Rebecca Peress was working for a restaurant company in Washington, D.C., when she came to a difficult realization: the food she ate was making her sick. Because of an autoimmune disorder, the sugar in her diet made her light-headed to the point of almost blacking out after breakfast. Her doctor offered a stark solution: cut out all sugar from her diet for a year.
Peress started eating more vegetables and began feeling a lot better, but making all those meals out of healthy food was time-consuming. Trying to cook up a grab-and-go meal, she hit upon the idea of making waffles out of yucca root (also known as cassava), which tends to be well-tolerated by people with food allergies. She eventually gave them a name: Swapples.
“When I cooked up Swapples for myself and brought them into work for lunch, my boss and other co-workers began paying me to make the same for them,” said Peress, a 2014 graduate of George Washington University. Their enthusiasm gave her a vision of starting a business while helping people with similar health challenges. So she quit her job and started a company. “I created an LLC and decided to go for it even though I had no idea what I was doing,” says Peress.
She did have the insight, however, that there would be a sizable consumer base for such a product. Swapples contain no eggs, peanuts, soy, dairy, gluten or grains among the ingredients, which makes the product suitable for vegan, paleo and gluten-free diets.
“There are several, similar products out there that are created for those with food restrictions, but they often miss the boat because many are made of starch derivatives or fillers to make them have a certain texture or taste,” Peress said. “We don’t use flour, baking soda or baking powder because we like to be pure fruits and vegetables. Swapples are one of the very few products on the market that do not contain most major allergens so that people who have autoimmune disorders, allergies or dietary restrictions can find something to eat that has the texture of waffles but doesn’t taste like a substitute.”
Peress, 25, now works with Pilotworks Brooklyn (formerly called Foodworks), a commercial kitchen and incubator on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Since PilotWorks began distributing Swapples in Brooklyn last September, orders have increased 40 to 45%, according to Chris Wren, Pilotworks Brooklyn’s national director of distribution and wholesale. “Vegan is more than a trend in Brooklyn,” says Wren. “It is its own category. Riverdel in Prospect Heights, for example, is one of the few stores in the country that only sells vegan products.”
“Swapples can be a snack or it can make for a full meal and it has savory or sweet flavors,” Wren told The Bridge. “It’s a fairly premium product.” Sweet flavors include blueberry and cinnamon. “We also have three savory flavors that are meant to taste like bagels, pizza, and garlic bread,” Peress said.
Having established a foothold, the challenge for Peress now is to scale up the business. To increase production, Peress secured a loan through Kiva, the micro-lending platform. After submitting an application, an entrepreneur can get an interest-free loan for up to $10,000. “Anyone who is browsing the platform, as well as friends and family, can contribute,” Peress said. “Once you reach your goal, you’re given the money.”
For food-industry startups, expansion depends a lot on how much money they can raise. “Foodpreneurs buy all the raw materials up front, from food ingredients to packaging and labels to shipping cartons, and sometimes weeks in advance in order to get them to their co-packer or process them into their branded products, which costs money,” said Patrick Nycz, founding president of NewPoint Marketing. “They also may have to buy time, or extra time, in a commissary kitchen depending on the number of orders coming in that need to be produced and packaged.”
Peress’ company, according to Wren, is well situated to move to the next level. “We are actively helping Swap Foods to find the right co-packer and manufacturing facility so that Rebecca can scale the production of Swapples and access markets across the country,” says Wren. PilotWorks Brooklyn offers guidance to 160 food brands, connecting them with business partners as well as prospective investors.