Amy Lacey's multimillion-dollar business, Cali'flour Foods, started because the California mom wanted to save a beloved family tradition: pizza night.
Every Friday evening Lacey, her husband, Jim, and their three young children, James, Caroline and Grant, would settle in at their Chico, California, home to play hours of "Clue," "Uno" or "Junior Monopoly," all while eating pizza — usually with pepperoni but sometimes with Canadian bacon and pineapple. But sometime in 2008, Lacey started to feel like something was off. She would wake up on Saturday mornings with extreme pain in her joints and red bumpy rashes that looked kind of like poison oak.
Unfortunately, it was something much more sinister.
In November 2010, Lacey was diagnosed with Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue, causing inflammation and pain.
“I went to town on just learning everything that I could on my disease, " Lacey, now 48, tells CNBC Make It. "I learned there are millions and millions of people who have either connective tissue disorder or some kind of inflammation that I believe is caused by the food that they’re eating."
Mainstream medicine may not wholly agree; there's no overarching diet prescribed to combat Lupus other than avoiding garlic, alfalfa sprouts and saturated fats (like those in fried snack foods and red meat) while eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in fatty acids, according to The Johns' Hopkins Lupus Center. However, Lacey noticed that when she ate processed foods (like pizza), she experienced more inflammation.
So she revamped her habits.
Cooking had always been a passion of Lacey’s, and her grade-school daughter Caroline loved to cook, too. So the pair experimented — they altered the ingredients of popular foods to concoct their own, healthier versions.
“It was really about us bonding together, cooking and finding a way to make unhealthy foods healthy again,” Lacey says. “So cookies, pancakes, waffles, pasta, things like that; changing them so I could actually eat them. "
Determined not to give up pizza night, Lacey found a plethora of do-it-yourself recipes for cauliflower-crust pizza online; instead of bread as a base, these recipes featured the mashed veggie.
Lacey and her daughter decided to give it a try. “In the kitchen, it became this huge mess, disaster, there was cauliflower everywhere. It was in our hair, it was on the ground,” Lacey recalls.
But the final product, which tastes similar to a rustic flatbread pizza crust, was a hit with her family — even with her son, James (now 15), who typically shunned vegetables. So for fun, Lacey started making cauliflower crusts more often at home, as well as for friends and clients (Lacey started life coaching in 2013 to help others after her diagnosis). She held "health happy hours" once a month and served slices of her cauliflower crust pizza.
Then, in February 2016, Caroline suggested Lacey sell her crusts at the local farmer’s market. Lacey had an entrepreneurial spirit: She had previously worked in hospital and pharmaceutical sales, and had even built and sold a medical technology business. So Lacey and Caroline rented out an industrial kitchen, put on hairnets and gloves and got to work perfecting the recipe for a frozen cauliflower crust.
“I can remember slipping and falling and wiping out, not just once but many times because of pieces of cauliflower on the ground or slippery eggs,” Lacey says. "I had wished that someone had been filming it.”
Lacey also remembers trying to hide their creative recipe from others renting space in the same industrial kitchen. At the time, while there were veggie pizzas on the market, Lacey says commercially prepared cauliflower crust had not yet become ubiquitous.
“It just like felt like we were these secret spies trying to create something,” Lacey says.
Perfecting the recipe took some time; Lacey was working hard to get the cauliflower to bind together without the use of fillers. It took many iterations and a lot of cauliflower. In fact, on Mother's Day that year, Lacey's kids surprised her and got to work in the industrial kitchen as a gift to their mom.
"They processed 300 pounds of cauliflower," Lacey remembers. “That was the best Mother’s Day present I ever had, those kids worked so hard.”
In April 2016, Lacey and Caroline, as well as Dana Grant (a co-founder whom Lacey brought on but then bought out that December), set up shop at the local Thursday-night farmer's market with their Italian cauliflower crust (the same one that's sold today), a red pepper crust (which incorporated red pepper seasoning along with the staple ingredients) and zucchini noodles made from spiralized zucchini. They offered two pizza crusts for $10 and zucchini noodles for $3.95 a pound, and the items were selling out — every time. People began calling Lacey between farmer’s markets, asking if they could order some of the pasta or pizza crust and pick it up at her house.
