Meandering through the aisles of Whole Foods Market recently, I was THRILLED to see a Muffin Revolution demo happening in the freezer section. I’ve been trying to replicate my favorite muffin of theirs for quite some time, and this was my chance to beg them to share their secrets.
What’s Muffin Revolution, you ask? It’s an East Bay homespun muffin-making bonanza that changes everything you’ve ever thought about a muffin! I’ve been on board with these delicious, nutritious treats from the jump — the ladies who started Muffin Revolution are members of my climbing gym, and that’s where the muffins got their start. The first time I saw them, I may or may not have yelled “BRILLIANT!” at the top of my lungs … no one can be sure. The climbing gym can be a loud place after all.
I’ve gone through phases of eating an MR muffin 3 or 4 times a week, grabbing one on my way out the door of the gym to save for breakfast the next morning (or more frequently two muffins if I knew the one intended for breakfast wasn’t going to make it all the way home). The gym brilliantly allows us to just charge muffins to our account, which makes it much easier to grab and go as you’re leaving. I love these muffins because they’re more than just a sweet treat. They’re a meal in a muffin. I can eat one for breakfast and not need anything til lunch. They’re made almost exclusively with paleo-friendly ingredients, so they’re a snack you can feel good about eating. It was no surprise to me at all when I learned that the cofounders were both professionally trained holistic chefs. These are not your average muffins.
When I realized my favorite muffins had become so popular that they were gracing the aisles of the Whole Foods freezer section, I literally jumped with joy! It always makes me so happy to see products I love doing so well.
Enthralled in a conversation about our mutual Italian heritage and passion for making nutrient-dense meals, co-founder Marirose Piciucco and I decided that we should sit down and talk for an official CWB muffin exclusive. She invited me to the Muffin Revolution kitchen (YES PLEASE!), showed me the AMAZING walk-in oven (they call it the Hansel and Gretel), and gave me the low-down on her budding business. As we talked, Christy Kovacs (co-founder) and Allyson, an intern from Bauman College’s Holistic Chef program came in to start the day’s work. Christy chimed in midway through, so you’ll hear from her too.
Background: The Seeds of a Muffin Revolution
CWB: You went to Bauman College and got your Holistic Chef Certification. Can you tell me how what you learned there has influenced your decisions in muffin design?
MP: If it weren’t for Bauman, we probably wouldn’t have come up with the paleo muffins. Every bite should count, and it should taste good – grain-free, gluten-free doesn’t have to “taste healthy.” We really focus on nutrient density in our products, but we didn’t start out all paleo.
Christy and I met at Bauman. We had similar cooking styles and were drawn to partner in the kitchen. When we graduated, we taught cooking classes. Our focus was nutrient density, social issues, and environmental issues – especially in teaching kids. “Here’s an animal on your plate. Where did it come from and how did it get here?” We weren’t bakers when we started, we were chefs.
CWB: How did you go from chefs to bakers?
MP: We were at the climbing gym when we came up with the idea. We thought “Wouldn’t it be great to have a product to eat at the gym that was more satisfying than a bar? Something portable?” We wanted to feed hikers, climbers, outdoors-people. We started with the idea of a savory muffin – better than a sandwich, more satisfying than a bar, and you can throw it in a backpack and go. We really meshed the cooking and the baking by starting out with something savory.
We started in my home kitchen, where we were teaching cooking classes, and brought them to the gym so our friends could try them. After a while, the gym manager offered to let us start selling them there. The grain-free paleo muffin started about a year after we launched the brand at the gym. We tested at farmers markets and found that people really enjoyed the different flavors. The paleo muffins appealed to a bigger audience than the savory ones did – gluten-free, grain-free, but familiar. As the paleo muffins became more popular, we phased out the savory muffins.
From Hobby to Business
CBW: What was the turning point for Muffin Revolution? I mean, when did it blossom from a hobby into a business idea?
MP: That’s a good question. I’d say once we got our 4th account and started getting Yelp reviews, it started to feel real. Someone set up a Yelp page for us – we didn’t even set it up ourselves. Christy? What would you say?
Christy: I think it was when we started working with Whole Foods that we went from “test-mode” to “business-mode.”
CWB: Yes, tell me about the process with Whole Foods, and congratulations on that! So exciting!
MP: We had never had dreamed of grocery stores, but when we were in a shared commercial kitchen, we found out about the Next Entrepreneur Conference, put on by Whole Foods. We applied. Weeks and weeks past, but we were eventually invited to come.
They asked us to do a mock-up of how we’d sell in a grocery store — we had no idea — but Christy’s also an artist. She came up with a mock-up. We went and bought just four clam shells and set up examples. This thing was at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland – it was a HUGE event, we hadn’t realized what we signed up for. Every contact we could possibly want was in this room with us, regional buyers, distributors, it was amazing. It hadn’t even occurred to us in our wildest dreams that Whole Foods would’ve been a possibility for us. The head of grocery came by and told us that they had 600 applications and they only accepted 30!
CWB: Wow!! That must have felt pretty good!
MP: I thought, “Do we get to scream now or later?!” It was so exciting. The head of frozen foods came by and said he could see our muffins in frozen and in the bakery section, so he called the bakery guy over. We watched them discuss how our product would fit on the Whole Foods shelves — it was surreal! They were especially excited about the paleo muffin we brought with us. A couple of weeks later, we set up a meeting with Brad the frozen foods guy. After that meeting, we got in the elevator and just started screaming!!
CWB: So it was time to ramp up then!
MP: Absolutely. We thought, “How do we go from working in my kitchen and this shared space to finding our own, dedicated gluten-free space?” The founder of Berkeley Kitchens [Jonah Hendrickson] offered us his last open space, and we really had to make a decision about sinking a lot of money into this business. We needed the capacity to grow, so we put our own money into it. We bought all the equipment in our kitchen ourselves.
Christy: [Jonah] was really careful in his application process – he told us he wanted companies that could be the “next Cliff bar.” This kitchen model is unique, because there are all these individual kitchens with all our own needs and special equipment. We couldn’t be a certified gluten-free space til we moved here.
CWB: So this was a major piece of the puzzle then — being certified gluten-free is huge. And the rest is history?
MP: Ha, no. It’s been a long journey. Whole Foods really walked us through the process of getting up and running with them. They were so helpful, offering wholesale vendor connections, showing us the ropes. We realized this wasn’t just something we could sell at cafés and gyms, this was something that could be really big. There really are no grain-free paleo options at grocery stores right now.
Advice for an Aspiring Entrepreneur
CWB: What advice would you give a home chef looking to replicate your business model with a food project of her own?
Christy: What was helpful for us starting out was, we just kind of became the “muffin ladies.” Marirose was friends with everyone at the gym, and we brought samples all the time. We just let the world know, “Hey, this is what we’re doing,” and the connections just came. We were always at the gym, so it just made sense to start it there.
MP: For me, it’s realizing that you have to take that leap of faith and take a risk on yourself. Have faith in your product. If people are telling you over and over that they love what you’re doing, then you’re doing something right. There’s a point in a small business where you have to take risks. You have to take a risk on yourself and have faith in your product.
And do what you know – even though paleo wasn’t what we knew, we knew nutrient-density. We knew we wanted to use excellent ingredients. We knew the culture of an active person and the kind of thing they might want as a snack. It would make no sense for the two of us to make mint candy. We aren’t mint candy people.
Christy: There were a lot of discouraging times in our journey. We walked up and down the street by the gym and asked people to try our muffins and every single person said no. So many discouraging days at the farmers market, and it’s such hard work. We’d work for 4 hours to make 24 muffins and then go deliver, and it was really hard. Just never give up.
MP: Having a business partner really helps, because you can tag team. When one person is getting down, the other can lift her up. It’s really hard to do alone. When we’re down, we remind ourselves that there was a time when we were only making 24 muffins.
Not only having your own business, but having a food business, sometimes the obstacles feel insurmountable. Our product requires a lot of expensive ingredients. As a small business, we’re just getting to the point where we can start ordering things in pallets, but the raw materials we use are pricey. When almonds get more expensive, it really affects us.
And the Berkeley permitting process was a nightmare. I always joke (but I’m serious!!) that you need a degree, a license, and a suit to represent someone on death row, but to make a muffin in Berkeley?? By the time everything was done, inspections completed, it was February of last year.
Now it’s exciting because we have cafés calling us asking if they can offer our muffins. At this point, we’re selling at 6 Whole Foods, 4 Andronicos, 2 Berkeley Bowls, and Alameda Natural Grocery. And we’ve done all of this without financial backing. That’s our next step.
Favorites and Passions
CWB: What’s your favorite muffin?
MP: Right now my favorite paleo muffin is the vegan 24 Carrot Gold. We make that one as a cake with cream cheese frosting for folks sometimes. Grain-free, it has to be the Home for the Holidays. Every time I eat it, I just think, “Man that’s a good muffin!” I love the Hulk too. I really don’t eat the muffins all that much anymore, but there’s just something about the spirulina in the Hulk. It also has banana, date, and yerba mate. It just makes me happy.
CWB: Let’s talk about Home for the Holidays. I’m obsessed with this muffin – I’ve made multiple attempts at replicating it at home, and I’ve come close but it’s never as good as yours. What’s your secret?
MP: It’s the only one with cane sugar in it. We keep toying with the idea of changing the sugar source to make it paleo, but people just love it so much we don’t want to change it. We’re probably going to roll that one out next in the grocery stores, that and the 24 Carrot Gold.
CWB: In my cursory research (a Google search of your name), I found that you worked with kids in the kitchen. Is that still happening?
