Two or three times a month, for an entire year, Emily Groden would wake up at 3:15 a.m.
Time to make the waffles.
Her company, Evergreen, was filling its first orders of frozen waffles, and she wanted to be at the production line when it started up at 4 a.m.
“I don’t know if it is having worked around restaurants and seeing people actually craft every day, or my Type A lawyer personality wanting to have control over the process,” said Groden, Evergreen’s CEO and founder.
It all started in 2017 when Groden, expecting her first child, was listening to a food podcast about how the frozen breakfast industry is dominated by major companies like Kellogg’s, known for its Eggo waffles.
“I started doing some research on what was out there on the market and realized that even the better-for-you brands weren’t all that much better for you,” Groden said.
“They still had refined sugars and preservatives and things that I wasn’t going to want to feed my daughter every morning of the week.”
So Groden ordered a waffle iron through Amazon and began tinkering with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices.
“Real foods coming from the earth that I would probably have in my pantry or my fridge anyway. Nothing that I couldn’t pronounce or didn’t really know what it was,” she said.
About two years later, Groden took a batch of waffles to Olivia’s Market in Bucktown to make her first sale.
“I walked in with a bag full of waffles on one shoulder and a bag with my household toaster, maple syrup and paper plates on the other, and asked if they wanted to try,” she said,
“So I toasted them up some waffles. They loved them, and they bought them on the spot.”
From there, Groden got Evergreen into local Whole Foods locations, then started supplying 28 of its stores statewide in March 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The pandemic wasn’t all bad for Evergreen. While it was impossible to set up demonstration tables inside grocery stores, shoppers started stocking up on items that would keep longer — a niche for frozen foods.
Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics, said people working from home also drove strong growth in breakfast foods.
“That took a lot of pressure off that enormous time crunch in the morning. So we actually see people spend a little bit more time on making a bigger breakfast,” she said.
U.S. consumers spent about $1 billion on frozen waffles in the 12 months ending in April, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Kellogg’s, with its Eggo waffles, controlled nearly 73% of the market.
Evergreen had been sharing space at a third-party manufacturer until March, when it opened its own production facility, in Vernon Hills. That made it easier for Groden and her operations manager — Evergreen’s only full-time employees — to monitor production. Output has grown sixfold, with thousands of waffles coming off the line every day.
By the end of May, Evergreen’s 2021 revenue will be nearly one-and-a-half times what it was in all of 2020, a spokesperson projected.
Groden has mostly self-financed Evergreen, along with small investments from friends and family. She grew up in Chicago and moved back here after graduating from Harvard Law School, taking a job at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm.
But the long-time food lover found herself spending every waking hour outside the office either cooking or learning about food.
“I had started to become really interested in trying to avoid processed foods as much as possible,” she said.
After watching a “Chef’s Table” episode on Netflix about Alinea, Chicago’s three-Michelin-star restaurant, Groden emailed co-owner Nick Kokonas to ask if he needed a lawyer.
Within two weeks, she was general counsel for the Alinea Group — a “pinch-me-is-this-real moment,” she said.
After her daughter was born, Groden in January 2019 cut back to part time at Alinea to focus on waffles.
“When you are a working mother of a newborn, you no longer have nights and weekends to work on side projects,” she said. “So I sat down with my husband and was like, either I just drop it at this point or I had to carve out more time to actually take it somewhere.”
She hired a design firm to create packaging and got certified to work out of a small commercial kitchen north of the city, where she made the waffles for that first sale at Olivia’s Market, which still carries them.
Groden left Alinea in August to work at Evergreen full time.
In stores, Evergreen offers peanut butter and banana; chocolate chip and matcha; mixed berry and almond; and zucchini and carrot. Online, it also sells pumpkin pecan.
The waffles are sold at Whole Foods in the midwest, Foxtrot Markets in Chicago and other independent grocers in the region. Evergreen soon will supply Whole Foods locations in New England, its first expansion outside the midwest.
“I wanted to create a brand that will stand the test of time,” Groden said. “And to me, creating a product that is full of real food that is nutritious is hopefully the way to create a brand that does stand the test of time and is evergreen.”