PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Few things in life are so reliably full of excitement as the first days of a new romance. The sweet anticipation before each encounter.
The thrill of that first kiss. That moment when your date leans over the table and whispers that you need to get him to the ER as quickly as possible, because his throat is closing up. Well, that last one may not be on the usual list of starry- eyed milestones, but it’s exactly what happened to Rob Dalton and Nicole Ledoux on their fourth date. Rob’s dinner had been cross-contaminated with nuts, to which he is seriously allergic.
“What started off as a hopefully romantic meal turned into Nicole speeding down Comm Ave,” says Rob, who was in the passenger seat holding his epi pen in one hand and calling his parents with the other. In spite of the scare, Rob and Nicole look back on that night with good humor, joking that it made for an easy icebreaker for Nicole, who met her future in-laws that night. “It sparked the journey of where we are today in more ways than one,” says Rob.
That journey, which began in 2010 and includes their marriage in July of 2013, has led them to become the co-founders of 88 Acres, a rapidly growing company whose mission is to produce healthy snacks made with simple ingredients from sustainable, transparent sources and are also free of the most common food allergens. Even before Rob’s cross-contamination scare, which forever changed the way Nicole thinks about food, it was a struggle to find healthy, convenient foods that Rob could eat when he was training for races, out on a hike, or just needed a quick bite at the office. Most healthy snack bars use nuts as a base, and the few allergen-free options available were lacking in flavor and inspiration.
So, Nicole started making bars in their small basement kitchen, a less than ideal scenario. “That kitchen might have been 75 square feet,” says Rob.
With zero counter space, the pair made do with IKEA kitchen carts and an old, unpredictable oven that was the source of plenty of frustration. Still, they look back with fondness at these times, in spite of the challenges. What began as an effort to provide better options for themselves quickly mushroomed as friends started putting in orders of their own. “Before you knew it we were staying up all night to make 500 bars to pass out at different food festivals and workout groups and it kind of snowballed from there,” says Rob. “We used to hand-package bars with every friend and family member that we could possibly convince to help us.”
Then, on Christmas day of 2012, Rob’s father told the story of starting his own company a few decades before. As Rob tells it, “he said his perspective was ‘worst case is the business will fail and I’ll be totally okay with that because I’ll know that I gave it a shot.’” Nicole and Rob looked at each other, knowing that they never wanted to look back and wonder ‘what if,’ says Rob. “That was the moment we decided to make a run of this.”
And so, 88 Acres was born, named for the 88 acre farm in central Massachusetts where Nicole grew up. “My family has always had a love affair with food and farming and a deep connection to food,” she says. “My hometown had more cows than people at one point.” That legacy of hard work, family, and wholesome ingredients is carried through in every aspect of the company, right down to the packaging, which features images of Nicole’s parents’ barn and her father’s old tractor.
Three years after that pivotal Christmas day, Rob and Nicole have come a long way from that cranky basement oven, operating out of a sparkling new commercial kitchen space in Dorchester. “We went from having the worst oven in the world to the best,” says Nicole with a smile. They opted to create their own bakery rather than outsourcing production in order to fuel local jobs, control process and quality, and ensure safety for people affected by food allergies. The two-room facility is completely self-contained, including a separate ventilation system, ensuring they can avoid the kind of cross-contamination that sent Rob to the ER and have serious implications for the 15 million people living with food allergies in the United States. Rob and Nicole have gotten a tremendous response to their efforts in this area, particularly from families whose children have very specific, very critical needs that can often be difficult to meet.
In addition to providing safe products for allergic consumers, Rob and Nicole maintain a strong focus on using the highest quality ingredients and maintaining the handmade quality of the original home kitchen bars. Nicole designed the recipes for the three current flavors—apple & ginger, triple berry, and chocolate & sea salt—with Rob on taste testing duty, a division of labor that he enjoys. The bars all use oats as a base, along with pumpkin, sunflower, and flax seeds for protein. “We try to keep them as simple as possible,” says Nicole. Each flavor has ten ingredients or less.
They source locally as much as possible, including cranberries from Carver, Massachusetts and maple syrup from a family maple house in New Hampshire. They also identified an oat supplier who designed a state-of-the-art oat only facility, from field to processing, eliminating the gluten cross-contamination risk that arises when oats are grown or processed in close proximity with wheat. “Wherever possible, we’ve traced our ingredients all the way back to the field, providing transparency for all consumers,” says Nicole.
