Ivy’s Garden: Growing a gluten-free Asian food business online.

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

The niche market chosen by online marketing entrepreneurs Ivy Lau and Mark Ivey—gluten-free, home-style, fresh-frozen Asian food—seems to be, just like their shared first and last name, a matter of destiny.

Niche markets are created, after all, by identifying consumer needs and desires that are being addressed inadequately—and developing and delivering the goods or services to fill that gap.

Ivy and Ivey’s newly launched gluten-free food company, Ivy’s Garden Foods, was born of the couple’s joint expertise in marketing communications, Ivy’s life-long devotion to Asian cuisine—and her medical diagnosis, seven years ago, of gluten intolerance.

Gluten-free food isn’t easy to find—and gluten can lurk in unexpected cooking ingredients, such as soy sauce, or even in nominally gluten-free foods that were processed with the same equipment as food items containing gluten. Ivy personally experienced the frustrations and dangers that face the home cook trying to protect a susceptible family member.

“I understand the lack of food options, and I am a good chef. So Mark and I decided to build a food company to provide gluten-free Asian dishes.”

To date, Ivy’s Garden is producing and marketing three fresh-frozen, Chinese chicken dishes, with plans to launch both meat and vegetarian gluten-free entrees in the future. Demand for Ivy’s Asian food samples was strong at the three West Coast road shows the company participated in recently, in San Diego, Palo Alto and Portland. “Gluten-free consumers snapped up our samples and often came back for seconds,” says Ivy. “And now the orders are starting to roll in.”

There were a lot of challenges—even for a great home cook like Ivy—in making the leap to the commercial production, packaging and shipping of frozen food that has to arrive looking and tasting great. There were also a lot of regulations.

“Any food products that include meat have to be produced in a USDA kitchen,” Ivy explains. “We have a USDA kitchen—a team of six to eight people—to manufacture the food for us. They do all the shopping, cooking and packaging, using our recipes, ingredients and cooking methods.”

But Ivy is still involved at every step of the way, directing and supervising. “I’m present during every production.”

The company employs a variety of specialists and contractors on a part-time basis: production managers, project managers, marketing and PR support people, food consultants, shipping support, and others.

“They’re all part of our extended team,” says Ivy, who was head of a successful graphic and web design agency in Silicon Valley for 18 years. “It’s a similar model to the one Mark and I used in serving big high-tech companies in corporate America. But this time we’re making and marketing food instead of communications and graphic design services.”

Ivy—who was nicknamed “Chinese Supermom” by her daughter—wanted to create gluten-free versions of the food she learned to love and cook growing up in a close-knit family in Hong Kong. “My mom was a great chef,” she explains, “and our family enjoyed eating—like most people in Hong Kong!”

After Ivy and Mark—a journalist from Texas who wrote for BusinessWeek and served as a high-tech national media spokesman for Intel and others—blended their families a few years ago, Ivy was determined to keep her cherished food traditions alive.
“I have long believed, ‘You are what you eat.’ But I started taking cooking much more seriously after I had my daughter, thinking, I am responsible for the life that I brought into this world! I began to really focus on natural, fresh ingredients for our meals everyday. I started making baby food, from all fresh nature ingredients, and would freeze them immediately, so it captured all the favors and nutrients—which is what we do at Ivy’s Garden: all ingredients are ‘frozen fresh.’”

Ivy says that she loves the creative challenges involved with growing a brand-new company. “Starting a business is never easy—especially a food business! There are lots of government and USDA regulations, but I truly believe those are necessary for the public health. It took us two years from marketing research to actually producing products.”

The niche that Ivy and Mark discovered for themselves happens to have a very large market potential. Packaged Facts projects that U.S. sales of gluten-free foods and beverages will exceed $6.6 billion by 2017. The market for gluten-free foods and beverages reached $4.2 billion in 2012, for a compound annual growth rate of 28% over the 2008-2012 period.

Ivy has been able to put all her skills and experience to good use in the creation of Ivy’s Garden, reinforcing the concepts of freshness, elegance and a love of food in their packaging and presence on the Web. They used WordPress to build their website. “I have a lot of experience with blog design,” Ivy explains. “We had used MoveableType to design some Cisco internal and external blog sites. We had used WordPress to design Sprint's blog site. So I have a deep understanding of the capabilities of blog software.”

It’s certainly handy for an Internet entrepreneur to have a professional background in graphic design. Ivy designed the company’s website herself, using Photoshop. She hired “an extremely talented programmer from San Francisco” to implement the programming. For the site’s shopping cart, they used Shopp, a plugin for WordPress. For a merchant account gateway, they used “First Data,” because it tied in with Ivy’s Bank of America Merchant account.
Mark’s expertise in communications and social media is helping Ivy’s Garden connect with its target customers. Food shows are another source—and the couple is exploring other outreach possibilities as well.

Ivy feels that running a successful agency for so many years paved the way for the launch of Ivy’s Garden. “I’m accustomed to dealing with clients, processes, systems, balancing budgets, etc. Now rather than big high-tech, I’m doing it in the food industry.”

Mark’s skills in branding, communication and corporate identity have also been key. “Our background is in online marketing,” says Ivy, “so it was natural for us to sell online.” The couple is actively pursuing other marketing channels, including certain types of retail vendors for food from Ivy’s Garden.
Eating together is essential, Ivy believes, to family happiness. She knows that her family’s healthy eating and dining habits have played a big role in her kids' powerful family identification and personal development. “This is my strong belief in what I’m doing with this company: encouraging healthy eating, and a healthy lifestyle.”

Ivy saw first-hand how one family member’s problems metabolizing gluten can lead an entire family to go gluten-free, especially if they care about sitting down to meals together. This of course expands the market potential.

Packaged Foods’ survey from last year shows that 18% of adults in the U.S. are buying or consuming food products tagged as gluten-free. “Even if the market slows—which it will eventually,” says Ivy, “We’ll be in good shape.”

The Ivy's Garden Foods website is here and you can also read additional recipes on their blog.

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