Easy to swallow business model
Sue Graziano Adams ’90 develops gourmet frozen meals for people who have trouble eating solid food
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
As a speech-language pathologist working in Bay Area hospitals a decade ago, Sue Graziano Adams ’90 loved all the time she spent with her patients — except mealtime.
“Sometimes I would put a patient on a puréed diet because of swallowing problems,” she recalls. “They’d get a tray with three balls of mush covered with gravy. They’d say to me, ‘What is that?’ I’d look at it and say, ‘Good question.’ I had no clue. It was all the same color, and it looked terrible.” The unappetizing food was hurting patients’ quality of life.
Adams’ frustration came to a head in 2005 when a patient told her, “I just want to eat.” Adams knew immediately — she calls it an “Oprah ah-ha! moment” — that she wanted to make delicious gourmet food that was easy to swallow and that would keep people interested in eating. A company name, “Blossom Foods,” came to her in a flash, but the rest of the details were hazy at first. “I had no idea what kind of food I’d make,” she recalls. “I just knew that it needed to be simple, and it needed to be good.”
Adams also knew that the population with swallowing problems, or dysphagia, numbered in the millions (see page 23, Firm Market for Soft Food), so she charged ahead. After all, launching Blossom Foods wouldn’t be the first challenge she had overcome. Raised on a farm west of Seattle, Adams was the only child of five to attend college. She moved to the Bay Area on her own in 1988. She completed a Master of Science in speech and communication disorders at Cal State East Bay in 1990 and had worked at prestigious institutions including the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center and Alta Bates Hospital. Additionally, she had created the in-house speech pathology program at Oakland’s Summit Medical Center in 1995. Slender and kinetic, Adams rarely slows down.
In building her Blossom Foods team, she found a local chef with extensive product development experience. She also engaged a business consultant, a food scientist, and a nutritionist. And she located a frozen foods company in San Francisco that was willing to share space in its commercial kitchen. (Frozen food made sense, she realized, because it is easy to store, easy to heat, and lasts up to a year.) Adams’ passionate drive to create Blossom Foods overcame every challenge. “I just couldn’t stop,” she recalls. “I don’t know what happened. I just did it.”
Her former employer, Summit Medical Center, agreed to be Blossom Foods’ first customer. “They said they wanted turkey, pot roast, and chicken, so that’s what we started with — the basics,” says Adams, adding that she knew the original repertoire wouldn’t be enough. “From there we asked ourselves, ‘What do people really eat?’”
Six years later, Blossom Foods offers 27 fresh-frozen items ranging from omelettes and chicken enchiladas (Adams’ personal favorite) to blueberry custard and French toast. It delivers to six bay area institutions, including San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, one of the largest therapeutic care centers in the country.
Focus on taste
Blossom Foods also sells direct to customers, and this is where Adams gets immediate feedback on how she’s doing. “It’s a little cult,” she says playfully about her online customers. She gets e-mail and phone calls daily from them, saying what they like and what they want. Some of the notes are deeply emotional — especially thank-yous from older people who thought that their dysphagia meant they’d never taste real food again. “My mom calls me every two to three days to let me know how delicious her Blossom Foods are,” one customer wrote. “Thank you for making such great foods for our elderly people. This will make her last few years enjoyable, since she is no longer able to order meals from restaurants.”
That sort of message reinforces one of Adams’ core beliefs: “There’s got to be joy, even at the end of life,” she says. “Good food is important to people, and that doesn’t go away just because you’re 85 years old.”
Blossom Foods’ business has doubled in customers and gross profit every year since 2005. The growth, Adams believes, is the result of the company’s emphasis on freshness and flavor. Everything at Blossom Foods is fresh-frozen, even though other processes such as canning would simplify storage and shipping. Canned foods, Adams explains, are emulsified, which produces a gritty texture and a watery, sometimes metallic taste that Adams finds unacceptable. “When you put our food in your mouth, it still has good texture,” she says. “You don’t have to chew it, but your mouth naturally manipulates it.” This, she explains, gives the diner an experience closer to that of eating unprocessed food.
Blossom Foods also improves its diners’ experience by expanding their choices. While sticking to tried-and-true foods like ravioli and cherry cobbler, the company is steadily expanding its international offerings. "(For) one hospital in Fremont … we're trying things like chicken marsala and eggplant parmigiana," Adams says. “If we get them as a (regular) customer, we’ll also try offering these dishes on the Internet.” In all cases, quality is foremost: Every new recipe is taste-tested by an eight-person flavor panel, evaluated for nutritional value, and approved by the USDA, if it includes meat.
Spreading the word
Adams begins her long workday at 3:30 a.m., when she processes online orders, answers e-mail, and plans production and shipments for commercial customers from her home in Oakland. Later in the morning she drives her green Range Rover (with the vanity plate [heart]2PUREE) to the Blossom Foods kitchen to oversee operations. When she returns to the East Bay in the early afternoon — she insists on picking up her kids from school — she often delivers meals to a hospital along the way. “I’ve done every job here,” she says, including cooking, packaging, shipping, and cleaning up.
Today, Blossom Foods is “about at our limit as a small company,” Adams says, so she’s contemplating steps to grow the business while maintaining high quality. She’d like to work with a large food service distributor, which would make her products available to more hospitals. She’s also thinking of taking on investors. And she’d love to see Blossom Foods in retail freezers nationwide. “They’ve got 600 types of frozen pizza,” she says with exasperation. “But you cannot find textured food there.
“My daughter asked me the other day, ‘Mom, why didn’t you invent Vitamin Water?’ (She loves Vitamin Water.),” Adams says. “But I told her, people aren’t writing to Vitamin Water saying we need another darn drink, but they write to me every day.”
So as long as her in-box overflows with requests for Blossom Foods’ creamed spinach, ground shepherd’s pie, and puréed bread pudding, Adams will stick to her mission: to feed Blossom Foods fans — and their renewed enthusiasm for mealtime.