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Entrepreneur Beats Life-Changing Diagnosis While Creating One-of-a-Kind Cookie Business

Entrepreneur Beats Life-Changing Diagnosis While CreatingOne-of-a-Kind Cookie Business

The SBA Helps Altoona Pizzelle Maker’s Business Heat up with Global Sales


ALTOONA, PA – When Maryann Cook was diagnosed with celiac more than a decade ago, she never dreamed it would become the catalyst for an international business.

A craving for her favorite cookie, she no longer could consume – an Italian pizzella – prompted Cook to use her last remaining dollars and purchase some eggs, flour and sugar. Once Cook poured the batter into a pizzelle maker, her kitchen was wafting with the childhood scent of the flat, flavorful delights she and her mother once made side-by-side.

Because of her celiac disease, an immune disorder in which people can’t eat wheat gluten because it will damage their small intestine, Cook tweaked the recipe. Instead of wheat flour, she experimented with her own flour to create gluten-free pizzelles. “And, that’s how my business began,” she explained. “If I had never developed celiac, I never would have started a business.”

These days, unlike a pizzella, Cook’s business is far from flat.

The country’s only gluten-free, non-GMO verified and hand-made pizzella can be found at the New England and Mid-Atlantic regional grocery chain Wegmans Food Markets and high-end boutique stores throughout the country. Thanks to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) grant to Pennsylvania, consumers in Canada’s French-speaking provinces now can enjoy Cook’s tasty treats.

The SBA’s STEP program makes matching-fund grants for states to increase the number of small businesses that export and the value of those exports. Pennsylvania’s grant enabled Cook to work alongside Tina Taylor, international trade manager at the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission. Cook applied for and secured Global Access Program grants allowing her to attend the Fancy Food 2018 Show and SIAL 2019 Canada Show. “Without the SBA’s GAP funding, I never would have exported into Canada,” Cook remarked.

Once she decided her business would consist of a gluten-free cookie, Cook knocked on the doors of health-food stores when she wasn’t working part-time as a cashier. “They told me I needed a license from the Board of Health,” Cook added. “I actually got my kitchen inspected by the USDA, passed and got my business license.”

Cook then packaged and labeled her desserts, named Bella Lucia, in honor of her late mother. She began toting products and documentation to area retailers. “One store became two and two became four,” she added. “I needed money for equipment; so I developed a business plan and turned to JARI, which gave me a microloan for equipment.”

Microloans are an SBA program that provides loans, up to $50,000, through nonprofit intermediaries to business owners. Last year in Western Pennsylvania, approximately 44 entrepreneurs received more than $1.29 million in funding for working capital or business-related expenses. JARI, which disburses funds throughout Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Indiana and Somerset counties, issued 14 microloans, with an average dollar amount of more than $29,000.

Today, the crispy cookie with an international audience still is scratch-made; with a team of eight bakers’ hand-dropping six flavorful batters onto 18 pizzelle irons. “I once thought celiac was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Cook stated. “It turned out to be divine intervention.”

SBA Western Pennsylvania District Director Dr. Kelly Hunt says she’s pleased her agency and its partners helped turn an idea from the iron and into the fire. “It’s amazing that one cookie, a favorite dessert, literally became a thriving, international business,” she said. “And, it’s extremely gratifying that SBA played such a pivotal role in the company’s inception and growth.”




Company Name: 
Bella Lucia