((Left) Becca and Chell Williams. (Right) Brighten Williams | Photos by Amanda Long, Amanda Photographic)
When Chell and Becca Williams were first starting Red Plate Foods, Becca says it was not uncommon for her children to come downstairs for breakfast in the morning and find strangers in their kitchen. “They literally grew up in the business. We worked from our house, and employees would take breaks in our kitchen. One time, we had a new employee who had not met our children yet. At 6:30 in the morning, our teenage son came down to eat breakfast, saw the employee in our kitchen and just said, ‘Hey,’” she recalls with a laugh. “Our kids have been steeped in Red Plate foods. We were all grateful for the time when we moved out of our home into a separate industrial location.”
The Williams began Red Plate Foods after dealing with severe food allergies within their family. Becca started experimenting with allergen-free baked goods, and noticed a shortage of such items available in grocery stores. They sold their first product to Newport Avenue Market in 2013, and since then, have enjoyed 50-100 percent growth each year, except for 2020, as awareness of food allergies has heightened. “Intolerances to allergens are increasing; we are seeing one in four shoppers in the United States looking for items that are free of one or more of the top allergens,” she says. Specializing in baked goods that are vegan and free of the top food allergens (gluten/wheat, dairy, peanut, tree nut, soy, egg, fish and shellfish), the Bend-based company has expanded on the retail side to include customers all across the U.S. “We are now in chains along the Atlantic seaboard all the way down to Florida, in chains in the Midwest and we will be going into Sprouts, which will cover the remainder of the country, starting in April,” says Becca.
As part of the expansion, which includes growth on the food-service industry side of their business as well, Red Plate Foods is scheduled to move into the new Quad at Skyline Ridge complex (where the Bend Bulletin was formerly located) on April 1. “We maintain a really compressed operation space-wise, and we always have,” says Chell. “We are almost always bursting at the seams. As we’ve expanded the number of stores we’re in throughout Oregon and Washington, we have also expanded our offerings. Our business started with cookies and muffins; now we offer granola, hamburger buns and pizza crust too. Each category we bring in adds the need for more space.” He adds, “Moving to the Quad is a breath of runway that I’m very excited about. It includes things like having a loading dock, having high ceilings so the warehouse space is better utilized and having space to bring in some equipment that allows us to produce faster with each of our team members.” As an example, Red Plate Foods will begin utilizing roll-in rack ovens at the Quad, Chell says. “We are getting two of them to start out. This replaces what would be 16 separate ovens in our current facility.”
Red Plate Foods was named after the Original Red Plate, a ceramic red plate created and marketed in the 1970s that reads, “You Are Special Today.” “Growing up, we used the Red Plate pretty religiously to celebrate home runs, straight As or whatever special event might be going on,” he says. “When we started the company, one of the values we really wanted to capture was that customers who had been left out of the table for so long due to allergies could be included. It’s more than just having food available; we wanted to address the social component too.” The Williams’ tradition of using the Original Red Plate for special occasions has been carried on within their business: “To celebrate an employee’s one-year anniversary with the company, we give them a Red Plate of their own.”
As a husband-wife team, the Williams’ four children have all worked in their parents’ business in some capacity. “Our two oldest kids have both worked in the production area in the bakery, and have done deliveries for us in summertime. Our 15-year-old son has done accounting and bookkeeping for us; all have participated in trade shows, samplings for customers and doing promotional videos; and a couple have had their pictures on boxes,” says Becca. “Three of them can tell you about electrical workings and can wire an outlet,” adds Chell proudly.
“There are pros and cons of working as a family; it is a constant balancing act trying to balance the needs of business and home life,” says Becca. “Having a business is like having another child; it requires your attention 24/7. Our kids have gotten used to that, and have gained great insights into all that goes into running a business. That’s all really fun, but they also see their parents go through a lot of stress. They are being asked to handle a lot more responsibility than they might otherwise.” She continues, “On the plus side, our schedules are flexible, so they have more access to us. We can leave to go to an event during the middle of the day.”
Brighten Williams, 12, says she is proud of her parents for helping people with food allergies, and that she appreciates all she has learned while assisting with the business. “I help the production team a lot with the packaging and making some of the products. It’s a lot of work, and there will always be challenges along the way, but it’s a lot of fun.” She describes the time that she went to camp, and at that time, her image was on one of the Red Plate Foods cookie boxes. One of the other girls at the camp told her she looked familiar. “So I said, ‘Well, I am on a cookie box.’ ”
Brighten says that working with her siblings encourages her to work faster and do better. “My brother and I will see who can make the most cookies the fastest. If I’m lucky, I win.” She continues, “I like our products a lot, they are just like normal products. If I were to pick up a chocolate chip cookie, I wouldn’t know the difference.” When asked if she would like to follow in her parents’ footsteps as an adult, she says, “I don’t think I would want to be in the food business, but I might want to start a business of my own.”
The Williams all agree that with the success of Red Plate Foods, they have experienced growing pains. “The hardest challenge for me is being a small business, and having so much potential, but only having so many man hours you can devote to it,” says Chell. “It’s challenging to find teammates who have the desire and drive to move it forward. But our bakery manager, Gabriel, and our fulfillment manager, Peter, joined us four years ago, and they have really changed what we could have achieved had it been just Becca and I.” Now, Red Plate Foods has 18 employees, and the Williams say the staff members have been “champions” throughout the COVID crisis. “They are excellent at helping. Social-distancing policies have been at the forefront, and they have communicated really well through any concerns,” says Becca. “They have really shown up during what has been a stressful time for our country and the world,” adds Chell. “We are grateful for them.”
“What’s been tough for me as a parent is that as we’ve seen the business grow, it’s fantastic, but we’ve had to hop on airplanes and work late hours,” says Becca. “It’s hard to be away from your family when it is a family business. It’s a double-edged sword of success. You miss your loved ones when you’re gone.”
Despite the heartache of having to be away from their children at times, the Williams say they love hearing from customers who have been positively affected by Red Plate Foods. “Every night, we get a note or picture from a customer who tells us or shows us how our products made a difference in their lives,” says Becca. “For people who are often excluded due to allergies, it means a lot to hear that it’s bringing more joy and making life more pleasurable to them.”