By Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Because working on a master’s degree in post-Katrina New Orleans and being pregnant with a third child while raising twins wasn’t quite enough to keep Gretchen Williamson-Evans occupied, she decided to move to the Northwest and start a business … selling fully cooked, frozen organic grains.
They’re now arriving in local stores, packaged as Gretchen’s Grains.
The idea of having those staples available for easy use started in the Evans’ kitchen in New Orleans, while Gretchen was working on her Master’s and husband Bill Evans was operating his flight-training school.
Gretchen wanted the ease of eating the grain-and-vegetable salads featured in the healthier delis, but didn’t want to pay the deli prices, so she made grains in advance and froze them. Friends and family began requesting packages of the cooked quinoa, brown rice and wheat berries for themselves, and the couple recognized a niche market.
They did some research and realized “the whole-grain market was exploding,” says Gretchen. “We decided to throw our whole weight into it.”
The decision was the easy part.
Bill sold his flight school; they moved to West Seattle (where Gretchen lived prior to moving to New Orleans); and one month after her third child was born, Gretchen started working full-time at night at various WS restaurants so she and Bill could work full-time during the day to market the grains.
“It’s taken three years to create a frozen product,” says Gretchen. “It’s expensive, the real estate is limited, and your product can go bad. It’s a hard category to go into. So many times I thought, ‘This is the worst idea we’ve ever had!’ But after having twins, I decided, ‘I can survive anything’!”
Just in the past few weeks, multiple area grocers have picked up Gretchen’s Grains for their frozen foods section. These include Central Co-op/Madison Market, Ken’s Market on Phinney Ridge, and Spud online delivery, as well as co-ops in Olympia and Portland. PCC Natural Markets (WSB sponsor), which Gretchen calls the “gold standard” of organic-food stores, will soon stock Gretchen’s Grains in all nine regional stores.
(Update: Since publishing this on Saturday night, we’ve learned Gretchen’s Grains have just arrived at West Seattle PCC and are in stock there as of this weekend.)
Gretchen isn’t cooking up pots of quinoa on the kitchen stove (although she jokes that Gretchen’s Grains HQ is in the room “right next to the bathroom”). Instead, they’re working with suppliers and distributors who conform to the highest USDA Organic standards. She keeps the packaging convenient and the products simple — without added flavorings, they can be added to a variety of dishes, including breakfasts. “This product … is crucial to have available and ready in our house,” says Gretchen. “It ties together a lot of loose ends” in the pantry and refrigerator.
Though Gretchen doesn’t describe herself as a “health nut,” she says she’s always “eaten healthy.” After the birth of her third child, she announced to Bill that they would be training for a half-marathon so she could get rid of some of the baby weight. He was reluctant, but says that since originally being a “Gumbo-slurpin’ New Orleanian,” he’s “turned into a grain-eating machine, has lost at least 40 pounds, and has run four half-marathons, one full marathon, and is training for a triathlon.”
Though stores are beginning to stock Gretchen’s Grains, Gretchen won’t be quitting her night jobs at Circa, Mission and La Rustica too soon: “There are so many growing pains (in the business), you need your backup.”
While things are ramping up at Gretchen’s Grains, she and Bill are also still taking care of their three kids full time, taking them to various kid activities, and thinking about the future – Gretchen’s pondering what more she could be doing with the product. “I want to sell in bulk to schools and delis,” she says, “and expand the grains we provide.” She’s excited by all the different ways people tell her they’re using the grains, such as putting quinoa in their smoothies:
“This is exactly how I envisioned it.”