As soon as the doors opened to the Yawkey Auditorium at WGBH, dozens of Edible Science attendees flocked to the tables inside and lined up for their free samples. At the Edible Science event, speakers talked about the science behind food, and encouraged Bostonians to discover the new food and beverage companies all around them who were developing innovative products.
Under a big purple banner that read free of the Big 8 allergens, I’m handed a frozen cherry “bite” that’s perfectly melty. It’s about the size of a large marble, and it tastes like real cherry on the outside and creamy coconut on the inside. Kevin Schiffman, the Sales Manager for Incredible Foods, maker of the “perfectly free” product family, tells me that they’re the only company to make an ice cream alternative that is not only free from dairy but also free from wheat, soy, peanuts, egg, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts, too.
“perfectly free” makes four flavors of frozen bites: cherry, blueberry, cocoa and salted caramel. Three more flavors will soon be available: raspberry chocolate, mint chocolate, and orange crème. Each bite has a creamy vanilla center made from coconut milk that then is enrobed in an all-natural mixture of fruit and vegetable fibers.
This is the first product from “perfectly free,” launched almost two years ago to 60 stores across Massachusetts. When they first opened in Amesbury, MA., “perfectly free” operated out of an old Subway sandwich shop with a machine no bigger than an 8-person dining room table. Today, they’re in a 17,000 sq. ft. space in Hyde Park and have a production facility that makes 1,200 cases of “perfectly free” bites every day: that’s enough frozen treats to supply all of their stores from Massachusetts to New York to Philadelphia to the Carolinas and even a few stores in Chicago.
Back at their offices, food scientists in the Research and Development department pick frozen vanilla centers out of a frozen metal bucket labeled “Research,” and gingerly spoon a secret new flavor of coating over top. The innovative, proprietary mixture of fruit and vegetable fibers in the coating is what keeps the frozen treats from melting down your arm as they thaw and soften in your hand.
Generally speaking, there is a lack of innovation in the food industry. Pat Maguire, Director of Marketing at “perfectly free,” knows this first hand. He’s been working in the food industry for nearly ten years. Pat used to be at a big company, and knows that they have a set way of doing things, like using a formula perfected over many years. And while switching out one ingredient, like dairy, is pretty easy to do, it still leaves out millions of other Americans with other food allergies.
“The fact is, we did it from scratch,” says Marty Kolewe, Director of R&D, on creating a delicious ice cream alternative that is free from eight different allergens. “A lot of people ask, ‘if there are no allergens, then what’s in it?’ [But] it wasn’t a huge technological change, it’s still food, just different food than the industry usually uses.” The ‘perfectly free’ team is small, mostly made up of food scientists and engineers, and this allows them to innovate and change direction quickly. From the beginning, Marty says, they set out and said, “Can we just make a cleaner, better food?”
That’s why “perfectly free” doesn’t focus on changing one ingredient; they’re changing everything. “We wanted to stand for something, own something,” Pat says, and that’s why they chose the name “perfectly free.” They’re speaking to the whole allergen community. “The grocery store is like a minefield,” Pat says, and recounts stories that he hears everyday: people with food allergies who stop and read every label in the aisles, mothers who are continually searching for food that their children with allergies can eat.
“It challenges me to think outside the box,” says Pat. He loves his job now: handing out samples of frozen bites, talking about marketing and engineering, finding out directly from customers what they need, and helping to create a product that some people could never have before. “Building a new product from scratch, one that addresses a real need for so many people, is really rewarding.”
“perfectly free” is working on new items that you can find in other sections of the grocery store, launching early next year! In the meantime, check out the frozen bites at Stop & Shops, Shaws, Star Markets, and other local grocery stores across New England. If one box of eight bites isn’t enough, then check out one of the new pints they launched this year at select Whole Foods stores across Massachusetts. Visit the “perfectly free” website for a free coupon, and search by your zip code on their store locator page to find a store near you.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist and creator of The Clean Food Club. She previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.