Where did the head of cauliflower grow up? Cauli-fornia!
Actually, that is no joke; in fact, 90 percent of America’s cauliflower is grown in California, and considering the vegetable’s recent climb to veggie super-stardom, this bodes well for farmers. This former wallflower of the vegetable aisle has morphed its way into the daily American diet due to its unique ability to work as a replacement for virtually all carbohydrates. For Amy Lacey, the founder and owner of the 2016 Chico-born Cali’flour Foods, the nutritional profile of this cruciferous vegetable helped begin an amazing, unexpected, and extremely successful entrepreneurial venture. Cauliflower has catapulted her into a new life running a multi-million-dollar company, writing two books to date, and flying all over the country as a sought-after public speaker. It all started with a mother-daughter kitchen experiment.
Cali’flour Foods began in Amy’s kitchen after she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease believed to be affected by diet. Amy was also working as a certified life and health coach, assisting Chico clients in reaching weight loss and health goals. Her lupus and her work with clients sent her in search of good options for healthier eating.
As in many of our households, a family favorite at the Lacey house is pizza. But that family favorite pizza was crying out for some healthy improvements. Amy and her eleven-year- old daughter Caroline began trying some of the many cauliflower pizza crust recipes, one from a friend and more found during a quick Google search. Most crusts didn’t satisfy Amy or her family, and so began the quest for the perfect cauliflower pizza crust recipe.
Because of Amy’s clear vision for a product with no fillers or preservatives that was made with all whole-food ingredients, their recipe went through many iterations. At last, persistence in their kitchen laboratory paid off, and mother and daughter struck success with their unique version. The recipe was a hit at home and with friends.
Amy says in her book, The Clean Switch, “You can’t taste the cauliflower at all. With a generous dash of marinara sauce, some fresh basil, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and a few slices of turkey pepperoni, it tastes just like . . . real pizza.”
With the encouragement of family and friends, many of whom eventually became employees, Amy began producing two original variations of the pizza crust for sale at the Chico Farmers’ Market in spring of 2016, Sweet Red Pepper and Italian. There was huge demand for the product, which regularly sold-out. Realizing something special was happening, Amy decided it was time to take her pizza crusts to the next level, and her company, Cali’flour Foods quickly took off.
THE FUSS ABOUT CAULIFLOWER
Cauliflower is nutritionally sound, as it packs vitamins C, K, and B6, plus potassium, fiber, and folate. It has no fat or cholesterol and only 15 calories in half a cup. And, it turns out, cauliflower is kind of a vegetable chameleon. When cooked, cauliflower’s basic and bland nature easily absorbs other flavors. In processing and preparation, it can be riced or mashed like potatoes, sliced and grilled like steaks, and even ground into a “flour” to make an assortment of bread-like products. Diets low in carbohydrates have been popular for several years, and cauliflower is filling tummies with low-carb replacements for many daily staples. It also is meeting the needs in gluten-free, Keto, and plant-based diets, among others. According to a 2018 report from the market research firm Nielson, we can now find thirty-six categories of food in our grocery stores that feature cauliflower. In addition, Nielson reports that sales of cauliflower-based refrigerated foods rose 108 percent in the past year. Between 2012 and 2016, the amount of cauliflower sold by farmers doubled, and it has continued to rise.
FROM FARMERS’ MARKET TO EVERY MARKET
Online sales expanded Amy’s business from the local farmers’ market at the end of 2016. Within a few months, the crusts were also offered on Amazon. The game changer occurred when the company began advertising on Facebook. Health-conscious customers posted testimonials that went viral.
Cali’flour Foods found its audience and now serves an online community of over 500,000 customers across the nation. Diane Needles, a local early adopter, says Cali’flour foods have made a significant difference for her, personally, and for the health of her family. “The whole family loves the pizza crust. I’m trying to lose weight, and I use their products every day. It’s going great.”
