It’s hard to decide what the harder challenge might be between two things: being a parent and launching a successful baked snack company. Denise Woodard, founder of better-for-you cookie company Partake Foods, is managing to balance both; in just a few short years since she first tested batches of allergen-friendly treats in her kitchen, the brand has built a nationwide presence, forged partnerships with high-profile retailers like Target, and has Marvel superheroes adoring the packaging.

To find out more about the dynamic brand, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery spoke with Woodard and picked her brain about Partake’s humble beginnings, impressive success, and future plans.

Jenni Spinner: Could you please share a bit about how Partake got started? 

Denise Woodard: Around my daughter’s first birthday, she was eating a very simple snack when she turned blue in my living room. We had to rush her to the hospital, and this was where my family’s journey with food allergies began. After her diagnosis, I really struggled to find snacks that she could safely eat, that met my nutritional requirements, and that she enjoyed. I immediately flashed forward in my mind to her being the “allergy kid” with the “allergy snacks” at social gatherings. So, in 2016, I set out to help her and the 32 million Americans like her that are living with food allergies.

I left my career at Coca-Cola in 2017, after incubating the idea for a year. I tested batches in my kitchen until I found a recipe developer who could partner with me to bring our first three flavors to life.

JS: Then, please talk about your journey from a kitchen operation to a retail brand, in those early days. What were some of the challenges you faced getting off the ground?

DW: The major thing that helped me get off the ground came first in a piece of advice from Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea: “Just get started.”

I couldn’t let my discomfort in asking for help, cold calling, and hearing “no” get in the way of my commitment. So, I started small, sat in every seat of the organization, self-distributed, and bootstrapped the business until 2019.

Funding was a challenge. We grew in baby steps, gradually expanding by adding one small regional grocer at a time. In 2019, after an up-and-down 2 years of hosting a successful Kickstarter, selling my engagement ring, depleting my 401k, and hearing 86 no’s from potential investors, I closed a $1M seed round led by Marcy Venture Partners. I had gotten so much consumer validation in the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of demos and trade shows I was doing. I knew that I had something and had to figure out how to keep going. Marcy Venture Partners saw that, believed in what I was building, and leaned in.

Until January 2020, I was the only full-time employee. That seed round was the launchpad we needed to start seeing meaningful growth. Fast-forward to today, you can find Partake in over 14,000 stores nationwide and partnered with folks like Ben & Jerry’s, JetBlue, and DoubleTree by Hilton—all organizations who believe in our mission.

JS: Your goodies have been in Target for a while. Could you talk about how that partnership started, and how it’s evolved over time?

DW: My husband Jeremy met the Supplier Diversity lead in the bathroom line at a trade show. It’s always important to shoot your shot. That initial intro eventually led to a meeting. Initially, we anticipated they would give us a small test, but they ended up offering us national distribution. We took that opportunity to scale from a regional to a national brand essentially overnight. While it was a monumental shift, I believe that it was the result of years spent building a strong foundation in the business. To this day, when I take my daughter to Target and she sees our product on shelves, it’s a moment of gratitude that I do not take for granted.

JS: Partake’s product innovation has been fun to watch. Please tell us about how you approach new products and flavors, and how you evaluate these items as you take them from the idea stage to pilot, to retail.

DW: With all of our new products and flavors, we have two main goals: delicious and inclusive. Our recent launch of our Mini Graham Crackers & Vanilla Wafers is a testament to our commitment to making allergy-friendly options that are meaningful—versatile, nostalgic, and appeal to everyone, whether or not they have food allergies. We also recently continued our collaboration with Marvel recently by introducing our Super Hero Sprinkle mini cookies now featuring Spidey and His Amazing Friends.

Partake_inside.jpegJS: There are quite a few companies offering products in a space similar to yours (namely, allergen-friendly, BFY cookies). In addition to the things you mentioned above, what makes Partake special and stand out from the crowd?

DW: Partake is a triple bottom line business. We became B Corp certified in 2023, and I think what sets us apart the most is that we think about how to make the world better in every decision—whether that’s fighting to end food insecurity in the US or increasing diversity in the food industry.

The Partake Promise is rooted in the vision that I had for my daughter and all folks living with food allergies and dietary restrictions—everyone should have the ability to partake in safe and delicious foods. Our snacks are crafted to be inclusive—as a top 9 allergen-free product, they’re safe for over 90% of people to eat. They are gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO, and most importantly, they are delicious.

As the leader of a Black-owned, women-led business, a first-time founder, and a woman of color, it’s abundantly clear to me how often people do not have the opportunity to partake so I really view this company as a vehicle for radical inclusivity, and ultimately creating a bigger table that celebrates all types of people.

JS: Partake has not only come up with new cookies and products but packaging formats—specifically, the multi-packs. Please talk about those and why these are worth launching.

DW: I love our snack packs because they are perfect for any on-the-go needs. They take the guesswork out of finding allergy-friendly alternatives when I’m taking my daughter to birthday parties or packing her school lunch. They truly align with our mission of making allergy-friendly snacks accessible and convenient.

JS: In terms of food entrepreneurs, the field still isn’t as diverse and inclusive as it should be. Can you please talk about some of the unique obstacles you and other Black founders face and any advice you have for food founders like you thinking of entering the field?

DW: The numbers don’t lie. Black women get .41% of VC funding. But we are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs! My advice would be what I spoke to earlier. Just get started. Have a great idea that is needed in the market. Over time, by listening to your customers, you will get the feedback you need to iterate and create a product that people want and love. Strive to improve (at least a bit) every day, because it’s the small, incremental changes that make a seismic impact. Know your numbers. Listen to advice but apply only what makes sense for your product and business. Find your peer group of founders who can share your experience. Partner with those who can champion your purpose. Keep going.

JS: What’s next for Partake—if there are any new products, industry partnerships, or other fun things you’d like to tell us about, we’d love to hear.

DW: We are so excited to bring our Classic Grahams to JetBlue! Find them on your next flight. Outside of that, we’re always under the hood! Stay tuned.

JS:  What’s your favorite product in Partake’s range?

DW: I am forever a “chocolate” girl. My personal favorite are the Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies, but I’m also a huge fan of the new variety of our snack packs for on-the-go needs with my daughter.