Vegan cultivates ‘guilt-free’ sweets business

Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts was founded to give those with plant-based diets access to tasty treats.
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Kalene McElveen said her business really started to take off this fall, when she participated in the Black Entrepreneurs Expo at Woodland Mall. She completely sold out of her Tastefull products at the event and further established her customer base. Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts

It can be hard to find allergen-free, vegan options if you have a sweet tooth but are working with dietary limitations, said Kalene McElveen, founder of Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts.

McElveen, a Detroit native who now lives in West Michigan, was a lacto-vegetarian beginning in 1992 and has been a vegan for the past two years. Growing up, she couldn’t eat bakery cakes, cookies or ice cream because of the eggs, so her mom made homemade baked goods and taught her how to modify recipes to fit her diet.

As an adult, McElveen found herself becoming a go-to source of advice for friends with dietary limitations due to allergies or those who were either trying a “Daniel Fast” or permanently changing their diets, but still wanted to eat healthy and flavorful treats.

A Daniel Fast is a partial fast that cuts out meat, wine and rich foods in favor of fruits and vegetables and water, typically for about three weeks as an act of religious devotion.

McElveen in 2018 published “The Daniel Feast,” a cookbook that provides recipes and tips for sustaining the Daniel diet for more than just three weeks, for those who want to make a more long-term change.

After authoring her book, McElveen continued to get questions about vegan cooking, so she launched a Facebook group called Vegan on the Weekend that was geared toward people who didn’t want to fully commit to being vegan but who were interested in learning recipes for more healthful, occasional vegan eating.

During her own transition to a fully vegan diet, McElveen said she tried to find different dessert options that were naturally sweetened — “that’s one of the biggest things for me, is dumping the sugar” — but it was difficult, if not impossible.

That’s why she launched Tastefull Vegan Ice Cream — now called Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts — which uses coconut palm sugar, maple syrup and dates as the primary sweeteners, and does not use ingredients that people with allergies often can’t have, such as nuts and wheat.

“A lot of vegan ice creams typically have nuts in them. None of my products contain nuts, and there is no wheat of any kind — even with one of my more popular desserts called a Better Butter Bar, which is like bananas and peanut butter, but it’s not made with peanuts; I make my own oat butter. I try to find really creative ways to make it still enjoyable but without the allergies and without the processed sugars,” she said.

As McElveen wrote on her “about me” page on her website, “Whether the food restriction is by choice or not, I believe that no allergy, dietary lifestyle choice or anything should prevent you from being able to enjoy one of life’s greatest joys — ice cream! That’s why I created Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts.”

Her startup won the November 2019 Start Garden 5×5 prize of $5,000, and she used the prize money to purchase equipment and a mobile cart, as well as to begin marketing her products.

“I brought my one prototype to 5×5 and I was very nervous — my background is elementary education, so I don’t have a cooking background; I just like to cook with my family — and so I brought it to the pitch competition amongst the other businesses, and honestly, when they called my name, I kind of looked around like, ‘Oh, he’s talking to me!’ I had brought samples for the judges to try the ice cream, and when they tried it, they loved it. I got great feedback. The 5×5 award allowed me the opportunity to get some schooling under my belt and get some support through the (Michigan Small Business Development Center).”

While she initially planned a full rollout of Tastefull in April 2020, McElveen paused to focus on her family at the start of the pandemic, then launched her business through the Grand Rapids Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, at 435 Ionia Ave. SW, in July.

The incubator kitchen is a program that provides “customized business counseling to budding and existing food entrepreneurs in a supportive and flexible environment that fosters production and creativity in a licensed commercial kitchen,” according to the market. Since its beginnings in 2013, 1,000-plus startup food entrepreneurs have received individualized business counseling services through the program, and 14 have graduated from it. In 2020, 170 local entrepreneurs were mentored, with 11 launching a new food startup and six graduating to their own facilities.

McElveen said her business really started to take off this fall, when she participated in the Black Entrepreneurs Expo at Woodland Mall. She completely sold out of her Tastefull products at the event and further established her customer base, which she said continues to support the business through online orders that she fulfills through home delivery and curbside service at the Downtown Market.

The incubator kitchen has given McElveen a great deal of flexibility in her fledgling business, she said, as she is still homeschooling her kids full time and working one day a week on the side. She also feels like she has been receiving a lot of support and mentorship from the kitchen managers and from the other business owners.

“I didn’t feel like I was just thrown out in the wild, like, ‘Go figure this out,’” she said. “Everyone is very knowledgeable, and they’re very humble and willing to share information.”

Best of all, McElveen said the support from the Downtown Market and Start Garden have allowed her to connect with the exact customers she has wanted to help all along.

“What made me the happiest was when I won 5×5, I was starting to get comments from people that were posting on the picture from 5×5, and they were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t had ice cream in so long because it’s got eggs, or because it’s got nuts, so now I can eat ice cream again!’ That’s the purpose behind why I did Tastefull, to be able to help people that have been without be able to enjoy it … and to make it so delicious that you don’t recognize that there is no refined sugar, or there’s no nuts, there’s no eggs, there’s no milk, but it’s still creamy, it’s still good, and it can still be your guilty pleasure, or (rather) your guilt-free pleasure,” McElveen said.

On the other side of COVID-19, when it is safe to do so, McElveen said she dreams of opening an old-school-style creamery or malt shop that will offer vegan ice cream and other frozen treats in West Michigan.

“There’s such a support behind Michigan-made products and supporting local — when you have organizations like Bridge Street Market that really are funneling in product from local small businesses — the support here, it already exists. I feel like I would not want to start anywhere else other than the place that supported me from the ground up.”

More information about Tastefull Vegan Frozen Desserts and online ordering is available at tastefullvegan.com.

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