In addition to this sense of responsibility to the customer, the 88 Acres mission includes a strong tenet of social responsibility.
The Dorchester bakery allows Rob and Nicole to meet a longstanding goal of locating their business in an urban area where it can help drive economic development and job growth. The 36,000-square-foot space where the new kitchen is located—formerly the Pearl Meats factory, of Pearl hot dog fame—has been transformed into the Pearl Food Production Small Business Center, a culinary incubator supporting small, local food businesses. A collaboration between CommonWealth Kitchen (formerly CropCircle Kitchen, Inc.) and the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, the mission is to promote local hiring which coincided with what Nicole and Rob were looking to do. The excitement in the neighborhood was clear from the start, says Rob. When construction began, people would stop by to inquire about the restoration, happy that such a big, old building was going to be fixed up and put to good use.
When Rob and Nicole were ready to start hiring, a conversation with people at CommonWealth Kitchen led them to Fatima, who lives just a few houses down the street and was thrilled to find work so close to home after a terrible winter of MBTA commutes. “It’s awesome,” she says, of working at 88 Acres. “They’ve been so good to me.” When it’s school vacation, she’s able to run home and check on her kids, and Rob and Nicole make a point of supporting Fatima and all of their employees as they juggle the demands of their personal and professional lives. “We work around what works for people’s schedules,” says Nicole.
That includes Elena, who works part-time so that she can also be home with her baby. “I love it,” she says, with Fatima’s help to translate from her native Cape Verdean Creole. She feels like she is truly part of a team, that Rob and Nicole treat the staff like coworkers, and that they all understand each other, even with a mix of Creole, Spanish, and English language speakers on the team. Barbara, another team member who heard about 88 Acres through the New England Culinary Academy for Technology, agrees. Though she doesn’t live quite close enough to walk, her son’s bus stop is just down the block, so she can drop him there on her way into work in the morning. “We have fun here,” she says. She also likes knowing that she’s working to create a wholesome, thoughtful product every day. “It’s a healthy snack, which we all need, but it tastes good and you feel like it’s nice to be a part of that.”
As with every aspect of the business, this supportive culture has been crafted with careful intention by Rob and Nicole. “We have to provide more than money,” says Nicole, who also credits the neighborhood hiring process with helping to foster that sense of community and teambuilding. “We don’t have to hire strangers, and people can work with people they’re comfortable with.” All told, their baking team now includes five people from the neighborhood, and as 88 Acres continues to grow the plan is to create opportunities for existing team members to grow with the company. “We’ve got a lean team, but they’re amazing.” Says Nicole.
Rob and Nicole also want each member of the baking team to have full involvement in the production process, from start to finish. Beginning this year, one team member each month will have the authority to develop and test their own bar flavor, sourcing whatever ingredients they choose. “The best way to innovate is to empower the broader team to be impactful to the company mission,” says Rob. The goal is to provide the tools and flexibility to allow them to harness their own ideas, ambitions, and entrepreneurial abilities.
Rob and Nicole are also busy working on new product concepts, with plans to expand into other allergy-friendly snacks. “That’s the beauty of doing our own production,” says Rob. “We’re able to rapidly innovate, and there’s a lot of ideation going on.” This includes converting remainders from each batch of bars into granola—part of their commitment to being a zero waste facility—which they’ve so far been giving away to staff, family, and friends. Later this year they hope to make the granola available for sale, along with new bar flavors and a line of seed butters that are also school-safe.
With the very long work weeks that Rob and Nicole spend in Dorchester, often “rocking a hair net and a lab coat” and helping with production, the pair are careful to set aside time to focus on their personal relationship. After all, that’s where it all started.
“We need to have that separation of work and home life,” says Rob. And, after welcoming their first baby in January of this year, finding time for their own family has become all the more important. “As cheesy as this sounds, 88 Acres is a love story,” says Nicole. “It’s something that we started because of this crazy night on our fourth date. In many ways, the business has made us a stronger couple.”
To stay up-to-date on the latest developments from the 88 Acres family and receive sneak peeks of new flavors and products, along with recipes, visit www.88-acres.com and sign up for their e-newsletter. You can also find them on Facebook, at facebook.com/88acres.