Pat Libling was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1987. Over the years the 58-year-old mom of three daughters tried the gluten-free products available on the market or tried making products from gluten-free cookbooks, but was never too impressed with the results. Then about seven years ago she took her own gluten-free, homemade biscotti and decided “to peddle them over at a couple of stores.” A week later she had her first call from a distributor, and PatsyPie has been growing ever since. In addition to the biscotti, the Ville Saint-Laurent, Que.-based company produces chocolate chip cookies, brownies, muffins and in January launched lemon shortbread cookies – all gluten-free. Libling’s products are found across Canada and, since November 2007, in the U.S. Most recently the company landed a deal making gluten-free brownies under a private label brand for a major U.S. chain, and is now in discussions to launch in the U.K.
What do you love most about your job?
“This is not my profession originally. I’m a former elementary school teacher. I love learning each step of the way. I love the response to PatsyPie products because we don’t put anything out unless it tastes like the real thing. I also love doing food shows. Within a matter of hours there are crowds. It’s the excitement of seeing how delicious [the products are] because since I’m in it so much I don’t eat them all the time. And it’s the amount of fan mail I get. I literally get tons. It’s also seeing people’s reactions because most say, ‘oh gross, gluten-free’, and I’ll say, ‘taste it’ and they can’t believe it. It’s seeing that I have something that people who are gluten-free or others who aren’t could really enjoy.”
What is your management philosophy?
“I’m in the office but I’m also on the floor; I’m very hands on. I have a very good relationship with my employees. It’s tough, you’re on your feet all day. There’s music playing, they’re often dancing while they’re cooking. It’s got to be a friendly atmosphere. There are a lot of rules because of the cleanliness and the gluten-free. When I hire somebody I always say, we’re a team. My head bakers will also pack cookies. At the end of the day everybody scrubs down the equipment, including me, and washes the floors. Being a friend, a mentor, and making it an atmosphere where they want to come to work. There are no mistakes to get in trouble for. If someone forgets to put cinnamon in a product, then we take that product home or we feed the truckers or UPS people. It’s all a learning experience and we just move on.”
What is the most challenging part of your job?
“I had to start at square one. I was in PatsyPie 101 right from the beginning. It’s getting the word out that penny for penny PatsyPie breaks down into an average-price cookie. Our products come in lower than most other gluten-free products. And we use only top ingredients.”
What issues is your sector facing?
“That gluten-free can taste good. It doesn’t have to be styrofoam. Gluten-free can be for the whole family if it’s made properly. When I became celiac nobody understood what that was. Even today someone will say, ‘oh, does that mean no sugar?’ It’s a real challenge educating consumers.”
What opportunities do you see?
“I’d like PatsyPie to become a household name among people who eat gluten-free. For opportunities, it’s open. I’d like to get my product into every store that I can. Growing the business, making it available to more people. I’m constantly producing new products, trying to fill voids. I’m always asking my customers what they feel is missing in the gluten-free world.”
In the spotlight
First industry job: “This one.”
Favourite food: “Indian food. And tofu."
Industry mentors: “Chuck Cundari and Kathryn Henderson, my brokers at Canadian Natural and Specialty Brands have been critical to my business.”
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