Chocolate is one of the most beloved foods in the world. But did you know that while unsweetened chocolate is naturally gluten-free, processed chocolate contains gluten? So, when two of Diana Levy’s daughters were diagnosed in 2016 with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder brought about by eating foods containing gluten, Mom set out on a mission to find a way that they could enjoy the tasty confection without suffering any consequences.
Fortunately for the Levy girls — Arielle, 25, and Jenna, 21 (Diana also has a third daughter, Jenna’s twin sister Elena, who does not have celiac) — their mother was as qualified as anyone to come up with a solution to their problem: Diana had a small side business making custom chocolates for events.
“As a self-appointed chocolate expert, I started to experiment with ways to make chocolate different, and gluten-free,” she says.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Diana quickly got busy in her kitchen, trying and testing various combinations of chocolate and myriad ingredients. After many attempts, she landed on one that not only was gluten-free but, as far as chocolate goes, made a healthier snack. Undercover was born.
Diana spent about five months working on recipes. Every day when her kids went to school, she would write recipes. Then she started narrowing them down, trying to get within certain calorie and nutritional parameters.
“I literally purchased every ingredient under the sun, and I was getting close to giving up — and then suddenly I hit upon these chocolate quinoa crisps and was pretty sure I had found a winner. Once I had the basic idea, I was able to figure out flavors and ultimately packaging and branding.”
So, how did she come up with the name for her newfound snack company?
“We chose Undercover because the snack has ‘healthy ingredients in disguise,’ and we got that motto trademarked,” Diana recalls. Quinoa is naturally gluten-free and provides protein and fiber, as well as iron.
At that point, Diana began pitching the crisps to snack buyers, and getting the product on store shelves, a process that took a little less than two years. The new snack was easy to make, and was gaining traction with buyers — so much so that her husband, Mike, decided to quit his job in finance to help with the business.
It soon became clear that Diana had the “it” factor when she went out to sell the product to retailers.
“Believe it or not, I only recall one time that I was rejected early on. Every place I walked into pretty much put them on the shelves,” she says proudly. “I had a whole big story I was prepared to tell — and then each time the manager just opened up a bag, tried one, and agreed to take them.”
Undercover snacks are sold throughout the country, in such markets as Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco, and Wegman’s, and also found in Harry & David gift baskets.
Selling them was the easy part. Getting them to these outlets was another story. “I realized pretty early on that our biggest challenge was actually going to be making them on a big scale.”
If you build it…
At first, Diana and her small team of Mike and a few friends made the crisps themselves in her kitchen. Then, in 2017, they found a manufacturing site close to where she lives in southern New Jersey, and by the following year, they had their own production facility.
“That all might sound easy, right? But it was anything but,” Diana says with a laugh. “There were many days that my husband and I worked around the clock, and were literally covered with chocolate from head to toe. Just as I was experimenting in my kitchen, we had to experiment with the best way to correctly and safely make the product, and you couldn’t do that without becoming chocolate covered yourself.”
Getting the site up and running was hard. “Neither one of us ever ran a manufacturing facility, so learning all the intricacies was the biggest challenge, and the most important one,” Diana says.
For Diana, it was also important that her company be recognized as woman owned. “When I started the business, I made sure to have it Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) certified. The program is all about helping working women, promoting women, and assisting them in achieving their goals.”
All in the family
The business employs around 50 people, including three young women important to Diana. “My oldest daughter joined the business, and my two younger daughters in college are brand ambassadors, so, along with my husband, we truly are a family company.”
Diana suggests that for a woman to be successful with starting a business, she must be persistent and take chances. “There’s an enormous amount of risk taking involved,” she points out. “And there’s so many unexpected issues that pop up that require you to be nimble and adjust quickly. Just running the business in general is a massive amount of work, and you have to be prepared for that.”
Satisfying work and hunger pangs
But it’s all been worth it, Diana maintains. In addition to being featured in Harry & David gift baskets, Undercover is starting to be sold globally. “We’re in Israel, Japan, and focusing a lot on Canada, so we’re just going country by country,” Diana says. “We’re also on United Airlines in snack boxes, and soon will be handed out on flights, so all this growth means you’re just constantly busy.”
Undercover also recently announced its quinoa crisps will be sold in Publix supermarkets.
However, Diana said she’s not too busy to take a snack break. “After all these years, I still love the product. There are bags of them all over the office, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I still love to indulge in the snack.”