MP: It’s done for now. We loved it while it lasted. Our cooking classes were really different because we wanted to draw attention not only to the cooking aspect and creativity of it, but the political, social justice, and environmental implications of the foods we eat. We really wanted to get that message across to kids.
We never cooked with kids like they were kids. I don’t think we give kids enough credit. Especially having them in the kitchen, having them involved in the process – if they own it, they’ll eat it. Kids think they don’t like something, but if they make it themselves, they’ll eat it. I’d have one say, “I don’t like beans,” so we’d put him in charge of the beans, and at the end he’d say, “I still don’t like beans, only these.” And then we send them home with the recipe.
The kids are the gateway to the family – if they’ll eat it, the family will eat it. Suddenly the whole family is eating better. I still love talking about it, I still love it. My son was part of it, and he’s 16 now. He still cooks and he can do so much in the kitchen on his own. Hopefully we’ve raised a group of kids who can do that and understand why we don’t eat things like mango every day – because it travels a long way, for example.
CWB: Ok, I love your muffins, and I could talk about food all day long, but what about climbing? How’d you get started climbing and do you have time for it anymore now that MR has taken off?
MP: I had joined the gym just to work out, and after a while I eventually got up the nerve to start climbing. I had been working a lot on getting out of my comfort zone, and this was one such instance. Christy joined right after, and we began climbing together. We still do climb, Christy more than me these days as I hurt my back (not climbing or in the kitchen). I still climb, just not as often as before.
CWB: I’d love to hear about some of your other passions. Christy, you mentioned you were an artist?
Christy: Yep! I weave photographs together on a large-scale. My website’s not so great right now, but I show my work at Vessel Gallery in Oakland on 25th Street. The end product is pretty big — I hand cut everything, and it takes me about 40 hours to finish each piece.
CWB: And you designed the Muffin Revolution logo? Tell me how it came to be.
Christy: The concept for the logo came to us when we were sitting in Marirose’s kitchen having martinis one night. We were talking about our company name — we had started with “Eat Wisely” and we realized that it really didn’t say anything about our product. We got ourselves worked up about what we were doing with our muffins, that we were changing the way people would think about muffins — we were revolutionizing the muffin. And at the same time we said, “It’s a MUFFIN REVOLUTION!” And the brand was born.
We knew we wanted a socialist fist, but that’s kind of a cliché image — it’s used so much. The fist is also kind of a violent symbol, and we wanted a nurturing message, not a violent one. We wanted it to be loving, so I made the hands the shape of a heart. And in the word “Revolution,” we made “love” spelled backwards in red. It’s also the first few letters of the word “evolve,” which we liked as part of our messaging. The tagline “Rise up!’ is kind of a double entendre: muffins rise, but we’re starting a revolution too.
CWB: And you Marirose? You mentioned something about a non-profit in the Congo when we were planning our meeting time. What’s your non-profit called and what’s it all about?
MP: It’s called The Ring Project. The idea came to me in the middle of the night in the midst of my divorce. I thought, “How can I make something positive out of this?” I came from an asylum background — I was an immigration lawyer in my past life — and this work is a big passion of mine.
I decided to start a non-profit where divorced women could donate their diamond rings to help women in the Congo. The idea is to work in the system that’s already there. We don’t want to create something new that might not work for the Congolese people. They know best. One idea is to send interested women to law school so they can help seek justice for other women in their community.
Verunga, a documentary about a national park in the Congo and its importance to the community, really illustrates some of the problems there – it was just up for an Oscar. We’re going to partner with a group that provides assistance to the widows and kids of fallen park rangers. We’re hoping to develop a program to teach the widows skills to help them support themselves. Down the road, when we’re able to do it, we’re going to contribute part of the proceeds of a future Muffin Revolution project (paleo granola) to the nonprofit.
A Day Well-Spent
Marirose and Christy sent me home with a belly full of muffins and a freezer bag full of “reject muffins,” which I gleefully accepted. Some were too big to sell, some too small, all are going into my belly. Well, maybe I’ll share some with Loren. Maybe. I will proclaim now that I know what kind of birthday cake I want next year! Let it be known!
I have to say that talking with these women was so inspiring. To see something go from a tiny operation selling at my gym to the freezer aisle of Whole Foods and to get a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came to pass was an awesome opportunity. I can’t wait to see these muffins sweep the nation, and I can’t wait for Muffin Revolution paleo granola to come to market either!
CWB readers in the SF Bay Area can count their lucky stars today, because Marirose and Christy have agreed to give us a discount code for their muffins on Good Eggs.
Oh, and one more thing! Oakland Museum is celebrating Women’s History Month. In partnership with Whole Foods, Muffin Revolution is one of 5 women-owned food businesses participating in a Makers & Tasters event there TONIGHT, 6-8pm. There is also Off The Grid going on outside the museum.