October 11, 2019
Last Friday, we announced 5 September Amber Grant finalists. After much consideration, we’re writing to share the recipient and the 10th qualifier for the $25,000 year-end Amber Grant.
Congratulations to Tina Degano, Co-Founder of Sugarless. In our interview, Tina shares Sugarless’ backstory, highlights some of her top products and reveals powerful business advice.
TD: I grew up with a huge sweet tooth. Cake, candy, soda. All the good stuff. When I was sick and recovering from brain surgeries, desserts comforted me. When I was stressed from applying to colleges or tutoring to raise money for supplies, sugar was always there for me. When I got my first job teaching middle school in the South Bronx, coffee with no less than 4 sugars became the most important thing in the world.
Sugar and I went on like this until one day my co-worker stopped mid-sentence and looked at me horrified. After she gathered herself, she asked why I was always rubbing my face raw and scratching my arms. Up until that moment I had never thought about it as strange. My whole life I’d always had extremely sensitive skin. Itchy, swollen, sometimes red skin. It had become so normal that I’d keep plastic ziplock bags full of ice in my freezer. I told all this to her but she kept insisting something was wrong. Worried, and a little offended, I agreed to go to a hospital. That same day my Doctor said the meanest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. “You’re allergic to sugar.” I was diagnosed with sugar intolerance.
This meant saying goodbye to my daily 3-4 cups of coffee, orange juice, glazed meats, and most importantly…desserts. I had to change my diet almost completely overnight just to avoid the painful swelling, itching, and frustration. I became angry and upset because I quickly realized sugar was in almost everything I ate. Something I loved (sweets) were made with something bad for me. It was a terrible feeling. My fiancée saw me struggling and, alongside working on his own health, had the idea to start making desserts with different types of sugar replacements. We went through dozens of recipes until I could enjoy one without itching or becoming swollen. It was a success! I was finally able to have cakes, cookies, and other items again, but then we wondered how others with different health conditions were impacted by sugar. This issue was especially important in the Bronx, my native borough.
After some research, we found out that diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease (and many other illnesses) were caused by processed sugars. People trying to live healthier were going through what I was. We spoke to friends, relatives, co-workers and looked across the internet for high-quality, sugarless replacements for great desserts. But the search didn’t go well. We learned that on top of regular old school baking, younger and older consumers wanted options for their desserts that were high quality and better for their health. Sugar was one major issue, but so was taste, the overall level of nutrition and the quality of ingredients. That was when we decided to solve the problem ourselves; so that people who care about the harmful effects of sugar could still enjoy the great treats and desserts they grew up with. My goal is to bring people happiness through food.
So this year I co-founded ‘Sugarless’ for people to enjoy classic, keto-friendly and vegan sweets; all without the harm of sugar and in some cases with much lower carbohydrates than any traditional sweet.
The feedback has been great and I’ve been able to help people in many industries fall in love with dessert again. Teachers, doctors, nurses, personal trainers, and even upscale Grocery Stores have loved the food we make and have expressed a need for more items. Working on Sugarless has been the most challenging and most fantastic experience of my life. It has been wonderful to make so many people happy, but the process of growing the business to meet their needs has been challenging. At the moment space is limited and it’s been difficult making and storing large orders. On some days it feels like we make boxes instead of dessert.
We are also slowly growing our social media following and are navigating marketing for the first time. The challenges are real, but I am up to face them. It is a rare thing to be from the Bronx and start a business that helps the community – it’s an honor and a privilege to do so.
TD: Currently, I am getting the word out about our goods through word of mouth from delighted customers, friends, family, and social media marketing. I am planning to get more word out by apply to street markets, and by sending out samples to select vendors.
TD: One of my favorite sugarless desserts is the Keto Chocolate Espresso cake. When I first tasted it I didn’t believe that it was both low carb AND completely sugar-free. It was like eating magic. The cake is made with an extravagant mix of Dutch and Brazilian cocoa blended with Sea Salt and imported Espresso. It also includes Almond and Coconut flour for a much smaller carbohydrate load than traditional baked goods. My second favorite dessert is a huge plate of the Classic Chocolate Marble cookies. The texture and taste are out of this world! They are so special that it takes over 48 hours to make them. The cookies include gourmet crafted chocolate (sugarless, as always) and savory roasted almonds for the perfect balance of soft, salty, crispy (on the outside) and sweet.
I want a plate right now, but I have to be sure not to eat the inventory.
TD: For future growth, the plan is to rent a storefront to increase production. We will continue to sell both wholesale and to customers directly and a full-fledged bakery will make that much easier. Any and all money will go towards setting up a private commercial kitchen, stocked with equipment that runs on green technology. Convection ovens, for instance, are very high efficiency and bake faster than older gas ovens. They make less heat, cook faster and are better for the environment than what traditional bakeries use.
With a commercial location we can also begin selling other items that are not yet on the menu such as Gourmet Chocolate bars (like Hazelnut praline and Sea Salt) and sweet potato-based brownies (no carbs!) – products many people have asked for. In this way, the business will be able to grow to meet customer demand while also helping to save the environment. A commercial kitchen would also enable Sugarless to start shipping to customers outside of New York State.
In addition to selling desserts, the storefront would be a hub for the community and allow me to have a class once a month – open to the community – to teach families how to eat healthy on a budget.
TD: If you can imagine something, you can make it possible in real life; like willing something into existence. Envision, create and edit on repeat until what you envisioned is in front of you. Learn whatever you can and there’s no shame in failing. There is always a lesson to be learn. I also believe it’s harder for women to enter business because the world has been set up in a way to limit success, but our society is changing because we are fighting for a better world.
Another really important thing that I’ve learned is that progress isn’t a straight line. It’s normal to feel exhausted, angry, anxious or even depressed on your journey. The best way to handle that is to invest in wellness, both mentally and physically. Do whatever possible to be the best version of yourself. It is also really important to believe in yourself and be around people who uplift, inspire and trust in your talent.