“I went to BU [Boston University] and graduated with a marketing degree. Then right out of school, I was doing marketing for a company that owned a skincare and perfume line. I ended up taking a couple of classes at FIT for handbag design, and started working for Botkier handbags, doing sales and marketing for them.
While I was at Botkier, I had met my boyfriend at the time—he was a personal trainer and was really into doing triathlons and marathons. I had never done either one before. He kind of convinced me to start training for one. I was never a good runner, but his whole mentality was ‘whatever you put your mind to, you can do’. So I got into doing marathons and triathlons, and I just felt like this whole new shift in lifestyle wasn’t really aligned with what I was doing for my day job. I started searching for something that was more health-oriented, and I found the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I started their program, and I felt like I had finally found my calling.
When I was at the nutrition school, this was about seven and a half years ago now, I came across two really influential speakers. One was Mark Hyman, who is a big advocate for anti-inflammatory, anti-gluten diet. I’d always had digestive issues, so it really stuck with me to see the effect that gluten had on the body. The other was David Wolfe, who is a really big raw foodie. He was talking about chia seeds, coconut oil, hemp seeds—ingredients that were really unknown at the time and kind of just obscure in the back of Westerly market.
Later, when I was counseling clients one-on-one, I would work with a lot of athletes and say, ‘Okay, try going gluten-free for three weeks, and see how you feel. If you feel better, then keep it out of your diet. If you don’t, then eat it in moderation.’ I would say that 99% of the people felt better without it in their diet. When it came time to recommending products though, there really wasn’t anything healthy at the time.
So I started making my own recipes, throwing in chia seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa, all these ingredients that we use now. I was participating in the Westchester Triathlon, and decided to exhibit at the expo the day before to try to get clients. I was like, ‘Well, what do I need to do in order to get people to come over to my booth?’ Obviously everyone loves free food, so I made these gluten-free blueberry muffins. Actually, the night before I was making them with my mom, I was going to print out the recipe to hand to everyone, but we were like, ‘You know, these muffins are really good, who knows, maybe you can do something with it.’
We went to the expo, no one cared about the health counseling—they just wanted to buy the muffins. By the end of the day I said, ‘Well, you can sign up for my newsletter, I’ll let you know when you can buy them.’ I was totally making it up obviously. [Laughs] I went back a year later and figured, ‘Okay, let me throw together a couple of mixes, and this will totally be a side project.’ I went to the expo and sold out, but it was only like forty mixes. Not a big deal. But then two weeks later, DailyCandy contacted me and featured our products in their ‘Everywhere’ newsletter. And that’s what really put us on the map.
I remember saying to my boyfriend the night before, ‘I hope I get 20 orders.’ That was my goal. But when the newsletter went out, I had about $10,000 of orders in 3 hours. My inbox was just like ‘tt-ddh-ttdh’ on fire. I worked around the clock for 2 weeks straight to fill the orders. I was using a commercial kitchen in Philadelphia, because my mom was there and I had a friend who could help out. So every day for 2 weeks, I had to drive from New York to Philadelphia, use the kitchen, pack my car up with the products, bring them back and ship them out of my apartment. It was pretty crazy.
First it was muffin mixes, then cookie mixes, and then granola. It’s funny because I was never a granola eater. For whatever reason, some random Sunday it was raining in the city and there was nothing to do, I decided to make granola. My mom who is a huge granola eater happened to be in town visiting. She tried it and was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best granola I’ve ever had. This needs to be your next product.’ So I actually never tweaked the recipe from the first time I made it.
One of the biggest turning points for me was when we got into Whole Foods nationally. We started off local in the Whole Foods Mid Atlantic region. Then about 3 years ago, I was getting on the subway in New York. I saw an email come through and it basically said, ‘We’re pushing you out nationally, because we’re realizing that we are losing money by not having you in all these other regions.’ I was hysterical crying on the subway out of excitement, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, are you okay?’ I was like, ‘No I’m really great!’
It started with a baking mix, but I’ve always envisioned [Purely Elizabeth] as a bigger lifestyle brand. We’ve expanded in our product offerings, and I actually just released a cookbook, which was so much fun to work on. I’ve always wanted to help people in their healthy lifestyle, and in a way, this has allowed me to do so on a larger scale.
I’m all about the 80-20 rule. It’s funny because in nutrition school, they teach you all these different theories, and then you kind of just pick one that works for you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. So personally, I eat gluten-free, I try to be dairy-free—but I love cheese so I allow myself to have cheese, but good cheese. I wouldn’t have like, a cheese stick.
I moved to Colorado about a year and a half ago. I had been in New York for 12 years and was ready to get out of the city. There is such a strong natural food community in Boulder and we also started manufacturing in Denver around the same time, so it just happened naturally. It’s very different. My house is about a mile from this amazing mountain trailhead, and all summer I would hike before work, which is a pretty amazing way to start the day.
I love hiking, running, and I’ve been doing the [Kayla Itsines] BBG workout for a while actually. It’s so funny because I’m never one to subscribe to a diet or workout, but I just decided to do it. I love it, it’s quick, and I feel good. I’m in Austin right now, and I just worked out in the gym here. I’ve gotten pretty good at making sure I bring my workout stuff, even if I’m going on a one-night business trip. I know that mentally I’ll feel so much better if I workout, even if it’s just half an hour.
I’m a big believer in going after your dreams and looking at it in baby steps. I think that applied back when I was doing my first marathon, it was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so overwhelming. The farthest I’ve ever run is 3 miles.’ But when you break it down into little bits and pieces, everything becomes easier.”
As told to Stephanie Park, November 2015.
Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Stein.