By Betty Taylor
There are lots of fads in the food business, products that burst onto the scene and then lose their luster. Michael Tierney, founder of Mikey’s gluten and dairy-free frozen pizza pockets and baked goods, doesn’t chase fads. He launched his eponymous brand in 20__ with the goal of reinventing the category and bringing clean ingredients, dense nutrition and great taste to allergen sensitive consumers. Today, Mikey’s is a leader in better-for-you, free-from hand-held meals, tortillas, English muffins and pizza crusts, realizing his ambition to create “the next generation of gluten free.”
Before making his mark in specialty foods, Michael Tierney, a Long Island native, was enamored with high-end dining. He began helping in commercial kitchens at the age of 12, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and worked in two of the world most acclaimed restaurants, Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley, and Daniel Humm’s esteemed Eleven Madison Park in New York City. “It was such a unique time to be at Eleven Madison,” explained Tierney. “I had the chance to help grow it from the very beginning, watching it get four stars in the New York Times and then be voted one of the top ten restaurants in the world. But I had another dream, to make the first chocolate filled marshmallow, and I wound up leaving the fine dining world in order to figure out how to make Stuffed Puffs. No one had ever done it before, and it turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. So, I started catering on the side and led led me to a health store in Plainview, New York, owned by Debbie Cohen and her husband Marty.”
While at the store, Michael observed that there was a huge space for gluten-free bread, which was growing in popularity, but most of the products had the same or higher numbers of calories and carbohydrates than regular bread. The only thing going for it was the absence of gluten. “I said to myself, we have to do better than this. By incorporating clean and functional quality ingredients, we could create a product that’s more than gluten-free. I started Mikey’s with a holistic approach. There was a consumer base that was really underserved. It was very misleading for people to think these products were better for them holistically. While only a small percentage of Americans have celiac disease, many people are on healthy diet regimens which eliminate gluten, which is highly inflammatory even without a noticeable reaction. So, a lot of people feel better not eating gluten and typically find they have more energy.”
Determined to bring his baked goods to the forefront of the healthy food frontier, Michael started cooking in small commercial kitchens and drove them out to Plainview every day, where they soon had a loyal following at the health food store. His first hit product was a delicious gluten-free English muffin make with just 6 ingredients found in everyone’s pantry. As word spread, so did demand, and Mikey’s was born.
The secret to Mikey’s success was a Michael Tierney insight: people on restricted diets, such a gluten-free, hated being forced to compromise on taste. With his background in fine dining, Michael was determined to solve that problem. “I knew everything carrying the Mikey’s name had to not only be nutritious but also taste great. Quality is at the heart of our business – it all starts with the ingredients you use. I didn’t go to business school. I was fortunate to go to the best cooking school in America, and to work in two of the world’s greatest restaurants. So, I knew how to combine a few simple ingredients into great tasting baked goods. We started out with English muffins and then noticed people on Instagram making pizza bagels out of them and started making pizza crusts. Then we saw tortillas becoming a thing in the market and launched our own frozen tortillas. But the really big move happened when I partnered with Factory LLC, a food and beverage accelerator in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. With Factory’s support, I began making Mikey’s frozen pizza pockets, gluten and dairy-free hand-held meals. Starting with pepperoni, and then adding dairy-free cheese, we grew the business into a line of five meal and snack pockets and two breakfast pockets. And next year we are introducing two vegan pockets, partnering with Beyond Meat.”
From English muffins to breakfast pockets, Mikey’s is providing gluten and dairy-free families with wholesome and delicious foods for every meal and snacking occasion. And Mikey’s fan base is rapidly expanding beyond families with food allergies. The newest Mikey’s products – vegetable-base superfood tortillas – may be the most innovative and tasty food to hit the better-for-you freezer this year. Mikey’s new superfood tortillas are colorful, tasty and fun, with inventive names that echo the inventive products: Sweets & Beets, Golden Turmeric, Super Greens and Purple Power.
“Most of the superfood tortillas on the market are based on alternative grains,” Tierney said. “They are all chickpea or almond, there is no fun or variety to them. So once again, we looked at the landscape and asked what we could do that was different and better and more appealing to kids and their parents. For health and color, we used superfoods such as spirulina, beets and sweet potatoes, broccoli and turmeric. They’ve only been in the market a short time, and they are already a hit.”
“Years ago, frozen meant lower quality. But Mikey’s uses the freezer in lieu of preservatives. Many consumers are ordering products directly through our website, and we have mastered the art of shipping frozen food because during the pandemic, many of our customers are avoiding stores. When consumers study products before ordering them online, rather than grabbing them out of a freezer, they pay more attention to ingredients and nutrition panels. They are holding food companies to higher standards, and we are determined to exceed their expectations.”
Today, Mikey’s is a thriving brand sold at Sprouts, Whole Foods, Kroeger and both natural and conventional retailers across the country. And while Michael Tierney continues to lead Mikey’s both in the kitchen and the office, he is also realizing his other dream.
Before launching Mikey’s, Michael had cracked the code on filling a marshmallow with chocolate. But there was no manufacturing facility in the world that could make a product that had never been made before. That problem was solved when Michael teamed up with Factory. His new partner underwrote the construction of a pilot factory to make Stuffed Puffs, which re-invents the s’more – the chocolate melts while the marshmallow roasts. While he wasn’t the first person – or even the hundreth – to think of this idea, he was the first to actually do it. Launched for the 2019 summer season, the market responded so enthusiastically that Stuffed Puffs immediately had to begin building more capacity. Its new plant, in Bethlehem, PA, started making Stuffed Puffs in December, 2020. And the best s’more you’ve ever tasted is only the beginning. From Rice Krispies treats to fantastic hot chocolate to dreamy chocolate peppermint bark fudge, Stuffed Puffs is quickly becoming America’s favorite new sweet treat.