Some of the most unconventional entrepreneur stories offer the sweetest flavors, said Lisa Ragan, detailing how diet restrictions and divorce combined to drive her deliciously disruptive Overland Park-based company forward.
“You can’t have one foot in, one foot out,” Ragan, founder of Safely Delicious, said of what it’s taken to scale the allergy-friendly snack line into a small business that’s anything but bite-size.
The brand’s toasted cereal bites — offered in seven flavors — are now dominating shelves in many locally owned grocery stores and a total of 13 states. But what people snacking on Safely Delicious don’t see when they place the teal-packaged treats in their grocery carts, is the nearly two-decade journey that shaped its success.
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“My kids couldn’t eat what other kids were eating because they were allergic to dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, wheat,” she explained of the company’s inspiration and its commitment to creating products that are free of the top 11 food allergens.
“I started cooking allergen-free in about 2004 when they were getting diagnosed with multiple food allergies and they were [starting to eat] at school, birthday parties, social events, etc.”
Finding an option that made her kids feel like part of the crowd was crucial for Ragan, who worked to learn the ins and outs of safe snacking and quickly found herself making friends with unsuspecting snackers.
“I would figure out how to make what other kids would eat — that still looked and tasted similar — so that when their friends would come over and eat what my kids were eating they had no idea,” she said, referencing stereotypes that suggest diet friendly foods lack flavor.
Hunger, not fear, hits
Mastery of the masked munchies paid off tenfold when Ragan found herself divorced and back to work — a shock to the system after 17 years as a stay-at-home mom, she recalled.
“[In 2015,] I had taken what’s now known as ‘Classic Bites’ to work and everybody at the office thought I bought it and they were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you should sell it.’”
Ragan followed the advice of her coworkers and immediately began work to launch Safely Delicious in a sustainable way that could support her new future.
“I was working over at St. Michael’s the Archangel Catholic Parish and I knew that in a few years what I was getting paid there wasn’t going to be enough to support me,” she added, noting that while fear over how she’d pay the bills was real, she never once worried she wouldn’t find a way to make ends meet.
“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit. My whole adult life I’ve tried every type of home business. Jewelry, Pampered Chef, scrapbooking — I think I’ve tried every single one of them,” Ragan laughed. “When this presented itself, I was very excited and I’ve honestly not had much fear doing it. … For some reason, this has struck a chord.”
Ragan eventually left her job at the parish to focus solely on Safely Delicious — which has since become a staple of the local entrepreneurial scene.
The company was named the Kansas Small Business Development Center’s emerging business of the year in 2019 and boasts an impressive list of partners that includes the likes of Cosentinos, Ball Foods, and Hy-Vee.
“It’s kind of evolved … I used to sell it in little Ziploc bags and bakery-looking bags. I would print out the stickers and put them on,” she recalled.
“I do deliveries myself. When we have to ship pallets of products, we load up SUVs and take [the products] over to Old Dominion and they palletize it and shrink wrap it and ship it. … We’re doing all this stuff — like any other big company would be doing — we’re just doing it in a small space.”
Growing at grocery
2020 was set to be an even sweeter year for Ragan and her team of three, neatly packaged by a deal with Kansas City-based Snacking Well. The arrangement would have put Safely Delicious in vending machines and micro markets in YMCAs across the greater metro area.
Then the bitter effects of COVID-19 struck, Ragan explained.
“I delivered 20 cases and then the next day it was all over the news that they were shutting down non-essential [businesses.]”
Crippling in theory, the hit — combined with slowed grocery store sales — couldn’t stall Ragan’s hustle, she admitted.
“I hung in there, kept moving along and kept applying for everything that we could possibly get our hands on for financial support to keep the doors open.”
Safely Delicious ultimately received emergency funds from AltCap, IFundWomen of Color, and benefited from the government-backed Paycheck Protection Program.
While the funds were necessary and appreciated, Ragan let her tenacity lead amid the pandemic and chose to take a gamble with a distribution footprint that she hoped would lead to even larger cashflow for the bootstrapped business.
“We were only in a handful of Cosentinos. About a month ago, amidst all the craziness, I met with the director of specialty foods and said, ‘Hey, how can we get this in some more of your stores?’” she recalled.
“I spent the last two weeks adding it into nine more locations.”
The move, an example of risk and reward, is among a handful of guidance Ragan offers budding entrepreneurs in similar situations through talks at Johnson County Community College.
“They’re sitting there, a lot of these people, trying to figure out , OK, how am I going to do this?’” she said of the monthly seminar, “Business Basics in a Day.”
“I’ve just learned from some situations and I will share it. People need to know you can do it and do it successfully.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.
For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect at www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn