Food allergies may be on the rise in America, but Rey Ortega promises to keep everyone in taste treats. The 38-year-old baker adopted a vegan diet 12 years ago for health reasons, but he couldn’t stop longing for sweets. Today, Ortega heads the Sacramento-based Sun Flour Baking Co., one of the largest manufacturers of vegan cookies in the country. Ortega (shown here with Sun Flour employees) also is branching out by publishing vegan-themed children’s books and perfecting wheat-free, gluten-free and non-hydrogenated vegan snacks, so even people with the most finicky constitutions can enjoy a little sweetness.
What made you go vegan?
It had been gradual, since I was a kid, that I took animal products out a little bit at a time. And the more I did, the better I felt. I was very sick as a child. I think I had every symptom of mankind, and I was just tired of it. I cut out eggs when I was 16, and that’s really how it started.
How did you get into the cookie business?
I had stopped eating cookies, because they have “hidden” eggs. From about age 18 to age 24, I hadn’t had a cookie, and it became time. I loved cookies, and I didn’t want to give them up. So, I got a job at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op because I wanted to see how a vegan cookie was made. So, I baked there and learned the recipes, but to me, they weren’t being done efficiently. I decided to take it upon myself to refine the recipes, using measuring knowledge I had from a background in construction, plus my own baking experience from home. So, I made my own recipes and opened Alternative Baking Company. Did you know about that?
You used to own Alternative, before Sun Flour.
Yes, those were the recipes I started with in 1994. I only worked at the co-op for about nine months before I started the baking business. I like taking risks. I had to bake, wrap, deliver and sell the cookies within a 24-hour period. I was selling about 300 per week when I opened, and within a few months it was up to 3,000. I couldn’t do it alone, so I got partners. To make a long story short, I just did it because I wanted a cookie.
Were you surprised at the demand for vegan cookies?
Absolutely. When I became a vegan, I thought I was the only one. I come from a Mexican family, and they are all meat-eaters.
When did you form Sun Flour?
In 1997. I left Alternative because my partners and I couldn’t get along. I got into a lawsuit with my old bakery because they said I was using the same recipes. I won the lawsuit, though, because they are very different recipes. The big change was not using a hydrogenated oil for Sun Flour. I experimented and came up with a formula that would act like a cube of butter. From that formula, I made a base, and look how many cookies that has spawned!
Did you know Sacramento could support two vegan-cookie companies?
Well, I had to come to the determination that I was competing against myself. I started thinking, “How do I outdo myself?” When you think you put your heart and soul into something the first time, what are the odds lightning can strike twice? But I believed in myself, and I knew the market was big enough. So I borrowed $300,000 and a building from a friend. I’ve since paid him back.
I think both companies are doing well. Of course, I’m trying to keep Alternative from doing well by taking up more space in the market.
What is the distribution area for Sun Flour cookies?
We’re all over the world now because we service Continental and American Airlines. As far as wholesale goes in natural-foods stores, we’re nationwide. My success isn’t just in the vegan world; it’s with people with food allergies. I do wheat-free stuff.
What’s your favorite cookie?
It’s between the brownie and the chocolate chip. But the California Bar is my new phase. It’s designed with fiber, to go through your system in a happy way.
How did you get into publishing?
As soon as I got the money, I knew I wanted to get into children’s books. I needed to ensure my customer for the future. I looked at the strategy of big businesses and how they reached out to kids. I bought all the equipment to make the books on site, and I’ve gotten vegan artists to illustrate them.
Where are the books available?
Online through my site, and Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and I think some of them are at the co-op. I haven’t pursued distribution much because, to be honest, I haven’t had the time. Starting this publishing company opened my eyes to the fact that it’s hard to run two businesses at once. Where do I pull the resources from to get the job done? It’s still in its infant stage, and I’m growing with it. I have about seven more books I want to make.