Owners Suzie Miller, left, and Lizann Anderson.
Lizann Anderson and Suzie Miller -- the founders of Among Friends, a company that produces hand-crafted baking mixes -- were both raised in the Toledo area. Mrs. Miller, who says that she had “the best childhood” and still refers to herself as “a Maumee River girl,” is a graduate of Notre Dame Academy; she moved back to town eight years ago, after living in Ypsilanti and the Detroit suburbs for a number of years. Mrs. Anderson lives in Ann Arbor now, where the company is based, but graduated from McAuley High School (which closed in 1988). The two women met while living in Michigan and immediately became best friends.
As Mrs. Miller says, it was “food, fun and friends” that led to the creation of the baking mix business. Mrs. Anderson writes on the company’s website: “Like many such ventures, it began over a cup of coffee (and involved a cookie, of course). This was a mouth-watering cookie, with memorable taste and texture, handcrafted by Suzie. That’s when I got out my wooden spoon ... I vowed to make Suzie’s cookies dense with nutrition without sacrificing great taste.”
The women wanted to feed their children healthy diets, but didn’t want to deprive them of treats, either. So, they began their mission to combine the two.
After a great deal of testing and tasting -- determined to create snacks and desserts that were wholesome, organic, and natural without seeming like “cardboard” -- Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Miller developed recipes for cookies, to begin with, before expanding to also include cake, brownie, and fruit crisp topping mixes. The women balanced family life with a start-up business that was initially based in a garage. The Anderson and Miller children were enlisted to help, as well, when they could be persuaded to do so. But the women didn’t want any of it to seem like work: “It’s got to be fun,” Mrs. Miller says. The mixes don’t require work, either (“5 minutes from package to oven,” as promotional materials proclaim) and only need basic ingredients added, such as butter and eggs, to prepare fresh baked goods at home.
Among Friends’ mixes are named after the women’s loved ones. Those named for Mrs. Anderson’s children are Evan’s Heavenly Oatmeal Raisin Cookie and Shane’s Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Molasses Ginger Cookie; her husband is honored with Gerry’s Any Kind of Jam Bar. ‘Liv It Up Devilishly Chocolate Cake, C.J.’s Double Chocolate Cookie, and Francie’s Fudgy Deep Chocolate Brownie are all named after Mrs. Miller’s children. All of the products are verified by the Non-GMO Project and the Whole Grains Council, and five of the mixes are produced in a facility that is certified gluten-free. Mrs. Miller says, “We are very picky about the ingredients that go in there.”
They’re particular about the packages, too, which feature windows to show what’s inside. The bags are a shade of green that “is an actual leaf color. It feels organic,” Mrs. Miller says. And when the packages are turned over, a smiling cartoon figure demonstrates the “stretch of the day,” just for amusement. Each variety also offers an anecdote, written by Mrs. Anderson, telling sweet stories of family and friends.
Whole Foods was the first “big” store, as Mrs. Miller phrased it, to sell Among Friends’ mixes; they’re now available in many stores nationwide, at Walt Churchill’s Markets and The Anderson’s stores locally, and also online at the company’s website.
Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Miller will be at Costco (3405 W Central Ave., Toledo) for live demonstrations and tastings from Thursday through Sunday during the store’s normal business hours. With sales growing, the staff has also grown; a company that began with two women and some occasional assistance from their children has grown to employ 12-15 people, depending upon production schedules, and will soon be based in a 10,000 square foot facility.
Progressive Grocer honored the company’s initial six mixes with its “Best New Products” award in 2013, and ‘Liv It Up was named one of the Top 6 new gluten-free products at Natural Products Expo West, the leading trade show in the natural, organic and healthy products industry.
In addition to their mission to provide wholesome baked goods, the two friends also support a number of good causes, giving back to their communities. Locally, they contribute to the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank; Mrs. Miller says that Among Friends has “donated hundreds of baking mixes and will continue to do so.” She is also a member of the food bank’s Harvest of Thanks committee, helping to steer this significant and popular fundraiser which will take place on November 8, 2014.
The purpose of all this hard work is very simple, Mrs. Miller says. These two moms are “trying to change the world, one cookie at a time.”