Duke grad who grew up without healthy options starts food company

Rebecca Holmes, founder of Ello Raw, makes and assembles her products in a rental space in Raleigh.
Rebecca Holmes, founder of Ello Raw, makes and assembles her products in a rental space in Raleigh. miszler@newsobserver.com

As a child, Rebecca Holmes’ family didn’t always have enough money for food, so they visited soup kitchens and went to McDonald’s, where Holmes and her two sisters could each pick one item from the dollar menu. On “good days,” they could choose two items.

“I had no idea what nutrition or healthy food was,” said Holmes, 23. “We didn’t have access, and we weren’t educated about it. For us it was, ‘What is the cheapest thing we can buy?’”

With good grades in school and high test scores, Holmes went on to earn scholarships to attend Duke University to study dance. After a tough relationship breakup three years ago, she channeled her frustrations into an interest in exercise and dieting, waking up at 5 a.m. to lift weights and reading books on healthy eating.

Raw veganism, which excludes all foods and products from animals and also food cooked above 118 degrees, appealed to Holmes.

Two years ago, while she was living in a dorm room at Duke, Holmes started Ello Raw, a company that sells vegan dessert bites. All the flavors – including chocolate-chip cookie dough and cinnamon sugar doughnut – are made with raw and organic ingredients and are free of gluten, soy, dairy, agave and eggs.

Her family’s struggle with food insecurity, coupled with her interest in pure ingredients, inspired Holmes to start the company.

“I saw this market that no one had tapped into,” said Holmes, who lives in Raleigh. “It’s thinking about how these foods are made and where they come from, not just what’s healthy.”

Early on, Holmes made batches of the dessert bites in the kitchen at her dorm and asked friends to be taste-testers. When she returned to her home state of Pennsylvania in summer 2014, she wanted to sell the treats at a farmers market.

I saw this market that no one had tapped into.

Rebecca Holmes, founder of Ello Raw

The night before she set up shop, Holmes stayed up late with her mother and sister to make the products. She cut out circles on craft paper to use as business cards, and her sister designed Ello Raw’s logo by hand.

Customers loved the food and the marketing design. Holmes knew she was on to something.

When she returned to Duke after summer break, she began looking for funding opportunities. She was a finalist in the Duke Startup Challenge, an entrepreneurship competition, and landed a spot in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program, a yearlong initiative that helps students develop their ideas.

With some money to get started, Holmes began reaching out to stores after she graduated last spring. Ello Raw products are now sold in stores along the East Coast, including HQ Raleigh and Runologie locally. Whole Foods stores plan to start selling the products in a few months, Holmes said. A bag of six dessert bites costs $4.99.

Holmes said she lived in her car this past summer so she could save money and focus resources on Ello Raw. She slept with a knife nearby in case she needed to protect herself.

“My goal was to build this company and I knew that potential, so that outweighed the luxury of wanting a home,” she said. “It just had to happen for the goals to happen.”

After several months, she was making enough from her business to afford an apartment with friends. Ello Raw is bringing in about $40,000 a year, Holmes said.

She now rents a space for making and assembling the food in Raleigh, and she also sells her products online. Holmes also hired two employees.

Being a business owner hasn’t been easy, but Holmes never felt sorry for herself. From her childhood, she knows what it’s like to struggle. In high school, she said, some teachers told her she would never be able to attend a well-respected college.

“I’ve just had to cope with it,” Holmes said. “I’ve always believed that I can be more.”

Someday, she hopes to operate Ello Raw under a buy-one-give-one model in which every purchase provides someone with a meal.

“One day, I believe everyone’s going to have organic and it’s going to be cheap, because it will be the only option,” Holmes said. “I want to help make that happen.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler