Lizzi Ackerman and Matt LaCasse: selling like . . . well, you know

A Colorado couple rethinks pancake mixes.

Nick Cote/the New York Times

Nick Cote/the New York Times

Pancakes are the passion of Lizzi Ackerman ’10 and Matt LaCasse ’10, who now sell their Birch Benders mix nationwide. View full image

Nick Cote/the New York Times

Nick Cote/the New York Times

View full image

As Lizzi Ackerman ’10 explains it, she and Matt LaCasse ’10 woke up one morning six years ago in their home in Boulder, Colorado, and had a revelation: “Pancakes were stuck in the Dark Ages.”

They were hungry for pancakes, but they didn’t want any of the standard highly refined mixes. And they didn’t have the ingredients handy for anything better. “Natural pancake mixes were not convenient because you had to add other ingredients to the mix,” says Ackerman. “Why can’t we have it all? Why can’t we have organic, natural ingredients with just-add-water convenience?”

So they launched their own business. LaCasse was working at a local restaurant and skiing in the winter, and had already had dreams of starting his own enterprise. Ackerman, who was studying chemistry, brought a scientific approach to their recipes. “We did double-blind taste tests of every ingredient,” she says. “We nerded out on ingredients!” They named the new operation Birch Benders, after the New England pastime—a favorite of LaCasse’s—of climbing up a young birch until the treetop gradually bends to the ground.

They began slowly, LaCasse says. “We started in 2012 selling to a few local stores, including a local Whole Foods, and doing cooking demonstrations around Denver. We focused on getting feedback and refining recipes for 18 months.” They ran the operation out of their home, outsourcing to keep costs low. (Today, they still outsource packaging, sales, and PR.)

And the business took off, launching nationally in 2014. Growth since then has been over 100 percent per year; Birch Benders pancakes are now available in over 7,000 retailers.

Birch Benders offers 15 different mixes, including sweet potato and double chocolate peppermint. Several are organic. Ackerman’s favorite is a variety they created at the request of Whole Foods: a “paleo diet” pancake—no grains or dairy products. They had to test 99 different versions, but it’s now their biggest seller. LaCasse’s top pick is the chocolate chip, which he describes as “insane.” To find the right chocolate, they ran double-blind taste tests on every organic chocolate chip brand in the country. (There are 20.)

Ackerman does most of the marketing, and LaCasse handles the finances. They also share the best part of the whole undertaking: inventing, testing, and tasting new kinds of pancakes. 

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