Local entrepreneurs carve out niche in paleo food scene

Five years ago, Jordann Windschauer decided to join a CrossFit gym in Tampa.

She had just graduated from the University of South Florida and was working as a corporate event planner. So CrossFit was not only a way for her to stay in shape, but also to befriend other young professionals in the city. What she didn’t know is how much this decision would change her life in other ways.

When Windschauer participated in a 30-day Paleo challenge at the gym, she felt healthier, physically and mentally. The hardest part, though, was satisfying her sweet tooth. Finding paleo-friendly bread was another issue, as well.

“I wanted that brownie. I wanted that sandwich,” she says. “But there was nothing in the grocery system at the time.”

So the young college grad, with no professional cooking or baking experience, got to work in the kitchen of her small apartment. 

“I played with recipes, trial and error, and I burnt a lot of things in the kitchen along the way,” she says.

She brought her paleo experiments to CrossFit for her new friends to enjoy and received rave reviews. Some began offering to pay her to bake them trays of goodies.

That’s how Base Culture, which offers 13 paleo items of different sizes online, and in specialty and health food stores throughout the country, was born. 

Last fall, to meet production demands and court larger, mainstream grocery chains, the company expanded to a 44,000 square-feet paleo-certified headquarters in Clearwater. 

“I never thought this is where I would wind up. I didn’t have an interest in starting a business at all,” Windschauer says. “But people want paleo [products.] It’s a known thing people are looking for it in stores.”

More than a fad

Sometimes referred to as the “caveman diet,” the paleo diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods that can be hunted or fished – meat and seafood -- or gathered -- eggs, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. 

A paleo way of life also means removing grains (so no pasta or rice), dairy, certain vegetable oils, refined sugar, soy and other processed foods from the diet.

While some scoff that this is just the latest diet fad, Windschauer says, “It’s more than a trend. It’s been evolving and will continue to evolve.”

There are tremendous health benefits, she adds. Studies have shown that those combining exercise with a Paleo lifestyle have an easier time losing weight and building lean muscle, she says. This is why it’s so popular with the CrossFit community.

Other benefits, according to the Base Culture website? Improved digestion, decreased incidence of food-related allergies, and reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

“I felt so much better, healthier and stronger, after that first 30-day Paleo challenge,” Windschauer says.

Good for business

Any diet can be difficult to follow, but a paleo lifestyle, with its focus on whole foods that take time to prepare can be extra demanding. So convenience is key, Windschauer says.
While it might be easy enough to grill a steak or cook some veggies, there are certain items that would take hours to perfect and make at home, something modern busy schedules might not allow. Base Culture offers a variety of these items, mostly baked goods. By far the company’s biggest seller is bread. 

“Everybody loves a good sandwich or toast in the morning,” she says.

This need for paleo convenience items has opened up a new market. But Base Culture isn’t the only local company to take advantage of this niche to be filled.

Paleo Simplified, based in Tarpon Springs, sells raw paleo and gluten-free energy bars and granola. Kara Lynn’s Kitchen, a Clearwater restaurant, focuses on paleo and auto immune-friendly dishes.
Meanwhile, Largo-based Paleo on the Go is a pre-made meal delivery service that ships items throughout the country. The company offers 80 menu items that change up every week. Top sellers include a dairy-, grain- and soy-free chicken pot pie, butternut squash lasagna and bacon apple cheese burgers. 
“It’s not easy to be 100 percent paleo without resources like Paleo on the Go,” says Takara Fuller, the company’s marketing directing. “Eating real food should be a convenience and it can be.”

What the future holds

When Windschauer first decided to test the waters as a paleo business, she initially kept her full-time corporate job.

It got to the point, though, where she would work all day and bake all night at home. Getting barely three hours of sleep a night, she was exhausted. So she consulted her father, also a small business owner.

“He told me, ‘Right now you have a hobby and a business and you’re doing both poorly,’” she says. “I needed to pick one.”

She chose Base Culture and quit her day job. “Being young and not knowing how much I could lose, I took a really big leap that I didn’t know I was taking,” she says.

This was less than a year after that first paleo challenge and the business continued to grow quickly from there. 

Windschauer, still a one-woman outfit, rented space in a 2,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in Clearwater. She’d bake in the morning and deliver her products in the afternoon. At night, she’d work on the business itself.

As her sales increased, she hired her first employee, Linsey Pawlak, in 2013. Pawlak had trained at culinary school and worked for high-end hotels in Charleston before moving to Tampa. 

“I didn’t know anything about paleo at the time,” Pawlak says. “But [Base Culture] used high-end, quality products and for my background, that went hand-in-hand. We were cooking healthy items for people that were also high quality.”

With Pawlak in the kitchen, Windschauer was able to focus more on the business. Demand grew and they relocated to an 8,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in Oldsmar. 

Then she attended her first ECRM conference, where she met with larger national grocery chains, such as Whole Foods, and big box retailers like Walmart and Target. 

“It was basically speed dating for businesses,” she says. “You got 10 minutes to pitch your story and your products.”

To her surprise, every store she met with was interested in Base Culture products. But she didn’t have the space she needed to produce enough for such large orders. 

“I was at another crossroads,” she says. 

So she took out an SBA loan to build the new facility in Clearwater. Though it was a risk, it was the best decision she could have ever made, she says.

The building boasts 30,000 square feet of production space that is certified paleo, gluten-free, non-GMO and kosher, and has the capacity to produce up to 1 million Base Culture products each day. There’s also a co-packing space that allows Windschauer to work with other companies. 

“It gives us some more options and flexibility,” she says.

The company has hired around 12 employees, including some solely focused on sales. Pawlak’s role has grown, as well. 

“I wear a lot of hats. I do whatever they need me to do,” she says. “I’m in this for the long haul. I know there’s a large demand for this kind of food and it’s continuing to grow in different parts of the country.”

With the additional space, Windschauer has set her sights on “aggressively” pursuing national retailers. 

“We’re getting the contracts because now we can produce,” she says. “The door is wide open for us. We are forging these waters and are creating this new space in the market.”

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Read more articles by Tiffany Razzano.

Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.