Lizzi Ackerman had her mind set on being a doctor. That decision, made after a life-changing event, seemed perfect – until it wasn’t. “As much as I loved medicine,” admits Lizzi, “it wasn’t the right fit.” But that didn’t stop her from being a doctor; she just went a different direction. Lizzi left medicine behind to become Dr. Pancake.
While her title might sound like a joke, Lizzi’s company (which she runs with her husband, Matt) is anything but. Birch Benders Micro-Pancakery is one of the fastest growing pancake mix brands. What started as a solution to a morning problem – how to make natural, good-for-you pancakes as easy as to make as the conventional brands – has since turned into an incredibly successful business. Birch Benders is so successful in fact that they’ve landed in Targets nation-wide. And we trust Target.
In this interview Lizzi shares what it takes to be an entrepreneur, what challenges the company is tackling and even what makes the perfect pancake. We have a feeling Dr. Pancake won’t lead us astray.
“What makes us different is that we don’t follow the standards of our category. We make our own.”
We’d love to hear about your experience before becoming “Dr. Pancake” – tell us more!
Before becoming Dr. Pancake, I was on track to becoming a medical doctor. I was inspired to pursue a career in medicine after a near-death experience my junior year at Yale. After leading a community service trip to Belize, I returned to New Haven and fell sick. I went from being a normal college student, to living in the ICU for 11 days, intubated for 8, unable to speak, with double pneumonia and ARDS. It was terrifying. When I pulled through, I decided I wanted to go into medicine.
I graduated, moved back to Manhattan (where I’m from), and attended Columbia to do my Postbac Premed. I also started dating Matt LaCasse, a colleague classmate, now my husband, with whom I ended up co-founding Birch Benders. A few months after dating, Matt moved to Boulder, Colorado. I visited him and was drawn to the lifestyle and entrepreneurial vibe. After a year at Columbia, I moved to Boulder. I had only one class left to complete—Organic Chemistry—so I figured, what better place to study than a mountain paradise where I could ski on my off hours?
As much as I loved medicine, it ultimately wasn’t the right fit. I’d always loved to cook, and even as a kid, I made my own recipe books (with embarrassingly detailed recipe descriptions and all). The thrill of starting a business excited me, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be where I am today.
How did Birch Benders get its start?
Matt and I are both pancake lovers and grew up eating pancakes, but always made from scratch. One morning, Matt woke up craving pancakes, but didn’t feel like going through all the effort of making them. So that led to an idea, the idea that really started Birch Benders: what if you could crack an egg over a griddle, but instead of getting an egg, you’d get a gourmet pancake? What if making pancakes could be that easy? We started looking around and realized there was nothing like that. Conventional mixes, like Aunt Jemima and Krusteaz, offered just-add-water convenience, but were full of hydrogenated oils and bleached flours. All-natural mixes were healthier but weren’t just-add-water, and were overpriced. Why couldn’t we have convenience and quality? We saw a niche, and we went for it.
So we began working on creating the world’s first all-natural and organic, just-add-water pancake mix. After about a year, we finalized the recipes. But we weren’t satisfied, and here’s where my science background came in. It occurred to me that if we really wanted the best recipes, we needed to make sure we had the best ingredients. The only way to ensure that objectively would be to double-blind taste test every ingredient.
That’s exactly what we did. We started by testing well over 30 organic flours double-blind. Most people, when they make pancakes, just use the flour in their pantry. But when you think about it, there are so many types of flour, and we found the type of wheat and the protein content dramatically affect the taste and texture and rise of the pancake. We tested every variety of flour available to ultimately make the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes imaginable.
We did and continue to do this rigorous double-blind taste testing on all our ingredients. Time-consuming? Yes. Worthwhile? Absolutely. Because at the end of the day, our recipes actually taste better than from scratch.
Was entrepreneurship always part of your career plan? What inspired you to take the leap into business ownership?
