You don’t need to have attended more than half your Econ 101 classes—I didn’t—to know that, in business, timing is everything. Entering the market just a few months late can be the difference between making a fortune in fidget spinners and explaining to your wife why there are fifty boxes of hot pink ball bearings in your garage. The fidget spinner is just one example of many, I’m sure, but I truly didn’t attend many economics classes before switching to a communications major.
The point is that you want to get in early. I didn’t buy Bitcoin at one dollar and, to my great shame, I never thought to make a full-body blanket with sleeves. But, in 2002, at the age of fifteen, I got in at the ground floor of something big. In my case, I didn’t make a daring investment or have a brilliant insight. What I did have—apparently—was celiac disease.
I didn’t expect to receive major news at my physical that year. I felt fine. At least, I felt what I thought was normal for a boy of fifteen: tired, sweaty, terrified of everything. Certainly no gut feeling that a condition was wreaking havoc in my intestines. So when my seventy-year-old doctor asked me to take another blood test to confirm the results of the first, I didn’t think much of it. If anything, I figured I set a new high score for something random, like “potassium,” and they needed to confirm it before putting my initials in the record book.
The doctor returned with the new test in hand. “It looks like you’re missing about a third of your red blood cells,” he said. In other words, I might have set a record, just not the kind you want. The news panicked my mother. I was too busy wondering why we had drawn more blood to confirm that I was already missing a serious amount of blood.
Before I could ask a sharp question like, “Is missing really the right word?” he leaned down close to my face and, in his Mid-Atlantic accent, bellowed, “Looks a little pale! I think he might have celiac disease!” He seemed so excited by his hunch that part of me wondered if celiac was a good thing. That was until he outlined his theory: my damaged intestines weren’t absorbing nutrients like iron which, in turn, was making me anemic. Celiac was, in fact, not a good thing.
Weeks later, an endoscopy would prove him right. I was a celiac.
The celiac diagnosis means living on a diet completely free of gluten, the 33-amino acid polypeptide chain—assuming the science hasn’t changed since I wrote my AP Bio paper fifteen years ago—found in common ingredients like wheat, rye, and barley.
The only person in my orbit who had even heard of celiac was my grandmother. According to Nana, she had a bout of celiac as a baby. I say “bout” because, according to her, she beat it. Unaware of a cure, I asked how she did it. “Bananas,” she said, “I ate a lot of bananas.” Her 1920’s medicine would have been funny, except from that day forward I wondered if she judged me for not beating a disease whose cure could be found at an affordable price in any produce section. While I failed in de-celiacing myself, in my defense, I never put up a stink about her gluten-heavy holiday menus. While others enjoyed Yorkshire pudding, I went to town on the celery tray, and I did so with a smile.
If a new celiac thinks the diet is hard today, I’m not sure they would have survived at the turn of the century, long before grains were demonized in bestsellers with scary titles like “Wheat Belly.” The first gluten-free bread I choked down had me questioning if a ravaged intestinal tract wasn’t a price worth paying. When I went to restaurants in my early celiac years, the idea of asking for a gluten-free menu at a restaurant was absurd. In terms of star power, the most famous person with celiac I could find was the daughter of Oakland Raiders’ quarterback Rich Gannon. Not even Rich Gannon. The daughter of Rich Gannon.
Today, I eat my turkey sandwiches on baguettes so good that friends suspect the brand’s “GF” label is a ruse. Most restaurants have a gluten-free menu and, even if they don’t, most servers know more about gluten than I do. While there remains a dearth of celebrities with full-on celiac disease, the list of gluten intolerant is long and the names could fill a red carpet. They often do.
For all the downsides that come with a life devoid of real pasta, I must admit that celiac gave me a pop at school. It was something to talk about, like a summer growth spurt or a bad haircut. Lactose intolerance was so common as to be dull, and the peanut allergy kids were roundly despised for getting to eat lunch in their own special room. Celiac was fresh. For most classmates, I was the first celiac they had ever met. Not the most popular kid in middle school, I welcomed the attention, even if the questions were endless. “Is there gluten in bread?” Yes. “If you eat a piece of bread, will you die?” No, at least not at first. “If a cow ate gluten and then you ate a hamburger made out of that cow, would you be eating gluten?” I still don’t really know the answer to that one—it seems more philosophical than medical.
