In a word-association game, when someone says “cookie,” the next thing that comes to mind probably isn’t “healthy.” But the Greenwich-based founders of REAL, a line of award-winning snacks, have made it their mission to change that. Entrepreneurs Lauren Berger and Marla Felton, who are best friends and raised their kids in Greenwich, each have family members with autoimmune diseases who need to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. And they developed their REAL cookies to meet that need.
“We were always getting together with our families and we would bring out food. We had signs for different desserts—the gluten-free, dairy-free and grain-free. We wanted to make something that tasted good that we could all share together,” says Marla, a former attorney, describing the origins of their business.
Lauren had worked in new product marketing for Godiva and also run a small cookie company, so she decided to build on her background to bake something the families—and a wider market—could enjoy. “Both our families are focused on the fact that no matter what health challenges you have, food is medicine. You are what you eat. Good food is good for everybody,” says Marla, who recalls how her husband challenged the friends to come up with something that would be nutritious and tasty.
So, Lauren and Marla baked and baked, tested and tested, and shared their cookies with a small taste-testing team of about twenty-five friends and family members, different ages and taste palates, some who had food sensitivities and some who didn’t. They kept working on new recipes to get feedback from everyone. “Once we had a unanimous ‘these are great!’ that’s when we knew we were ready to go to market,” Lauren says.
The critics agree with the test-panel’s assessment. After less than two years of sales, the plant-based cookies have already been awarded Best Grain-Free Cookie in Good Housekeeping’s Healthy Snack Awards and Cookie of the Year by Prevention. Their brand has been picked up by Amazon, Fresh Direct, Festival Food, Albertsons, CVS and is in many airports. Locally, they are available at Mike’s Organic and are in the mini bars at Delamar Hotels.
Exactly what makes REAL cookies healthier? The base is almond flour and coconut flour, a good mix and binder with plenty of protein. The cookies and cookie poppers are only sweetened with maple syrup, which has a lower glycemic index than sugar. There’s no gluten, eggs, dairy, corn or soy, and no sneaky substitutes or artificial sugars. Lauren and Marla’s sons both play college sports, and this is the only sweet they like. “They eat for fuel and find that they give them energy,” Marla says. The blueberry-lemon variety are almost like mini blueberry muffins and make a great on-the-go breakfast.
Part of the duo’s mission is to educate people about nutrition. They began appearing on Great Day Connecticut to demonstrate plant-based recipes. They also partnered with Biolife, a company that makes dairy-free cheese and butter to come up with gluten-free dishes such as a cheese cake with a REAL cookie crumb crust. “We love talking about our passion for eating healthy and teaching kids,” says Lauren.
To that end, the ladies also created a program working with fifth graders in Greenwich Public Schools to teach them how to read nutrition labels and shop for quality ingredients. “It’s so interesting to watch a kid pick up a piece of fruit and see which country it came from,” Lauren says. “How did it get here from South America, California, Mexico. What needs to happen to make the fruit arrive and look beautiful?”
Barely two years into running REAL, Lauren and Marla are already working on new product flavors, which they can still test on family before bringing them to market. “Certain foods leave imprints on your memory,” says Marla. “Cookies are pretty much universal.” realcookiesco.com