I wouldn’t say entrepreneurship was part of my career plan, but I’m also not surprised to find myself here. When I was applying to college, I always heard about colleges wanting “pointy” students, students who were really exceptional at one thing. That wasn’t me. I was good at a lot of things, but I felt I wasn’t extraordinary at one thing. In many ways, that makes me successful at my job. In being an entrepreneur, starting a business from the ground-up, you save a lot of time and money by being competent in a lot of different fields. When we were starting out, without funding, Matt taught himself to code and I taught myself graphic design. He learned finance, I learned sales. Still today, we have our hands on all the sectors of the business, and that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.
What makes Birch Benders different from other companies out there?
We’re reimagining our category, the pancake category. From the beginning, we looked at the standards of our category, then threw them out the window and sought to redefine what pancakes are. People think of pancakes as a semi-indulgent comfort food. They can be. But pancakes can also be a healthy, guilt-free meal. They can be gluten free. They can even be Paleo (our Paleo mix was first to market, and is the top selling pancake mix in the natural channel).
You also find pancake and waffle mixes mostly in a bag-in-box format. We thought, why? Because when you open the bag within a box, then what? You either have to transfer the mix to a zip lock bag or bugs will get in. So we were one of the first companies to create a resealable, stand-up pouch. Now other companies are doing that too, but we’re proud to have started the trend.
What makes us different is that we don’t follow the standards of our category. We make our own.
What is a day in your life typically like?
There’s no such thing as typical in my life. I travel a lot. On a good week, once or twice. But I’m often on the road for many weeks, going from sales meeting to trade show to sales meeting. My life is full of travel, meetings, and a whole lot of emails. At least it’s fun!
Are there any challenges keep you awake at night?
Our growth has been insane this past year, so figuring out how to continue to scale without compromising quality is the top thing on my mind. R&D is another big one.
What does work/life balance mean to you? Do you find it a challenge?
Work/life balance means excelling in your work, but also prioritizing your personal life. It’s a real challenge. Matt and I try to stop working and put our computers away in the evening, but I won’t lie — it’s really hard. One thing that’s helped us maintain a balance is to plan activities and put them on the calendar. For us, that’s often ski trips, hiking trips, and the like. We’ve found that paying for lodging in advance really helps because once you pay, you won’t blow it off.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
Getting into Target nationwide in 2015. That was surreal.
What are three pieces of career advice you’d like to share with our readers?
Find a mentor. I cannot emphasize enough how critical this is. There are so many intricacies in every industry, so it really helps to find someone who has been there and done that successfully, and can guide you along the way, empower you, and help you avoid the pitfalls.
Know your strengths. You can’t do everything and you won’t be great at everything, so it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you’re best at, and hire people to handle the rest.
Be patient and grow intelligently. As an entrepreneur, it’s natural to feel the urge to grow your business as quickly as possible, but that’s not the wisest way. You want to put your best foot forward and that takes time. It took us two years, and during that period, five rounds of packaging, before we were ready to officially launch.
Any last advice for readers who may say, “Hey! I want her job!”
Make sure you believe in your idea and yourself, with every fiber of your being, because on the outset, everyone will question you. So you need to have the passion, the drive, the diligence, and a solid business plan. Study your industry and surround yourself with people who know that industry better than you do. Be humble, be patient, listen and learn from others, and you can do anything.
We lied, one more question, any secrets to the perfect pancake?
Take enough time to preheat the pan. It sounds obvious but everyone always forget to do this. The first pancake is generally the worst because people don’t preheat the pan for long enough. So give that pan some time to heat.
And get creative! We’ve made our pancakes with beer instead of water, and it tastes amazing (I recommend Hefeweizen — the banana esters come out and it’s glorious). Or add fresh peaches. Or blueberries. Sky’s the limit!
Person I’d love to grab coffee with: David Bowie (You didn’t say living!)
You’ll find these three things on my desk right now: I’m pretty much never at my desk. But on my person: phone, laptop and eyeliner.
My go-to office outfit is: A dress. I love dresses.
You can find me lunching at: Um ... the airport?
I can’t live without: My husband, family, friends and our cats.
My favorite way to unwind is: Skiing or hiking with friends.
I feel my best when: I’m outside doing something active, preferably skiing, running or hiking.