The inspiration for Partake, a popular Black-owned startup that sells cookies for those with diet restrictions, came from founder Denise Woodard‘s frustration. The mom was having a hard time finding foods and snacks for her daughter, who has some very particular and serious food allergies.
“My daughter Vivian is five now but shortly after her first birthday we had a big scare with food allergies,” she says. “We realized that she has several of them. So she’s allergic to most tree nuts, eggs, corn, and bananas, which is an odd combination [laughs]. It makes it really hard to shop.”
During a conversation with her daughter’s nanny a few years ago, she shared the true struggle it is to buy food for Vivian. As someone not vegan, eating gluten-free or with dietary restrictions of her own, Woodard thought shopping for those types of products in stores would easily bring about the healthiest options for her daughter. She quickly realized that wasn’t the case.
“They’re often worse than the normal stuff,” she says. “There’s more sugar, artificial ingredients, gums and stabilizers and starches and weird stuff you can’t understand to try and make them taste normal.”
Products that did fit the bill and were a healthy option for Vivian, she wouldn’t eat. Woodard also noticed that there was nothing appealing about a lot of the snacks made with dietary restrictions in mind compared to the treats most kids consume and share with each other.
“Not to be diminishing because I was really thankful that the brands were providing a safe solution, but they weren’t particularly ‘cool,'” she says. “I started to think about how my daughter, as she grew up, so many of her most fond childhood memories would involve food, whether it was childhood playdates or birthday parties or holidays, and how she wouldn’t be able to confidently participate and how that would weigh on her self-esteem and create really negative feelings around food.”
The nanny encouraged her to start a food company to change this, and that’s when Partake was born. The Jersey City, New Jersey-based company started in 2017. And if you’re wondering why Woodard thought to launch it with cookies, she says that’s because she wanted to create something fun and convenient for families.
“Having food allergies or dietary restrictions robs the joy and celebratory feeling out of eating. I wanted to create something fun, something people could indulge in but still feel good about, and something that people could take on the go,” she says. “I remember once we were in a small terminal at the DFW airport and literally there was not one snack that my daughter could have in the entire airport. Our flight was delayed and I was near tears. So I didn’t want other people to have that same experience.”
In the beginning, Partake was a self-distributed and self-funded brand. Woodard was delivering cookies from her car. But after demand grew and she received the opportunity to sell out of Whole Foods and in Wegman’s, she realized she would need outside capital to grow the business. Partake raised several hundred thousand dollars over a span of six months with support from friends and family, but a lot of self-sacrifices were necessary to keep the business afloat. She emptied her 401k and even sold her engagement ring to make it happen.
Despite that, the business was operating well and cookies were selling, so she was confident. It was just expensive. And when she tried to raise a seed around the funding, she received about “86 nos.” It was frustrating and draining. Potential investors were skeptical and felt the category of snacks was either too crowded or not big enough. There were also concerns about the fact that she didn’t have a team helping her, but that’s because she couldn’t afford one.
“It really wore on my confidence. Knowing that I started the company for my daughter and while she’s young, she gets it. If the business fails, that was one thing. But looking her in the eye and telling her I quit on something that I started because of her because I wanted something better for her, was just not something I was willing to do,” she says.
So she kept pushing and eventually, funding came in and attracted the attention of big-name investors, including Jay-Z, Rihanna, and singer H.E.R. Jay-Z’s support came first through his firm, Marcy Venture Partners, which helps to build up businesses that can have an impact on the culture.
Partake continued to move in the right direction and hit the goals they shared, which also helped to get MVP on board.
“Our mission resonated with them,” she says. “I think they enjoyed the products and really believed in me and what we were doing. I think oftentimes it just takes that first yes. I will say the fundraising journey got a lot easier after the folks at Marcy got involved. Our product didn’t change. Our business didn’t change, it’s just having the right people believing in you.”
The company has grown significantly since then, a “night and day” difference according to Woodard. In 2020, she was able to hire a team after she was initially the only full-time employee. She went from an already impressive 350 stores to having cookies sold in 3,500 stores. She’s looking for the cookies to be in 5,500 stores by the end of January. Partake is also moving into baking mixes and has other new snacks coming.
And the pandemic was a pretty good time for the brand because of all the snacking people were doing at home.
“We went into Target nationally. We expanded with Whole Foods in July. We went into Sprouts in March,” she says.
Also, as the fight for social justice was happening in the summer, people were looking to support more Black-owned brands, so Partake saw an increase in sales.
“That was very transformational for our brand,” she says.
Partake didn’t just sit back and enjoy the sales bump, though. Instead, Woodard pushed for the brand to partner with the Food Equality Initiative to provide allergy-friendly foods to food-insecure families. She also launched a Black Futures in Food & Beverage Fellowship with five HBCUs.
“As the business grows, we hope to only have a more positive impact on the culture, on society,” she says.
Woodard’s goals are definitely reachable. She would like Partake to have more fellowships, provide more mentorship opportunities for Black women entrepreneurs, and for the beloved snacks to be in even more stores all across the country — and the world. The growth of her company is especially impressive when considering all the nos that initially came her way. She advises other women entrepreneurs to not let such things stand in their way either.
“Just continue to take small baby steps in the right direction. And also as you’re starting things, make sure you understand what your purpose is,” she says. “Because if I had started this company just to make money, I would have quit a long time ago. But because I had a much bigger purpose in what I was trying to do, it gave me the fuel to continue to keep going.”
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