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."