Kids love spaghetti and meatballs more or less universally, and have for most of remembered history.
Parenting and food fads for kids have changed a lot over the last two decades, but the intrinsic appeal of spaghetti to children under the age of 10 is hard to overstate.
Which is why Mason Arnold found himself with a big problem when wheat gluten fell off the menu at his house after a doctor told him his two young children weren’t able to properly process it.
“I didn't want them to miss out on spaghetti and meatballs,” said Arnold. That led him to found Cece's Veggie Co., which makes noodle and rice alternatives out of fresh vegetables for kids that can’t eat the traditional grain-based version, or for parents looking to give their pasta-loving offspring a healthier alternative to empty carbs.
“And as a parent, you always want your kids to eat more vegetables, too,” he told Inc.
Before building a business, Arnold’s first goal was much smaller. He just wanted to create substitutes for things his kids would otherwise want to eat, were it not for the forbidden wheat gluten contained within them. It wasn’t until 2015 that Austin-based Cece’s Veggie Co. launched in earnest — but as it turned out, that just happened to be the perfect time for the young firm to plant its flag in the rapidly growing world of gluten-free products and offerings.
Because Arnold is far from the only parent who has found himself looking for a gluten-free option for children who are unable to digest it — and hoping that product might also taste good and not be a collection of high-tech preservatives.
The numbers back up that assertion: worldwide, the gluten-free pasta market is expected to grow to $1.28 billion by 2025, up from $909.8 million in 2017, according to a report earlier this summer by Allied Market Research. And that growing hunger among consumers for gluten-free pasta products has pushed grocery stores to stock more on their shelves — a trend in the market that has pushed Cece’s Veggie Co. from a kitchen table operation to placement in around 3,500 Whole Foods, Kroger and Costco stores across the U.S., and $25 million in revenue in 2018.
Still, early days for the firm were slow going. Cece's was totally bootstrapped in those days — to the extent that the company’s payroll was paid via Arnold’s personal credit card a couple of times during its first year in business. In 2016 a $100,000 loan from angel investors and a $1 million convertible note helped matters, but the firm still struggled to keep up with back orders.
It wasn’t until 2017 when the firm raised $14 million in a private equity round that it was able to build a proper manufacturing factory and begin making veggie pasta at scale.
The secret to making veggie-based pasta, Arnold said, is to understand at base what pasta really is for most people — a sauce delivery mechanism.
“Most people use pasta to shove sauce into their pie hole,” Arnold said. “The goal was to most closely replicate traditional pasta and give people that comfort food experience.”
The “comfort food experience” according to Arnold, means the product can’t just basically resemebly pasta, it has to behave like pasta. It needs to hold and absorb sauces correctly. When the customer sticks their fork into the plate, he said, they want the “veggiccine” noodles made from butternut squash to wrap themselves around the fork properly.
The market for veggie noodles has grown, and Cece’s Veggie Co. still faces challenges. Because its noodles are made from fresh produce, their shelf life is a comparatively short two weeks. And hiring workers can be a challenge, because all the products need to be assembled in a cold room to keep them optimally fresh.
“It takes a wonderful kind of person to do that and to do it well,” Arnold said.
But today the firm is about 200 workers strong and is working on its next line of veggie-based noodle goods — a ramen soup kit made with veggie noodles. And although the market is an increasingly competitive place and one more crowded with ever larger competitors, Arnold remains optimistic about the future.
The firm, he said, has already grown larger than he ever would have imagined in its early days when he was just trying to solve the problem of dinner for his gluten-intolerant children, because the market has grown — and it shows every sign it will continue to do so.