because he had asked me to promise him that I would not go into the restaurant business. Whenever he stopped being in the restaurant business, he said ‘I’m giving this up because it is not a family friendly business.’ I promised my dad I would not be a chef, and so when I went into foods in college, he was more than a little concerned.
Complicating the matter was the unspoken hope of my grandad that one of his grandkids would, in fact, become a chef. My granddad is a retired executive chef. (My dad met my mom working at the culinary school with my granddad. I’m the daughter of a chef, the granddaughter of a chef, and the great granddaughter of a baker. So we’re food obsessed!) His dearest wish was that somebody in the next generation would carry on that tradition.
I told my dad not to worry. The restaurant business (and all those hours) have never held any temptation for me. I have to say, when I started [with Better Batter] I got super excited because I could honor my grandad without breaking my promise to my dad. However, I know to really keep that promise, I have to maintain my family time. Twenty hours a day in a boardroom is as bad as 20 hours a day in a kitchen, right?
Part of your company slogan is “Give Freely.” How do you put this concept into practice at Better Batter?
We do financial aid, of course, including free product for cases of extreme distress. We give time, money, and knowledge to support groups and individuals. And we take a portion of the profits we make and give them away, too. It’s actually written in our bylaws that we have to give charitably! I pick causes. I have my kids pick causes. I have my employees pick causes. We actually just launched a whole new line of products [energy bars] that specifically highlight our favorite charitable causes.
The energy bars started with a little girl [Kaylee] who was talking about a meal replacement because something happened at school; she brought a gluten-free meal, there was a food fight, and now her meal was contaminated. She is a cool girl, and her story really touched me. So she and I created a meal replacement bar for her, which is allergen free—perfectly safe, hermetically sealed. That’s the Kaylee bar. She asked for a portion of the profits to go toward celiac research. I thought that was a terrific idea.
From that idea, the idea of launching other bars to highlight our charitable causes was born, and of course, I approached my kids to see how they wanted to change the world. My younger son picked building wells for people in developing countries so they could have clean water, and my older son (the autistic one) picked financial aid for autism therapies. It is a lot of fun to allow people to see this side of our business and to know they are specifically picking a cause they care about when they purchase the product. We plan to launch more of these special cause products in the future.
Finally, we give away freebies. Facebook has been fun for us. Along with getting to spend time with our customers, it has allowed us to be ‘fun time friends’ with people by offering random free products, just because. Sometimes it’s fun to give for no reason at all!
All this giving sounds like it might cut into the profits of a for-profit company. What was your goal in launching Better Batter?
When my husband and I talked about starting this business, we said the point is not to increase our standard of living. The point is not to become rich or somehow famous. The point is to change the world. Americans are some of the richest people on Earth. I feel that wealth is meant to be used in significant ways rather than on personal pleasure. I asked my husband, what happens if the company really does well? Do we become a stagnant pool of water, where the money flows in to take care of us, our lifestyle, our pleasure? Or do we become a river and allow the blessings we receive to flow from us into other hands?
We decided if we were going to be a success, we were going to quantify that in terms of what we could give rather than on what we could earn. And so every decision we make at the business goes through a filter that asks, how is this impacting the world financially, morally, spiritually? How is this improving the lives of our customers? How is it improving society? And how is it improving the lives of our employees? My investors all bought into this. They want to make money, but more than that, they want to create a legacy. And when you have everybody pulling together as a team (investors, staff, and customers), it makes meeting that improbable goal of changing the world seem easy.
Do you see an emphasis on giving as a trend in modern business?
Not only do I think this business model and philosophy is the trend, I think it’s the new establishment. There are lots of studies where cultures as a whole—societies—not only do they grow, mature, expand, collapse, but they go through cycles of war, peace, artistry, unraveling. That’s just the cycle of human nature, and you can’t escape it. We’re in a stage where we’ve come out of the materialistic, self-centered, consumerist, conformist hierarchy, and we’re going into this idealist stage. This generation is interested in creating something eternal more than feathering their nests, and you see it in their business models. Take Tom’s Shoes, for instance, and Better Batter. Different companies, same heartbeat.
What is the difference between charitable giving as a marketing tool and charitable giving as a business model?
I’m very careful about telling people what we do. There was a trend a couple years ago for companies to use charitable activity as a marketing tool to promote themselves. I don’t think they were as much about giving as about using giving to make people buy more. It was a step in the right direction, but now you’ve got companies coming up and saying, ‘We really are about this. We’re passionate about this cause, and we exist to make this happen.’ The sale of the product exists to support the cause instead of the cause existing to support the sale of the product. I like the new way better.
When I was a teen, my friends and I were totally anti-establishment. We used to say, ‘We need to save the world from corporate America!’ And one guy (he started a national restaurant franchise later) said, ‘I’m going to change the world through corporate America.’ I was like yeah, whatever that means. I laughed my head off. Fast forward to now; I’m doing it, too.