Dixie Diners' Club
 
Steady diet of health - Houston Chronicle Article
GETTING NOTICED: Brenda Oswalt, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and president of Dixie Diners' Club, specializes in meat-free recipes. The Tomball-based company emphasizes healthy eating and struggles with the lack of shelf space at major grocery stores.

Steady diet of health
Dixie Diners' Club aims to make sugar-free, vegetarian cuisine taste 'like junk food'

By SANDRA BRETTING
For The Chronicle - Reprinted by permission.
Appears in the online version at: http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2007_4389008

Inside a brick-red barn in Tomball lurks a small business with a big mission - to change the way people eat.

Operating under the name the Dixie Diners' Club, the company packages and sells foods that are meat-free and sugar-free.

Its Web site offers everything from low-fat fudge mixes to meatballs made with soy instead of beef.

The oddness of launching a healthy food company in the land of barbecue is not lost on Robert Beeley, 68, founder of Dixie U.S.A., the corporate parent of Dixie Diners Club.

"When we came out with a vegetarian meatloaf mix 12 years ago - which was our first product - everyone said that we couldn't do it," Beeley said. "But as far as I'm concerned, soybean is the most perfect food. Our slogan is that we make health food that tastes like junk food."

While developing healthy food that also tastes good can be a challenge, Beeley said getting his products onto grocery store shelves is an even bigger one.

"Shelf space is at a premium, and we can't go up against the big boys like Kraft or Kellogg," Beeley said. "That leaves the health food stores, but they only have so much shelf space to go around."

Muffin mix most popular
The company sells 400 products. Its most popular item is a muffin mix made of soy protein and organic oats. It also sells an all-soy cereal made without sugar called Nutlettes.

Most people learn about the products over the Internet. Some items also are available locally at Whole Foods Market.

Grocery stores commonly charge fees for prime shelf space.

"How does a small food company get noticed when it can't afford to buy shelf space at a Kroger or an H-E-B? Unfortunately, the methods for food distribution in this country are pretty antiquated," Beeley said.

Food distributor Bernie Roddy agrees. Roddy is the vice president of an Internet nutrition company that carries some of the low-carb items made by Dixie Diners' Club.

"Companies like the Dixie Diner are at a disadvantage because the large manufacturers, the Krafts of the world, have already flooded the market with low-carb products," Roddy said.

"The people who make it are the ones who diversify, who don't just specialize in one type of health food, and that's what the folks at Dixie have done."

Transition time
Dixie U.S.A. was originally a medical products distributor, selling everything from mannequins for cardiopulmonary resuscitation instruction to backboards for transporting patients. But the firm's business cratered in 1995 when Congress considered creating a universal health care system.

"I lost 90 percent of my customers that year," Beeley said. "People thought their reimbursements would be slashed under the plan. Since I had always been involved in health care in one way or another, this seemed like a natural transition."

Beeley also hired Brenda Oswalt about that time. Oswalt is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who is now the company's president.

As the daughter of a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose adherents refrain from eating any animal with a "cloven hoof," she learned early how to prepare foods that didn't involve meat.

"The Bible talks about not eating anything with cloven hooves, which includes cows and pigs, so I grew up eating 'mystery meat,' " Oswalt said. "I knew there had to be a way to make the recipes taste better and that people would buy them if I could."

Magazine profile
The first recipe Oswalt created in late 1995, the vegetarian meatloaf, was profiled by Prevention magazine, which has a large audience of health-conscious readers.

"What really started things for us, we had thousands of orders for our meatloaf mix after that story came out," Oswalt said.

Today, Dixie U.S.A. operates from a 35,000-square-foot structure built to look like a barn.

The company, which earns about $2 million in revenue annually, employs a staff of 25 to 30, depending on the season.

Oswalt creates the recipes, which are produced and shipped from the company's headquarters.

"Our food is not just for diabetics or for people who have food allergies," Oswalt said. "It's for anyone who wants to eat healthier, and who knows the dangers of refined sugar and too much animal fat."


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