This is part of a new series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Name: Denise Woodard
Where do you live: Los Angeles
Occupation: Founder/CEO Partake Foods
When Denise Woodard’s daughter had a terrifying allergic reaction to a simple baked egg, and then subsequently proved to be allergic to multiple other foods, this new mom sprang into action. Frustrated by the lack of allergy-friendly foods on store shelves, she didn’t just start shopping more carefully, she started her own allergy-friendly food brand, Partake, which in addition to being gluten-free and vegan, are also made without the nine most common allergens – peanuts, eggs, dairy, soy, tree nuts, sesame, fish, wheat, shellfish.
But Woodard wanted her line to be more than just safe, she needed it to be delicious enough to appeal to fussy kids’ palates.
“All I was seeing on store shelves was ‘free from this,’ and I didn’t want foods that were exclusionary; I wanted inclusivity,” she said.
That inclusivity is the driving force of her brand, because food is more than just something that nourishes the body, food plays a huge part in so many social activities, and being shut out from traditionally kid-oriented things like birthday cake or even cookies and milk, can have an isolating effect on a child.
She left a flourishing career at Coca-Cola where she was promoted to Director of National Sales, Venturing and Emergent Brands after nearly 7 years working her way up the ladder and leapt headstrong into the world of CPG startups. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s one Woodard is happy she made every day, and just seven years later, Partake cookies, snacks, and breakfast food mixes can be found in Wegmans, Target, Kroger, and Walmart, among other stores.
As Woodard and family pack up to make their big move from New York City to Los Angeles, she took a few minutes to chat.
FOOD DIVE: What was the first job you ever had?
DENISE WOODARD: As a hostess at On the Border [a Mexican restaurant] in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I realized that while I loved the restaurant industry, it was not necessarily what I was best suited for. So I ended up working part time jobs through high school and college in retail apparel.
What inspired you to focus on your current work?
WOODARD: My daughter. It’s interesting because neither my husband nor I have any allergies, so I hadn't really thought about it. But on Thanksgiving, 2015, my daughter was only about seven months old and she ate something that had baked egg in it. She ended up in the emergency room, with what they thought was just a stomach bug. But then we gave her egg a couple of weeks later and she had a similar reaction and realized there was more to it. The severity didn't really hit home until we tested for food allergies around her first birthday, and learned that she was allergic to tree nuts. We had known about the egg allergy, so we gave her a snack with just two ingredients—corn oil and peanuts because we knew she wasn't allergic to peanuts. We were trying to do an early introduction to peanuts to hopefully prevent an allergy, and she had a very severe anaphylactic response with her lips swelling up, her tongue swelling up, and she turned blue in our living room. Thank God we had a couple of EpiPens and lived close to a hospital. That’s how we learned that she was allergic to corn.
That’s when it really hit home that this was going to be a part of our everyday life. That was April of 27th, 2016. Immediately after that I started to look for foods that were safe—brands that I felt I could trust, but I kept coming up empty, and wanted to do something about it. I incorporated Partake on June 1, 2016.
What is the biggest change you have seen while working your current role?
WOODARD: I've seen more openness from founders, sharing that [entrepreneurship] isn't necessarily a super glamorous journey. It's fulfilling for sure but I think oftentimes it gets glamorized in an unrealistic way.
I've also seen more companies with a focus on a triple bottom line—brands that are focused on doing good for their people and for the planet. And I hope that that becomes table stakes. as things continue to evolve.
What was harder than you thought it would be? What was easier?
WOODARD: What was harder than I expected it to be was asking for help. I had so many resources at my fingertips at Coca Cola that I took for granted. And those resources didn't exist when I started Partake. And so having the humility—as a very introverted person—to go out and ask for help and share what I was struggling with . . . that was harder than I expected. It has gotten easier over time, thankfully, but that was harder than I expected.
What was easier than I expected was getting into retail stores.I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were really frustrated with food allergies. I expected families with food allergies to support us, but the broader wellness community that supported our brand, and what that did for us in terms of making it a bit easier to get into retail? That was much easier than I expected.
What is a misconception that people have about you when they first meet you?
WOODARD: They think I’m a good baker. I leave that to the professionals. I am not a baker
What do you think will be the biggest change in the industry in 10 years?
WOODARD: As I mentioned earlier, I’m starting to see that focus on a Triple Bottom Line. I'm hoping that over the next decade, it becomes table stakes that companies exist for a bigger reason other than just making money.
What do you wish someone would have told you about your current role when you started?
WOODARD: Just a reminder that I’m smarter and stronger than I thought. I’ve wasted so much time on impostor syndrome. And so I think folks sharing that it can be done and that you're smarter than you think and you're stronger than you think. It’s something that I still have to remind myself of.
What would be the foods of your last meal?
WOODARD: A random hodgepodge: My mom’s Korean and my dad’s Black and my favorite two foods— from my dad, fried chicken, and from my mom, kimchi. And I love sushi but that's what I would go with. And dessert? Partake cookies!