In 1994, Mary Waldner was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body can’t properly digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
Relieved at having pinpointed the source of years of pain and discomfort, the then-43-year-old Waldner began removing gluten from her personal recipes. She’d always enjoyed baking, so she also created new gluten-free dishes—including a cracker that was made of quinoa, brown rice, flax seeds, and sesame seeds.
This unassuming cracker was to form the cornerstone of Mary’s Gone Crackers.
Before starting her business, Waldner estimates that she’d baked 30,000 crackers by hand, because healthy gluten-free snacks weren’t easy to find at the grocery store at the time.
At first, she’d whip out her crackers whenever her friends were eating gluten products, but they were soon asking to try her homemade treats, too. Many liked the taste and kept asking for more. At one friend’s house, a two-year-old would not stop eating Waldner’s crackers.
These positive reactions culminated on New Year’s Day, 1999, when she woke up to the revelation that she needed to start her own business and share her crackers with the world, so people could have healthy, delicious gluten-free snack options.
At the time, Waldner was a psychotherapist and her husband, Dale Rodrigues, worked as a project manager for a construction contractor. Both decided to put in the extra hours to make Waldner’s dream a reality.
They decided on the name “Mary’s Gone Crackers” because, to an outside observer, Waldner’s venture might have seemed a little crazy—to the best of their knowledge, there were no other organic and gluten-free crackers or, really, organic and gluten-free anything on the market that actually tasted good. Plus, it was a playful nod to Mary’s career as a therapist.
Following the company’s 2004 launch, Waldner and Rodrigues were beset by many challenges. The couple struggled to find investors and signed a contract with a venture capital group that tried to wrest the business away from them. And when they did start to succeed, their production almost could not keep up with customers’ booming demand.
“It was crisis after crisis, really … [but my husband and I] knew that we would just get through each of them,” Waldner says. “Our joke was that the universe must want these crackers. There were these moments of grace, where the universe took care of us in kind of miraculous ways. …”
One such moment occurred in 2012, when Kameda Seika Co. Ltd, a Japanese rice cracker manufacturer, bought 80 percent of the company, causing the venture capital group—as well as the original investors—to bow out with good returns on their investments.
While Kameda now owns most of the shares in the company, Waldner and Rodrigues are still in charge of its operations.
After its challenging beginnings, Mary’s Gone Crackers has taken off, benefitting from a year-over-year growth rate of 40 percent since its founding.
It now has 270 employees and a 150,000-square-foot facility that operates around the clock. Waldner encourages on-the-job munching, telling the 50 to 60 workers on the factory floor to make sure the crackers taste right before they are packaged.
In the years to follow, more organic and gluten-free cracker companies launched amidst the growing national demand for gluten-free and organic items, which Waldner attributes to a growth in people’s health consciousness. But years before this boom in healthy eating awareness, Waldner was committed to using only organic ingredients from the start.
“I have been conscious of organic and health and environmental issues for a very long time, and that’s … my activism in the world,” she says. “I am interested in offering real food that tastes really good and that nourishes our bodies, and the only way to do that is to use organic ingredients.”
Mary’s Gone Crackers first sold its products at natural food stores and food coops. After saturating organic food stores, the crackers sailed onto the shelves in mainstream supermarkets and Costco.
From the original cracker, which is still the company’s bestseller, the Mary’s Gone Crackers product line has grown to include six more cracker flavors, as well as gluten-free pretzels, cookies, bread crumbs, and graham bites. Waldner personally develops and tests the recipes—now with input from an R&D team as well.
“What I love is to find really cool ingredients that are nutritious and have interesting flavors and will work in gluten-free versions,” says Waldner.
These ingredients can include the unusual, such as ramon seed flower from Guatemalan rainforests, quinoa from Ecuador and Bolivia, and mesquite powder from Hawaii, among many others.
“It sometimes can take a year of … firming up sources for these ingredients, because you have to have a good supply chain,” she says.
And by “good,” she means that Mary’s Gone Crackers obtains most of these products from cooperative farmers’ networks. The ingredients that can be Fair Trade Certified™ are, and for those not available under the certification, the company ensures that farmers are paid fairly for their products, allowing the cooperatives set the prices for their goods.
“We have direct relationships with [our producers], so we know that they’re getting a good wage for what they’re doing,” she says. “We also support [the farmers] with funds for their schools or their communities.”
In addition, a portion of the company profits supports the Celiac Foundation, which raises awareness about gluten intolerance.
The crackers’ packaging is made from recycled paper and soy-based ink, and production food waste is either composted or given to farmers, who feed it to animals. The facility runs on a steam generator, which is more efficient than a boiler. In the future, Waldner is looking into renting solar panels.
In 2008, Mary’s Gone Crackers received the Specialty Food Association’s Sofi Gold Award for “outstanding cracker”; the award is presented to businesses that develop delicious recipes that appeal to retailers and customers. The judges were chefs, retailers, and specialty food experts.
The crackers continue to earn raves from customers, as well, and not just for their taste.
“What is very moving to me is when people really get the love and the care and the vision that we have,” says Waldner. “Not only do they love [our] products, but they love what we stand for.”
And Waldner still snacks on her crackers on a regular basis. “Sometimes, if I haven’t eaten them for a few days, then I pull some out, and I think, ‘wow, these are really good.’ I still really like them.”