Conscious crackers

Mary’s Gone Crackers founder discusses inspiration for healthful-snack company

Mary Waldner, founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers, has overseen rapid growth of the Gridley-based snack company since opening in 2004.

Mary Waldner, founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers, has overseen rapid growth of the Gridley-based snack company since opening in 2004.

Photo By HOward Hardee

Until she was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994, Mary Waldner had been sick her whole life and hadn’t known why.

Since she was 3 years old, the founder of the Gridley-based “conscious eating” snack company Mary’s Gone Crackers suffered from severe digestive pain, fatigue, poor muscle mass and joint discomfort.

“When you have something your whole life, you think it’s normal,” she said during an interview in her office at the company’s Gridley facility. “I didn’t know how sick I was.”

She repeatedly sought medical treatment without an answer. She was 43 years old when her chiropractor “put it all together”—Waldner had celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder in which consumption of gluten (found in wheat, barley and rye products) produces an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine and interferes with the patient’s ability to absorb nutrients. Finally, her life-long symptoms were explained.

“I was ecstatic to find out what was wrong,” she said. “I had always been a baker, so I just cleaned out my kitchen and started making gluten-free things. The crackers came out of that process.”

At first, Waldner baked the crackers (the main ingredients of which are brown rice and flax, quinoa and sesame seeds) only for herself. When attending dinners or parties where she knew the temptation to eat wheat-based foods would be strong, she packed small bags of her homemade snacks. And when she let other people try them, she found they tended to “flip.”

“I mean, I liked them a lot, but everybody who ate them went crazy over them,” Waldner said. “I just thought, ‘This is not a normal reaction to a cracker.’”

And so began a five-year period in which Waldner found herself increasingly torn between her profession (she operated a private marriage and family therapy practice in Oakland) and making crackers. A local health-food store began stocking bags of her crackers; they “couldn’t keep them on the shelves.” As her crackers continued to draw rave reviews, she began developing a vision for the snacks.

“I just woke up one morning and very naively decided we needed to manufacture them, and my husband agreed,” Waldner recalled. “But, we knew nothing about the food industry.”

In 2004, when Waldner and her husband, Dale Rodrigues, began to get serious about their cracker business, they quit their respective careers and moved to Paradise. They began operating out of a 7,500-square-foot warehouse in Chico equipped with two ovens. At first, their products (which include cookies and pretzels) were very much limited to the health-food market—they were able to sell their crackers online through the Pennsylvania-based Gluten Free Mall and to a handful of local distributors in the Bay Area.

“We had no concept of how big we were going to get, but I jokingly said I want my crackers to be staples in everyone’s kitchen because they’re going to be healthy and nutritious and good,” Waldner said. “Why should people have Ritz Crackers and saltiness and not our crackers? I never thought that was possible.”

If the business continues to expand as it has since 2004, seeing Mary’s Gone Crackers alongside Ritz in the average American family’s pantry might not be a pipe dream. The company’s 150,000-square-foot factory (now equipped with 27 ovens) in Gridley is operated by nearly 160 employees. The company has grown by 40 percent annually since opening, with the exception of last year, when it grew by 70 percent.

Perhaps most important to the company’s prospects of continued expansion, Mary’s Gone Crackers has crossed the barrier between the health-food market and traditional grocery stores. The company’s products can be found on shelves at Safeway, Costco, Raley’s, and several chains on the East Coast.

Waldner believes the working relationship between her and her husband has been critical to their shared business success. She maintains Rodrigues (a former general contractor) has been critical to handling the logistical aspects of the business, from properly scaling production to hiring sub-contractors to build the factory.

“We’re a really good team, which we didn’t know beforehand because we had very separate careers,” Waldner said. “We say he’s the one who makes things happen and I’m the visionary, although it’s not that black and white.”

That’s not to say it’s been entirely easy sailing for Mary’s Gone Crackers. On Jan. 31 of last year, the factory was raided by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly hiring 49 employees who could not provide proper immigration documentation, according to the Gridley Herald. The issue originally came to light last March following a federal audit; investigators believe the company provided fraudulent Social Security numbers for all 49 employees and that 13 supervisors were released, then re-hired a week later.

“There’s a legal investigation, and there’s nothing I can say about it,” Waldner said. “I hope, once it’s resolved, you will do a follow-up. The truth can come out then.”

To date, no criminal charges have been filed.

Throughout her career guiding Mary’s Gone Crackers, Waldner has regularly experienced a different sort of challenge—one she believes is unique to women working in a businessman’s world. During meetings often dominated by men, she often finds it difficult to present her ideas. It’s not that the men at these meetings don’t take her thoughts seriously—it’s that they aren’t listening.

“They don’t know how to deal with me, so they don’t deal with me at all,” she said. “Being the only woman can be daunting, because it’s like, ‘Wait, am I not talking? Are people not hearing me?’ They look right through me; I’m not there.”

Otherwise, Waldner believes there aren’t major barriers specific to women entrepreneurs in the food business. In fact, she would encourage budding businesswomen to think “as big as possible. You’re going to pour your heart and soul into this. Why would you be doing this if you didn’t have a lot of energy and passion?”

As for becoming a leader in the gluten-free-food movement and enjoying great success selling a product she knows is healthful, Waldner said she “wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I’m a therapist, I’m a healer, that’s what matters to me,” she said. “There’s no way I would have put this kind of energy into something that’s destructive. That’s not where my heart is.”