It seemed Lacey had a hit on her hands. But she only had the capital — money from the first business she built and sold — to take one of the products to market. She opted for the pizza crust, which she believed was the more popular option. Cali'flour Foods was born.
That December, Lacey shifted from selling at the farmer's market to online sales to grow the business. Still, the business ended 2016 with debts of more than $250,000.
Hoping to ramp up sales, Lacey started selling Cali’flour Foods product on Amazon in February 2017. While offering their products on Amazon wasn't really a game-changer — Amazon currently accounts for only 10 percent of Cali'flour's sales, according to Lacey — Facebook was another story. A story Lacey posted about a woman who lost 169 pounds, thanks in large part to eating Cali’flour crust for seven months, went viral on the social media platform.
The $50 Lacey spent on a Facebook ad to promote that post was well worth it: “Her story sold $124,000 worth of pizza,” Lacey says.
It was the catalyst Cali’flour Foods needed to gain traction. And after discovering the power of Facebook advertising, Lacey's company ended 2017 with over $5 million in revenue. While not in the black yet, success was swiftly starting to stick.
Now, the company touts its crusts as an alternative to bread products for people who are diabetic or suffer from autoimmune diseases or celiac disease (who can't eat gluten). Each crust is gluten-free, with 6 grams of carbs, 180 calories and 15 grams of protein. The crusts are made with just four ingredients (fresh cauliflower, eggs, mozzarella and spices), making them a popular choice among health nuts, low-carb enthusiasts (like paleo and ketogenic dieters) and “clean eaters. " Lacey says the crust can be used to replace everything from bread to lasagna noodles to quiche crust to crackers. As is the case with most products, though, Cali'flour's crusts aren't free from critics; common complaints include poor packaging of the product and loose consistency of the crust.
Currently, the company offers crusts in five flavors, including spicy jalapeno, original Italian and a plant-based, vegan option. They’re fairly pricey; a five pack of the original Italian crust, for example, is $64.50. But with a reported 50 million Americans suffering from an autoimmune disease, people are paying for them: The company is projecting to do $20 million in sales this year, according to Lacey. On Amazon, the original Italian flavor is ranked No. 1 in the “pizza crust” category overall (not just gluten-free) beating out products from big brands like Whole Foods’ 365 and Betty Crocker.
“I think people just appreciate the transparency of the ingredients and it fits their lifestyle,” Lacey says. “People are trying to eat healthier now. Some out of necessity — like myself, they have to because they’re sick — and others don’t want to get sick or they’re trying to lose weight or they’re trying to feel better. "
Indeed, consumers are eating healthier; sales of packages of cauliflower “rice,” zucchini noodles and vegetable-based replacements for pasta and other simple carbs climbed to $47 million this year, The New York Times reports, and sales of cauliflower substitutes doubled to a whopping $17 million.
The demand for healthy alternatives has certainly not gone unnoticed by other big brands: Trader Joe’s launched its own cauliflower crust in 2017, for example, and other companies similar to Cali’flour, like CauliPower (founded in 2016), have cropped up.
This year, Cali’flour is heavily focused on getting into more grocery stores; currently, they’re in 2,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Albertson’s, Safeway and Kroger, as well as smaller chains like Hy-Vee, but Lacey would like to be in 6,000 by the end of 2018. The company now has 50 employees at its manufacturing facility in Salinas, California, and 11 employees on its sales, marketing and research development team in Chico.
Cali’flour Foods even has a cookbook slated to publish in 2019, featuring 125 recipes that can be made with its cauliflower crust.
"I originally created cauliflower pizza crusts out of a personal need, but am so grateful for the impact it has had on so many," Lacey says. "I could never have imagined the mass movement it would start when we introduced the first cauliflower pizza crust to the market."
This story has been updated with information on a former company co-founder.
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!