CHICAGO — Emily Groden hadn’t thought about waffles in years.
But while pregnant with her first child, she heard a podcast that mentioned the business of frozen waffles. Suddenly, the last few years of her work and life experience, a mix of lawyering and food tinkering, coalesced into an entrepreneurial idea.
Based on advice from parents she knew, she expected she would need to reach for a frozen waffle on some future, hectic morning with a toddler. But having studied food law, she also wondered what went into the ubiquitous discs.
And so her journey began.
Groden is founder and CEO of Evergreen, a Chicago-based company that makes frozen waffles sold all over Chicagoland and the United States.
But the story begins when she was a kid.
“I was actually that 10-year-old kid who walked around telling people she wanted to be a corporate lawyer,” she said, “and had no idea what that meant.”
Her father was a lawyer and loved his job. Fast-forward to law school, then the sought-after career that began in 2015. Even then, she was making bread and other homemade recipes, but on the work side, things weren’t going as planned.
Within the first few months of lawyering, Groden realized, “I’m not super excited to jump out of bed in the morning and head to the office to do this work,” she said.
“I had a bit of an identity crisis,” she said. “And here I was, having told people for the last 20 years of my life that I was going to be a corporate lawyer.”
A pivot moment came one day when watching Netflix. The popular “Chef’s Table” show launched its second season with an episode about Alinea, one of the top restaurants in the world located right in her beloved Chicago.
It caught her interest. “I was just so blown away by the story, by the food. It’s beautiful and so creative,” she said.
She opened LinkedIn and found the email of Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas, asking out of the blue if he needed a lawyer. The frank approach worked: She ended up as general counsel of The Alinea Group.
“For a lawyer who loves food, it was a dream job,” she said. “I was constantly star-struck walking around the office, seeing these chefs who were personal heroes of mine.”
Fast-forward a little more to late 2017. Groden was driving in the car, listening to a podcast. It was about how the frozen breakfast industry was stagnant. She wondered why.
At the same time, she was thinking a lot about becoming a parent. She knew she’d be a working parent, juggling busy mornings. Would frozen waffles be in her future?
“I knew as a working mom that I wasn’t going to be able to make her waffles from scratch every morning,” she said. “I started looking to see what was out there.”
She found many included preservatives or refined sugars; so she started looking in her pantry to see what she could make herself.
At the time, she was surrounded by entrepreneurial minds with the restaurant group, “questioning the status quo and trying to do things differently and better at all times,” Groden said.
“I think that mentality rubbed off on me more than I realized,” she said.
Her pantry tinkering became the backbone for Evergreen’s recipes, which include fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices, and unique concoctions like a zucchini-and-carrot waffle.
After feeling proud of an initial recipe, she walked over to Olivia’s Market in Bucktown, toting a toaster, maple syrup and paper plates. They agreed to sell them; eventually, she applied to Whole Foods and was accepted as a local seller. The waffles sold well enough to expand beyond the Midwest, and in Chicago they are also sold at Mariano’s and stores like Big Apple Finer Foods and Dom’s Kitchen and Market.
A year ago, Groden retired from law completely. She welcomed a second baby in May, and finds her waffle-making gig helps her spend time with her family, too.
It’s not what she thought she’d be doing, but, in retrospect, it all makes sense.
“The writing should have been on the wall a long, long time ago,” she said.