Whenever I felt down from friendly teasing or hurt by a friend’s particularly harsh comment—like Robbie who, convinced that celiacs were contagious, suggested we be put on an island to protect the rest of the population—I consoled myself with a stat I picked up from my gastroenterologist. According to him, one out of every 133 Americans had celiac disease. The moment I mentioned that figure to an audience, they perked up. A few would accuse me of lying.
Admittedly, at first I didn’t believe it either. If his math was right, there were a couple million people in the country with celiac. So why was my grandmother the only person I knew who had it when, if we’re being honest, she didn’t even really have it? The doctor explained that the perceived lack of celiacs was only because so many of them were living among us undiagnosed. In other words, the number of celiacs would surge as soon as awareness of the condition grew. And that, that right there, was my big opportunity.
Upon learning about this soon-to-be-growing market, a savvy entrepreneur would have run to the kitchen and began cracking the code on how to make tasty gluten-free alternatives for the foods that people crave most, like pastas, cakes, pies, donuts, croissants, BBQ sauces for your steaks, croutons for your salad, and cookie dough bites for your ice cream. Hell, cookie dough bites for cookie dough bites’ sake.
When the newly diagnosed jumped online in a desperate search for gluten-free options, your company would be there to welcome them to the club and then suck up their dollars. I know someone who did that very thing about a decade after I was diagnosed. Incredible that, even then, the window was still open. Mother to two boys with celiac, she left a very successful corporate career and started a gluten-free food company. That company now sells its products at Whole Foods. As I said, the food play was obvious. So, did I do that? No.
I started a t-shirt company.
“Spreading awareness of celiac disease through creative ideas.” That was the tagline for Celiac Design, a company I founded in 2005 with my next-door neighbor and friend—more like third older brother—Robbie. If it’s not the worst tagline in business history, it’s stiff competition for the title. Thanks to the internet archive, I don’t have to wade through the fog of memory to recount the company’s origins. The moment is summarized in the Our Story section of the now-defunct website: “It was a warm summer night in August, watching a Red Sox vs. Yankees game when we had an idea: why not make t-shirts that promote the disease?” Even though I was still in high school, it’s sad that I thought this question earned the right to be rhetorical. “Why should we make t-shirts about a disease?” is the better question that I’m pretty sure we never answered.
So much of my food-related life had become explaining celiac disease to friends, family, and acquaintances. I couldn’t just say, “Don’t worry about it, okay, lady?” when a friend’s mother asked why I wouldn’t at least try the warm cookies she made for the soccer team. And, frankly, I was tired of it. I wanted to go on offense.
And that’s what we did—I think—with our first shirt: “Eat My Wheat.” Being so unnecessarily aggressive, it was meant to shock passersby. I assumed the most likely outcome would be confusion, and I was fine with that. For celiacs who wanted to play it safer, we added a “Glad to Be Gluten Free” shirt in navy.
I might have come up with the idea for Celiac Design on my own but I never would have executed it without Robbie. He brought the work ethic, computer, coding skills, driver’s license, and car. I brought the celiac.
We didn’t noodle on the name long. I think Celiac Design won because it sounded official and we felt a need to compensate for our lack of business experience. In truth, it was as misleading as it was pretentious. There were no plans to branch out into celiac interior decorating or celiac architecture. I think we made up for that misstep with our snappy logo, a cropped semi-circle in the shape of a c. In creating art out of the destruction of wheat (and, fine, sometimes corn), crop circles spoke to me.
According to my exhaustive and extensive research, we only had one competitor in the space—I won’t mention their name here but I’m happy to report that the site is dead. Their t-shirts were fine—as celiac-related t-shirts go—but our website had more love, between the section for recipes (two) and a forum where members could chat to one another. According to our header, we had 176 members with a total of 1,306 years of “Gluten Free experience.” Sounds impressive, but I vaguely recall Robbie adding a few bots to give the impression of a buzzing community.
We even roped my cartoonist uncle into creating an educational children’s coloring book around a character named “Cedric the Celiac Seal.” I had dreams of a morning show that would supplant Arthur. Children would be crying to their parents, “Why can’t I have celiac disease like Cedric?”