In time, Amy and her team wanted to take their product to grocery stores. “I couldn’t afford to do grocery stores right away. New Earth Market here in Chico gave us our first shot and have been great supporters,” she says. S & S Organic Produce and local Safeway stores were the next to carry Cali’flour. Within a year, the products were being sold in Texas, Colorado, and New England states. Kroger Grocery reached out and asked to carry the pizza crusts. By the end of 2018, Cali’flour products will be in over 8,000 grocery stores nationwide.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Meeting the needs of their customers, referred to as the Cali’flour community, is a top priority. “We have a huge customer engagement, sales and marketing team with sixteen employees here in Chico,” Amy says. Customers wanted a zesty version of the pizza crust, so the test kitchen got to work.
Soon, the Spicy Jalapeno crust became available and is now the second most popular behind the original Italian crust. A plain crust was added to the array and it can be used for savory or sweet recipes. “We have a variety of recipes on our website—califlourfoods. com—and a cookbook coming out soon. The plain crust can be used as a pie crust or topped with sweet items for a dessert,” Amy says.
In early 2017, the Cali’flour community asked for a plant-based pizza crust. “This was tricky because you need something binding if you aren’t using cheese. We also wanted to keep it low-carb. We went back to research and development and modified the recipe until we got it right,” says Amy. She really emphasizes to grocery store chains the importance of the plant-based crust. Though it isn’t a top seller, she feels strongly that it is an important SKU (stockkeeping unit) serving a loyal clientele that will purchase these products.
In an effort to differentiate and uniquely serve her online community, special seasonal crust flavors like pumpkin spice or cinnamon spice are sold only through the website. “These crusts are a great alternative to use as holiday pie crusts,” promises Amy. Adding more variety to the product line are the newly launched Cauliflower Thins, a cauliflower-based snack cracker sold in three different flavors.
IN PURSUIT OF PERFECT PASTA
The creation of a cauliflower-based pasta product took time, diligence, and a few plane rides to the birthplace of the cuisine, Italy. Amy was unhappy with the results of the efforts to produce Cali’flour’s pasta in the U.S. She says that she felt discouraged as the rules about food production here are too loose and “it’s too much about making money.” She found a small family-run pasta company in Italy with whom a wonderful partnership was formed. “I basically call the owner my sibling. We are the same age, with the same background and values.” Their whole-food recipe is made with only two ingredients, cauliflower and lentils. The penne has already been a success, and a fusilli and spaghetti line are expected to be available by the year’s end. “I feel like we are onto something amazing. I’m excited because this pasta benefits diabetics, people with autoimmune challenges, people wanting low-carb diets, and all the busy moms who want to feed their children well with a hidden vegetable in the meal,” exudes Amy.
BACK TO CHICO ROOTS
Now a multi-product, multi-million dollar business, Cali’flour Foods produces its line of foods in the Central Valley where California grows most of its cauliflower, while maintaining its Chico roots. Its corporate office is still located in Chico. The company focuses on local giving through Cali’flour Cares, a charitable division. Moreover, Amy chose Chico as the place to launch Cali’Concept Kitchen, as the name suggests, brick and mortar places where the company can share healthy and convenient food with its customers. As of November, New Earth Market in Chico welcomed the first version of the Cali’Concept Kitchen inside its store. The menu features a variety of pizzas available on many of the Cali’flour crusts, as well as many other menu items, which customers can eat there or take out.
It’s more than a restaurant. “Beyond serving food to hungry patrons daily, we will have tasting nights, new product testing, and cooking classes,” explains Stephanie Galland, Northern California Community Coordinator for Cali’fl our Foods. Amy tapped Lora Adams, a friend and longtime Chico caterer, to run the new enterprise.
“Extraordinarily excited” about the opportunity, Lora touts the opportunity to off er pizza for all diets and demos and tastings throughout the store. Information about the Kitchen and the cooking classes can be found on the website: caliconceptkitchen.com.
From spring of 2016 to the end of 2018, Cali’fl our Foods has seen phenomenal growth. Says Amy, “I feel like Chico is sacred ground for entrepreneurs. I worked for Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada through college, I went to high school locally with Colleen Winters from Lulu’s. It’s like there is something in the water.”
Speaking of water, what kind of water yields the most beautiful cauliflower garden? Perspiration!
Most assuredly there has been plenty of that poured into this local success story. Pizza anyone?
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.