Pamela’s Products is driven by a mission to make gluten-free taste delicious.
With its brightly colored packages of pancake mix, cookies and snack foods, Pamela’s Products has been a mainstay in gluten-free foods for 30 years. And it all traces back to the Italian grandmother of company founder and president Pamela Giusto-Sorrells—and some really awful rice and soy flour cookies.
Pamela’s grandmother, Amelia, became a vegetarian when she was 18, around 1920.
“She meditated, she did yoga, she was making her own almond milk. She had quite a different lifestyle than most people in that day,” explains Pamela. “The story goes that my grandfather bought her a health food store in 1940 so she could be around her kind of people.”
The store, located on Polk Street in San Francisco, had a small bakery in the back that made fresh products, including three types of gluten-free bread and two kinds of cookies developed by an allergy doctor. About 20 years later, the family sold the retail store but continued with the wholesale bakery, supplying natural foods to health food stores in the San Francisco Bay area. They continued to bake those same gluten-free products. The cookies were dry and tasteless, but the attitude then was that people should be happy with the few gluten-free options, regardless of taste.
“You can’t imagine how bad the gluten-free food was back in those days,” Pamela says. “In the late 1970s when I was a teenager, I was a cookie packer for my dad. There I was wrapping those rice and soy cookies that smelled weird and had a weird mouthfeel.”
As the “sugar child” in her family, Pamela says she loved baking—but she also was the kid who had healthy carob chip cookies in her school lunch.
“I understood what it was like to have food that your peers considered weird and different. Then I thought, imagine if you had celiac disease or imagine if you were on a gluten-free diet and you had to eat my father’s rice or soy cookies or his soy potato bread or his lima bean bread. How awful would that be? Not only would your foods be different, they would also taste horrible.”
She went away to college and came back wondering, how difficult could it be to make gluten-free food that actually tasted good?
“It became a challenge for me: Could I make something that tasted really good that would fool my dad?” Pamela says. “During this period, I asked my dad if I could run the company, because I loved being part of the family business. And he told me that I couldn’t run it because I was a girl and I had two brothers.”
So in 1998 she took her forklift, opened a warehouse two blocks away and started Pamela’s Products. The company’s mission was to make gluten-free products that tasted great, so that everyone could have delicious food.
“I started Pamela’s wanting to do something for the kids who couldn’t eat wheat,” she says. “But I knew that if I didn’t make it taste good enough for everybody to eat and enjoy, what would be the point?”
In those days, packaging for natural foods came in muted, earthy hues like brown and gold. Pamela shook that up with bold colors to capture the shopper’s eye.
“I like pretty packaging and bright colors—that’s what attracts my attention,” she says. “I really went against the grain of natural foods back in the ’80s with picking bright colors. I wanted people who are gluten-free to feel that it was special food, that it was something more than medicinal.”
Keep in mind that Pamela does not have celiac disease, nor does she need to eat gluten-free.
“I eat wheat. My whole family eats wheat. There’s no one who’s gluten intolerant in my family,” she says. The lesson she learned from her grandmother and from her family’s natural foods business was to provide people with food they couldn’t find elsewhere.
“The biggest thing about growing up with my grandmother was that I understood that not everybody eats the same and that is perfectly fine. I never questioned why she didn’t eat meat; she just didn’t eat meat. So when I learned about people who didn’t eat gluten, it seemed completely natural to me.”
Pamela personally develops all the company’s product recipes. Everything has to pass her palate. The result is fun, appealing gluten-free products like Figgies & Jammies fig cookies, SimpleBites mini cookies, Whenever Bars snack bars and Honey Grahams graham crackers. Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix, one of the company’s first products, has long been the top-selling pancake mix in the natural foods category.
Her goal remains to make really great products that happen to be gluten-free, food that her customers can feel confident about.
“They should be able to buy a box of cookies, a bag of pancake mix, a box of pasta and not have to worry whether it’s going to taste good, not have to worry whether the texture is weird, not have to worry whether their friends will eat it or not. With the Pamela’s line, I’m trying to put foods on the market that matter in people’s lives,” she says.
“The bottom line for me is putting out foods that taste delicious that people really want as part of their diet and that they’ll purchase over and over again. Knowing that I have products that have been on the market for 25 or 30 years, I consider that a success.”
For more about Pamela’s Products, visit the company website.
Eve Becker is associate editor of Gluten Free & More magazine.