Sadly, the market did not respond to our products right away. Sure, the website was receiving some traffic, but an actual t-shirt order was rare. With our low search ranking, we were basically relying on people to Google “celiac t-shirts,” and even then we would be second behind the other hack company. If they searched for “celiac” (a far more popular search), they would receive page after page of sites about the disease itself, which I could see being helpful if they weren’t looking for shirts. It was time to get scrappy, to get local. I had an idea.
The hospital held celiac-focused conferences throughout the year, and while it consisted mostly of informational talks for the newly diagnosed, I remembered there being vendors at the two I attended. I thought it might make sense to ask if we could get a booth for Celiac Design. Don’t wait for the celiacs to find you on page 12 of the search results, go to them. And go we did.
I was optimistic, until we arrived and I walked around to scope out the other tables. Everyone else was selling food. I had viewed our business’s unique offering as a strength, but perhaps there was a reason why nobody else was in the apparel business.
I mean, really, how much room for growth was there? Even a celiac would probably want, at most, two gluten-related shirts. That meant we would have to expand into other diseases and, frankly, there are so few diseases as light as celiac—if you don’t eat gluten, you’re basically fine. Had I really thought this was going to be so successful that we would expand into sweatpants with writing on the butt that said, “These Buns Are Gluten Free?” Yes. Yes, I had.
Drenched in self-doubt, I joined Robbie behind our decorated table. He was busy eating before the conference let out. His food looked suspicious.
“What’s that?” I said, pointing to the sandwich.
“A sandwich,” he said, clearly confused by the question.
“A gluten sandwich? At a gluten-free event?”
Seeing my point, he took a beat to craft his defense.
“You have celiac. Me? I don’t have celiac.”
I dropped the matter. I couldn’t afford to get mad at Robbie. I needed his enthusiasm, his charisma, and his car.
“Just finish it before this starts, please.”
As the crowd exited the lecture hall, Robbie was ready to greet them with an Eat My Wheat shirt and a wide smile. I warmed up when the first people to stop by responded so positively to the merch. It was probably a crowd of 40 but, in my mind, it was bustling like the floor of the stock exchange before computers.
The majority said, “Oh, that’s cute,” before moving on, but several pulled out their wallets. “Look at this, honey! These are pretty cool. Can I get one of the ‘Glad to be Gluten Free’ shirts in a small?” Before I could say, “Seriously?” Robbie was already opening the money box and asking, “Cash or check?”
When somebody bought a shirt for their kid, we recommended bundling it with a coloring book. More often than not, they snapped it up. In just two hours, we had sold a couple hundred dollars’ worth of Celiac Design products. I didn’t want to overreact, but I did wonder how long it would take for us to surpass GAP. As a GAP customer, it gave me no pleasure. Driving home with a full cash box, I just hoped the pie was big enough for both of us.
As you might have guessed, GAP was safe. Forbes never asked to profile us in a cover story. Our bank didn’t send us flowers and wine to ensure we didn’t take our money elsewhere. The online sales sputtered and the sporadic meetings weren’t enough to make it worth our time, or you know, turn a profit. In one last desperate measure, we came out with a “Hold the Wheat” cooking apron. That was the final gasp, or, as they say in the finance world (I think), the dead cat bounce. Shortly thereafter, it was over. No big board meeting. No blowout fight over equity. No press release. I suppose that’s the benefit of shutting down a money-losing venture. I simply packed the leftover inventory in a box and went off to college.
If there is a lesson in Celiac Design, I think it’s that, yes, it’s important to get there early, but that’s not enough. You have to know what to do when you get there. If you get a tip that people are going to love alcoholic seltzer in ten years, start an alcoholic seltzer company. Don’t make large foam fingers that say, “Alcoholic Seltzer Is #1!”
But was Celiac Design a failure? Let me return to the Our Story section of the website: “We are on a quest to make ‘Gluten Free’ a common topic in restaurants, supermarkets, around the water cooler, you name it! We hope that our products and resources will help kids and adults alike endure, if not chuckle about, this peculiar disposition. We have created this website in an attempt to mold the Celiac Nation into a helpful, insightful, and united community.”
I believe that has happened. The question is, how much did Celiac Design have to do with it? I’m not sure the answer matters. The important thing is that we tried. The company is never really dead as long as there is one “Eat My Wheat” shirt still circulating out there. And if there isn’t, I have a few boxes full of shirts in the basement that are very much still for sale—we have a surplus of adult x-small.
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