One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a mom who made sure her picky toddler got enough nutrients by sneaking puréed veggies into her food. The food was delicious, and although she wasn't a chef, Missy set out to share her culinary secrets with other moms by penning a cookbook. Her sneaky recipes resonated so much with parents, that now they're available on supermarket shelves and she's estimating revenues of over $1 million in the company's first year. -- Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Growing up as the youngest child of a bachelor Dad, whose talent in the kitchen began and ended with making toast, Missy Chase Lapine vowed that when she grew up, she was going to give her kids all the things that she missed most.
“My Dad always teases,” Missy laughed, “that he raised us over the telephone. He was so busy working to support four of us. So I knew from an early age that I wanted to find a way to be there when my own kids came home from school. I was determined to have the warm smell of cookies coming out of the oven when they walked in the door. Little did I know they’d be made with white bean purée.”
That’s right -- white bean purée -- one of hundreds of recipes that would become the foundation of a food empire that Missy never planned on. It was a recipe for success that began with her second daughter Samantha, who was born with severe food allergies.
“Sammy quickly humbled me,” Missy explained. “I was able to breastfeed our first daughter Emily for a year with no issues. And by the time she was a toddler, she was eating seaweed at Japanese restaurants. She loved trying new foods. But Samantha would get sick even with breastfeeding and we found out pretty quickly that she was allergic to nearly 50 things. Beyond that, she was a picky eater. She could eat most vegetables and legumes, but she didn’t want them.”
The good news was that before Missy had children she had built a career that allowed her to get lots of experience in the kitchen. First by working at "Gourmet" -- where even on the advertising side, a requirement of the job was to know how to prepare the magazine’s featured recipes -- and then, as the publisher of "Eating Well," where she refined not only her cooking skills, but her knowledge of nutrition.
So, while the mother of two thought she’d left that world behind her, when she chose to stay at home with her daughters she realized it was exactly the knowledge she needed when it came to feeding Samantha.
“Like any toddler, Sammy liked white foods -- pasta, mac and cheese, anything smooth and creamy. But I was worried that she wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed. I didn’t want to be that Mom who wouldn’t let her kids have dessert unless they finished their spinach. I grew up that way and I can tell you that cold spinach tastes really bad. And I wanted peace at the dinner table rather than stand-offs trying to get Sammy to eat her vegetables.”
That’s when Missy took a page from her magazine career and began thinking about the way many of her clients marketed their foods.
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“It’s all about presentation,” she said. “Kids eat with their eyes and they’ll reject most new foods without ever trying them. Sammy wouldn’t eat cauliflower. She thought it looked like a brain and smelled funny. So I went out and bought a $39 mini food processor, and in 30 seconds that same steamed cauliflower became a white creamy ingredient that I could slip into her mac and cheese. And she loved it."
“I’d still put a bowl of steamy broccoli on the table because I wanted to model good eating, but now the pressure was off. I knew she was getting what she needed, and anything beyond that was a bonus.”
Soon Missy was spending more and more time in the kitchen, with a row of mini food processors, coming up with color-coded purées that she could sneak into the foods her kids already loved.
“If you get them to take that first bite and it tastes weird, there won’t be a second bite. So I had to pick foods that had mild tastes, but were packed with great nutrients. I created an orange purée from sweet potatoes and carrots that I snuck into all kinds of pasta sauces, and a green version of spinach, broccoli and green peas that worked great with meatloaf. I even puréed white beans and slipped them into unbelievable chocolate chip cookies.”
“Suddenly, I felt like a super mom at every meal, and I wanted other Moms to feel that way too.”
So, Missy began thinking about taking another chapter from her publishing career, and decided it was time to share her secrets with Moms around the world, by writing a book. The only problem was, she wasn’t a writer, nor was she a nutritionist.
“At the time, only Food Network Celebrity Chefs were getting books published,” she recalled. “It was unheard of that a soccer mom would get a cookbook on the shelves, but I saw a void in the market. I knew that people understood the kinds of foods they should be giving their kids, but I was addressing the delivery system -- the way to get them to actually eat them. So, I devoted myself full-time to coming up with recipes and I found someone to help me put together a book proposal.”
“It took me ten months, but I kept a greeting card that I’d found, taped to my refrigerator. It read, ‘Never let the odds keep you from doing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.’"
That tenacity would not only land her a book deal, but it would launch a line of foods and a following of sneaky chefs around the world.
“It’s harder to get an agent than a publisher! But once I found one, I had six publishers fighting over the book! It was amazing, and when I found out my publisher had booked me on the Today Show, well, that was enough to give me a nervous breakdown. They wanted to test my Brainy Brownies. And, of course, they were testing them on kids who didn’t know their Mom had snuck spinach and blueberries into them.”
“So, there I was, live on national TV, watching as a Mom handed one to her four-year-old son,” Missy said with the trepidation still in her voice. “I was holding my breath at that point, because I knew that first bite could make me or break me. And then I saw a big smile come across his face. He loved it! Sneaky Chef was born at that moment. Within an hour of that show I had one of the top ten books on Amazon.com, and that week “The Sneaky Chef” hit the New York Times Bestseller list.”
That was April of 2007, and since then Missy has gone on to publish five more “Sneaky” books -- based on recipes that Moms wanted most -- that have sold nearly half a million copies. And now, she’s giving Moms what they’ve asked for since the start -- a way to find her home-grown recipes on supermarket shelves.
“I have unbelievably involved readers. I get dozens of letters every day. If you see me at the grocery store and I’m on my blackberry, there’s a good chance that I’m responding to a reader! What they told me was that they’re worried about what big companies are sneaking into foods and my readers know that I’ll only sneak in the good stuff.”
So, this year, instead of launching a new book, the soccer Mom who never let the odds of succeeding stand in her way has launched a line of products. With a team of angel investors and partners who have worked with companies that include Post and Kashi, The Sneaky Chef is making its way to supermarkets nationwide.
“What Moms seemed to want most was the pasta sauce, so we began there. But even with the team I have working with me there were still a lot of manufacturers that wouldn’t talk with a start-up. And even when we found one, they almost fainted when I said no added sugar and no artificial anything. I definitely gave them a challenge!”
Today, Sneaky Chef pasta sauces can be found on the shelves of Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast, at natural food retailers in the region, and directly through the Sneaky Chef website. By fall, they’ll be on the shelves of more than 3,000 stores across the country.
There’s also pasta made from whole grains, with six hidden vegetables, that when cooked, serves up white -- fooling even the most discerning five-year-old customer. And a No Nut butter, which is made from golden peas -- that is not only on its way to supermarkets, but is being considered by airlines and schools as a peanut butter alternative. In its first year, Missy’s company is already projecting revenues well in excess of a million dollars.
“We’ve got an endless list of products in the pipeline, but we rely on our sneaky moms to tell us what they want us to launch next. That’s the question we always ask -- what would Moms say? And when I put that question out to our Mom ambassadors, I get thousands of answers in 24 hours.”
“I’m no different than them,” Missy said modestly. “I’m not a trained chef. I’m just a Mom who wanted to make sure my kids got the foods they needed, without sacrificing the foods they loved. I wasn’t thinking in terms of starting a business, I just wanted to share things that worked with other Moms. If you can follow that passion, you’ll never feel like you’re working. If you can pay the bills and do what you love, you’ve won the lottery.”
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