Thursday, June 13, 2024

Baking a better life: Meet Italia Prado

Italia Prado is a professional pastry chef who was diagnosed with celiac disease 13 years ago. Her gluten intolerance forced her to make changes not only to her diet, but to her life – leading her on an inspiring journey towards becoming a successful businesswoman, founding her own brand and winning Shark Tank Mexico in 2022.   

Italia is a passionate foodie from Mexico City, mother of two, who turned this personal challenge into an opportunity when she started whipping up delicious, healthy treats in her kitchen. Today, they can be found in supermarkets and specialty shops across the country.

Entrepreneur Italia Prado with her husband and two children. (Courtesy)

In today’s profile, we learn how Italia has become a healthy cuisine expert and advocate, while also raising a family.

How did your diagnosis with celiac disease motivate you to make healthy food options? 

Before I was diagnosed 13 years ago, I felt terrible. I was weak, irritable, losing weight, I had anemia, headaches, stomach pain, and spent most of my time in the bathroom because everything made me so sick. 

I quickly learned that not eating gluten was not just a choice but a lifestyle that forced me to change everything, from what I bought, to what I ordered at restaurants – I even started bringing my own lunch to parties! At first, it was very difficult because almost everything contains gluten, but I started to research, to study, to read labels until I became an expert on the subject. 

Italia Prado Shark Tank Mexico
Italia and her partner and husband Franco at Shark Tank Mexico in 2022. (Courtesy)

Around this time in Mexico there were hardly any alternative food options for people with dietary restrictions or those simply wanting to buy healthy (and tasty) food. If you could find anything it was extremely expensive, as it was imported from abroad. Also there was a cross-contamination concern with the products that existed, which is a huge health risk for those with celiac disease.

I realized there was an untapped market waiting to be explored. That was the beginning, and since then, I’ve never looked back. I started experimenting by making gluten-free bread for myself and my neighbors and soon became aware that I wasn’t not the only one suffering from food intolerances, allergies, and chronic health conditions. 

In fact, one of my friend’s daughters has type 1 diabetes and one day she asked me to make her some sugar-free chocolate cookies. We checked her glucose before eating 3 small cookies and then again after, and noticed that her glucose levels didn’t increase. That’s how I started expanding into sugar-free products and now those chocolate cookies are our second best-selling item! 

Did you always know you would work in the food business?

Yes. I have degrees in business administration and as a baking and pastry chef from The Culinary Institute of America. Actually, before I got married I used to sell cakes to friends, catering companies, and restaurants.

I had plans to open up my own pastry shop, but I had to put everything on hold since two children were born premature. I spent the first 7 years of their lives in doctor’s offices and finding them the best therapies – it was hard. 

As soon as they were stronger and healthier, that’s when I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Although it was a shock at first, it was also a relief to know what was going on with my body. This is when I became a health coach, took healthy baking courses, and decided that it was time to follow my passion. I started working 24/7 on developing the best gluten-free and sugar-free products.

Has food always been an important part of your life?

Absolutely! Food has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was just a little girl, I used to spend hours in the kitchen baking.

Healthy Brand bread
Italia wanted to create gluten-free foods that were also delicious. (Courtesy)

I remember setting up stands right in front of my house and selling homemade cookies and cakes to neighbors and anyone who walked by – it was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey.

What was your first breakthrough?

In 2018 I went to a health and wellness trade fair in Mexico City. I had a stand with some of my products and that’s where nutritionists and doctors discovered me. They loved the flavors and the wide variety that I could offer their patients.

After that event, they started calling me for my products to sell in their clinics and stores. From there my work spread through word of mouth, and that’s how we got into Costco, Walmart, HEB and Chedraui Select stores. 

What inspired your slogan, “nutritious can be delicious”?

It was crucial for me that all of my products were not only healthy, but tasty. It’s unfair for those who are on a diet, dealing with an illness, or forced to follow dietary restrictions to have to settle for bland or unappetizing food. We not only came up with the slogan, we live by it.

You launched “Healthy Brand” just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. How did this affect your business?

Actually, it was an incredible time for us – we doubled our sales! We had a shipping distribution service in Monterrey and Mexico City so we already had the logistics in place.

Our eCommerce model was already working well, and then during the pandemic it exploded. People started worrying more about what they eat, and looking for products that would optimize their health. 

Has it been difficult to juggle family life and launching a business?

Yes, being a businesswoman, raising two young children, and trying to make space for the little time I have with them has been the most challenging thing. At first, I started alone in my kitchen here in Querétaro, and then converted our laundry room with some personal savings and the support of my family.

It was an unusual path for a young Mexican woman to take, especially with the added responsibilities of motherhood. But I was determined to make it work and pave the way for other female leaders in Mexico.

Italia Prado with her products
Italia’s products have made it into major retailers in Mexico and she plans to expand into the U.S. (Courtesy)

As the business kept growing to meet the demand for my products, I started hiring employees. I made a conscious decision to employ mostly women, as I wanted to create job opportunities for other women like myself. Currently, 80% of my workers are women. It’s a small contribution to supporting other women and their families, but it’s a start.

As we continued to expand, I had to invest in bigger facilities to fulfill our increasing orders. It was then that my husband, Franco, moved back to Querétaro and became a valuable partner in helping me grow the business even more.

What is next for you? Where do you see yourself and your project in 5 years?

Expanding into the US market and being in Whole Foods would be amazing. We’re already making our way into City Market here in Mexico, but I’d love to see our products at all the top retailers. 

Expanding into plant-based products is a huge trend that really excites us. While Keto was a big hit, we want to broaden our focus to include healthy eating in general, and that means offering more plant-based options. Ultimately, my goal is to help people feel better about themselves, make delicious healthy food options, and encourage a healthier world – that’s what drives me.

On a personal note, it’s so important for me to have more time with my family and find moments to exercise, which means learning to delegate more effectively. I’m really trying!

If you’re curious about Italia’s delicious keto, low-carb, sugar-free, gluten-free, vegan and healthy treats, check them out here.

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