How Two Brothers Created Abe’s, the Popular Plant-Based Baked Goods Co
When brothers Joby and Marty Koffman were ready to leave their traditional jobs (in finance, hotels, and paper manufacturin g) and start a high-end dessert company, they hired the best pastry chef they could find, a friend they knew who had worked at the Waldorf Astoria, rented a small warehouse near their homes on the Hudson, and began making desserts that everyone loved. Everyone, except Joby's son Abe, who was born with severe lactose intolerance, plus allergies to nuts, eggs, sesame, soy, and seeds.
"We began to experiment with formulations that Abe could eat. Who wants their kid to be the one at the party or snack time who has to sit apart from everyone else eating mango slices," Marty recalls. He and Joby turned a problem into a small industry, and now the muffin company is growing hand over fist, by many double digits a year. Now Abe's offers muffins, brownie bites, celebration cakes, dessert loaves, and more, and all the goodies are vegan, nut-free dairy-free, non-allergenic, and 100 percent delicious.
How is it that some parents solve the problem of child allergies by taking away their kid's nut-filled or dairy-filled treats and others go and create an empire?
Marty Koffman tells how he and Joby have created a product that is as popular with plant-based eaters and strict vegans as it is with parents of children with food allergies. Read on to learn what's next for the company.
The Beet: I love Abe's How did this start? Did you think: Parents need this!
Marty Koffman: We had been on Wall Street and we had been in the paper business and the hotel business and other businesses. And we co-opted a small little industrial building years ago and started a little pastry business. He was a brilliant chef, the former pastry chef from the Waldorf Astoria, and we started making these wonderful, wonderful desserts, that all the kids could enjoy
And we came up with these wonderful desserts and everyone loved them, including our kids, but everyone could eat them except my brother's son Abe who was born anaphylactic, drastically allergic to nuts, eggs, dairy. So we started these treats for Abe. And as we were out there selling across the country. At a meeting in California, they asked us if we had treats that were vegan. Plant-based was not a term of art back then. In fact, vegan was not a term back then. I was out selling in Oklahoma and they thought I said 'Wiccan'!
In fact, the factory has always been clean labeled and we can sell these as better for you. So we wound up making sure everything was clean. So by the time Whole Foods came along, we were already ready to sell to them.
The Beet: Do you think there is more of an audience now for plant-based consumers?
Marty: Anyone who has kids knows the last thing you want is for your kid to have to sit alone or apart from everyone when they are celebrating. I remember Abe having to sit alone at a table eating mango slices where everyone else was having cake. You want kids to be able to sit together laughing and joking.
Now we sell to both the parents of allergic kids and plant-based consumers. The market is bifurcated between parents looking for allergy-friendly foods and consumers looking for healthier-for-you foods. I tried a raw vegan diet and it was great for about 9 or ten years, but then when I was single it was hard, especially working at home. But eliminating animal proteins from my diet, at 60, makes sense for me.
The Beet: Why is it that Abe's has broken through to be so successful?
Marty: The reason the brand works is there is a real person involved and it's his father and uncle so it's completely transparent. We worked so hard to make sure we don't just talk the talk. You're helping people who have lived through it. And it's fun.
The allergen part is compelling, meaning the parents have no choice. They are either going to bake something or try to find it. But on the other side are the vegans or the plant-based eater. That's definitely taking off. I did a roadshow over a year ago, people would come up to me and say, "I love your muffins. I buy three packs, one for me, one for my plant-based friends, and one for my friends who have not tried plant-based and I say try these since they're better than yours. So try these!"
Abe is like the Beet. It's good for plant-based eaters and anyone who wants to get healthier.
What you guys are doing is perfectly aligned with the times we are living in. Once people discover that it's easy to eat plant-based and there are good-tasting things out there, then it's kind of a no-brainer.
The Beet: Your muffins and all your baked goods are also delicious. The brownies! I had to stop eating the chocolate brownie bites. I was about to throw them away (to stop myself from scarfing the whole tray at one sitting, and my husband pulled them out and said I'll eat those!
Marty: People who are trying to eat healthier love them. They are better for you.
The Beet: But they are not calorie-free. They are still treats, after all!
Marty: True. We tell parents that they are treats. But if you are going to treat yourself, be healthier.
The timing is good because of the fact that we have a personal responsibility as consumers to make informed choices. So for us as consumers, eating more plant-based foods and defining ourselves as flexitarians. It's a choice and how we decide to spend our consumer dollars and how we think about food is changing.
The Beet: What's next for Abe's?
Marty: We are working on how to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Abe [now grown up] has been instrumental in looking at regenerative farming. We are kind of all in...
The Beet: Speaking of that where are the ingredients from?
Marty: Where we can we buy locally but we are in the Northeast. The corn muffins are some of my favorites. We get them from a local grower who grinds the corn into flour, not cornmeal, and it has the wonderful mouth-feel that I think corn should.
All our ingredients are Non-GMO and organic. We only use wild blueberries. There was a drought last year so blueberries are soaring in price. The market in blueberries is going crazy. All the expeller-pressed oil we use is sustainably sourced. The chocolate is sustainably sourced. We make sure it's not processed in a place that also processes nuts.
What's coming next? In the last six months, we have launched the brownies and the birthday cake as well as a banana loaf and blueberry loaf. We are just coming out with zucchini muffins for spring. But to your point about eating too many brownies, well we are working on this: Launching a two-pack of brownie bites. We are also coming out with little pound cakes, two brownies in one package.
And what we are doing with the packaging is we are coming out with a paper board to eliminate all the plastic packaging. We are a mid-sized company that makes it hard to just do that. You also have to keep in mind that you have to put it in the freezer for months and take it out and make sure it behaves the same way.
Coming out with gluten-free individually wrapped muffins, and we are coming out with bread. Everything is made in New York state, near Nyack. And when COVID clears, you have to come because we have these great robots on the line that stack boxes and it is so cool.
The Beet: So are you ready to IPO yet?
Marty: Well, Covid aside, we were year over year at about a 40 percent growth rate. And that is just exponential, so every year at 40 percent it just astounding.
We are in Whole Foods, on Amazon, and people can buy Abe's on our website! And all-natural markets: Earth Fair, Public's GreenWise, Natural Grocers, and in conventional stores. If they go online they can see everywhere that we sell near you. We just rolled out to Fresh Market in the mid-Atlantic. Online, we sell through Hungry Root and Fresh Direct in the New York area.
The Beet: Okay but please don't send me any more brownies. I am trying to not eat any more treats!
Marty: Well we will just send them to your husband.