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| Feb. 2023
By Thomas Connors
Rise & Shine!
Eggs or oatmeal? Tea and toast? Breakfast. Some skip it. But for many, getting fueled bright and early is the only way to start the day. That morning meal can really make an impact. And for Emily Groden, it’s opened the way to a whole new business.
Raised on the North Shore—the daughter of two attorneys—Groden knew early on what she wanted to do with her life. “When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say ‘corporate lawyer.’ Not just a lawyer, but a ‘corporate lawyer.’” And she meant it. As a competitive swimmer, she knew the physical and mental demands of nearly nonstop training and made the same commitment to her education. “Sometimes, I would finish my homework in my closet with a flashlight. My parents, very reasonably, wouldn’t let me go to swim practice at 5:30 a.m. if I wasn’t asleep by 10:30 p.m., so it was my way of ensuring I could get my training in without slacking on my studies.”
Not surprisingly, Groden reached her goal. After graduating from Yale and then Harvard Law School, she joined Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago as a corporate associate. But she soon realized the track she’d set herself on wasn’t one she wanted to run. “I had spent my whole life working for something and as soon as I got it, I felt lost.” But not for long.
A passionate home cook, Groden was relaxing one night by watching a Chef ’s Table episode about Chicago’s Michelin-starred Alinea. Before she knew it, she sent an email and her resume to the restaurant’s owner Nick Kokonas. Although she had no experience in the restaurant industry, he responded almost immediately. “A few weeks later, I was hired as the General Counsel of The Alinea Group and Tock. One of my favorite quotes is Wayne Gretzky’s, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’ Had I not sent that cold email, my life would look wildly different today.”
One night while driving home from the Alinea offices, Groden was listening to a podcast about the frozen breakfast market, a section of the grocery store historically laden with sugar, artificial ingredients, and preservatives. “I was expecting my first daughter, and I knew I wasn’t going to have time to cook her breakfast from scratch before I left for work in the morning,” says Groden. “I knew I’d need to rely on something like a frozen waffle, but I didn’t want to feed her junk every day. When I got home, I parked my car, took out my phone, and ordered myself a mini waffle iron from Amazon.”
What for most of us would have been an impulsive purchase (and yet another gadget gathering dust) led Groden to launch Evergreen frozen waffles. Made with 100 percent whole wheat flour and no refined sugar, dairy, or preservatives, the product is available in four flavors at a number of outlets, including Whole Foods.
“I’d already been obsessed with making everything from scratch,” shares Groden. “If I wanted almond milk, I’d soak almonds in water overnight, blend them with vanilla extract, maple syrup, and sea salt, and strain the mixture through a cheesecloth. When I decided to make a clean-label frozen waffle, I followed a similar process. I opened my refrigerator and pantry and pulled out the most nutritious, real ingredients I could find—fruits, vegetables, whole grain wheat flour, nuts, and honey. I’d make a few waffles at a time, put them in a Ziploc bag, and throw them in the freezer.”
Two-and-a-half years since launching in the retail sector, Evergreen waffles are available in 600 stores nationwide and have found a place in many a home freezer. But getting them there took some doing. “When we landed the Whole Foods Midwest account, I knew we needed a manufacturing partner,” relates Groden. “So, I called all the major waffle manufacturers in the country and had the phone call equivalent of door after door slammed in my face. We were too small and our product was too different.”
Ultimately, Groden found a small manufacturer willing to take her on, but a year later, her business had outgrown that relationship. Groden decided it was time to open her own facility. As usual, she’d done her homework. “I had attended every manufacturing run at our first manufacturer. I’d wake up at 3 a.m. to be there by 4 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until the last waffle was packed at 8 p.m. Needless to say, I learned a lot about how to produce at scale.”
Groden set up her own shop with a team of four, but as demand grew, so did the need for a larger operation. “At that point, I turned to my old friend Google and was able to find a much larger manufacturer who wanted to partner with us. They’ve been making our waffles for about a year now, and we have the ability to scale almost infinitely with them.” That’s a good thing because Groden isn’t sitting still. “We just developed our second product, and it is out-of-this-world delicious. It should hit shelves in the second half of 2023—and hopefully, fly right off them!”
Groden is one to watch—she was named a Forbes Next 1000 for her entrepreneurial success, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Tribune, PopSugar, and was profiled on the TODAY Show and Good Morning America. It seems many agree that a healthy, delicious breakfast fuels success.
For more information, visit eatevergreen.com.