News & Review
Food allergies may be on the rise in America, but Rey
Ortega promises to keep everyone in tastey 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.
Interviewed by Becca Costello
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
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 Alernative Baking Company. Did you
know about that?
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.
you surprised at the demand for vegan cookies?
Absolutely. When I became vegan, I thought I was the only
one. I come from a Mexican family, and they are all meat-eaters.
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!
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 lightening 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.