Pint-sized foodies cook up a healthy business
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW WILKINSON
In many ways, twins Emily and Lyla Allen of Lawrenceville are typical twelve-year-olds. They participate in after-school sports, do their homework, have dinner with their parents and are in bed most nights by nine-thirty, where they giggle together about the day’s events and snuggle with their pet cats, Sapphire and Pearl. They’re bubbly, love to talk and blush when asked about boys.
But not many preteens can boast of having their own food brand (Kitchen Twins) and a signature product—packaged shake-and-bake kale chips—that’s sold in more than 300 Acme, Shop-Rite and Whole Foods Markets as far west as Nebraska. The product will soon be sold nationwide. As successful food entrepreneurs, these sixth-graders make regular appearances on network-television talk shows, including the Rachael Ray Show, usually to demonstrate how simple it is to make the chips. The twins were contestants (and rivals) on Food Network’s Chopped Junior in an episode broadcast this past January: Emily made it to the final round, barely missing out on the $10,000 prize. Earlier this year, she and Lyla also participated in the pilot episode of a Food Network show tentatively titled Kid Food Nation, which is expected to air sometime later this year.
The two also have a popular website, kitchen-twins.com, and often post pictures of and recipes for the lunch they’re packing for school that day. The website includes photos of them with culinary luminaries like Daniel Boulud; visitors who click the link to their YouTube series, Kitchen Curiosities, can watch them interview highprofile chefs including Marcus Samuelsson and Bill Telepan. Their cooking mentor is Chloe Pascarelli, whose New York City restaurant, By Chloe, is a vegan mecca.
Early in their young lives, the twins showed both an interest in cooking and an appetite for healthy foods, says their mother, Cynthia (“Cricket”) Allen. The twins share the same first memory of cooking. When they were about four years old they received chef ’s hats and aprons for Christmas. “I remember that Emily and I were in the kitchen dressed in these, making cookies with our grandmother,” Lyla recalls. Her sister adds, “It was potato-chip cookies and also sourcream coffee cake!” Every Christmas morning since, the girls and their paternal grandmother have made that coffee cake.
Lyla and Emily’s hand painted garden sign
The girls’ personalized cutting boards
Fennel growing in a container
These days, Emily and Lyla are skilled cooks and resourceful recipe developers. For an early spring post on their website, they chose as a theme and challenge “Two Peas in a Pod.” The aim was to show that each twin has a distinct personality. Emily chose frozen green peas, from which she made sweet pea soup using coconut milk, baby spinach, sweet onion and a bit of pear. For her part, Lyla turned fresh sugar snap peas, almond milk, cashews, avocado and basil into a sauce to top quinoa. Those skills, coupled with their youthful enthusiasm and creativity, have taken them far on the stated mission of the Kitchen Twins enterprise, which is “to get entire families into the kitchen having fun by cooking natural, whole foods.”
True to this goal, Kitchen Twins Make Your Own Kale kits, which are sold in the refrigerated produce section, contain nothing more than washed and cut curly-kale leaves and a small packet of olive oil to coat the leaves. These bake up as crisp as potato chips in about eight minutes and can be finished with a sprinkling of salt.
The pair don’t know if they’re identical twins, and they don’t care. They look alike, enjoy many of the same activities and excel equally in school. Both, for example, take honors math classes at Princeton Day School (though they do not attend any of the same classes), and they share the same extended group of friends. But, the girls are quick to point out, they have different personalities. Says Lyla: “Emily is always being as kind as she can possibly be. I’m not saying I don’t have this, but Emily is always pursuing it.” Emily counters with, “And I’m not saying I don’t have this, but Lyla is really funny! She makes me laugh.” Both admit that Lyla is slightly less outgoing than Emily, which often plays out at in-store demos, with Emily doing most of the talking and Lyla preparing the chips.
Both name math as their favorite school subject, which in part explains why they enjoy even the nitty-gritty work of package engineering. “I loved the math part of figuring it out— it’s fascinating, and sometimes confusing,” admits Emily. The family is currently experimenting with a redesign of the kale chips package so that it will pop open more easily. The Kitchen Twins line has four, possibly five new products—still under wraps— expected to launch sometime this summer.
Lyla and Emily like growing their own food as much as they enjoy cooking it.
“The cooking and food component of the middle-school
garden club took on a new feel when Emily and Lyla came
in as fifth-graders,” Princeton Day School garden coordinator
Pam Flory says. “They love cooking and they’re competitive
with each other in a very positive, dynamic way.”
The twins’ love of cooking extends to their participation in their school’s food and garden club. “It’s really fun because we have a huge garden there, with chickens and honeybees, and we get to make all kinds of good things,” Lyla says. “There’s something called the ‘lottery lunch’ where the whole garden club cooks food for some people.” Each week during the growing season, 16 students in fifth through eighth grades, plus a handful of teachers, are treated to a lunch the club members have made using as many ingredients from the school garden as possible. “It’s in this gorgeous indoor-outdoor classroom with a big, beautifully set table!” Emily says with pride.
Pam Flory is the garden coordinator for Princeton Day School. “The cooking and food component of the middle-school garden club took on a new feel when Emily and Lyla came in as fifth-graders,” she says. “They love cooking and they’re competitive with each other in a very positive, dynamic way.” A few times a year, Flory has the students participate in Chopped-type events. “I break them into two teams and we have a covered basket full of secret ingredients from the garden,” she says. One time the theme was root crops, another time coconuts. “It’s incredible how creative the twins are,” she says. “They’re excited about good food and they use their competitiveness as an incentive for each to really excel. It also challenges me, gets the other kids involved and brings the activity up a notch.”
Parents Cricket and Brian Allen are themselves veteran food entrepreneurs. In 2006 they launched Bot Beverages, selling healthy, naturally flavored waters that for a time enjoyed national distribution. After that came The Perfect Snaque, a line of all-natural crunchy snacks. “We shut down manufacturing these products,” Cricket explains, “because [Kitchen Twins] is an entirely new business model.” For one thing, it involves fresh produce. For another, she explains, “It would have diluted the dollars that are in our company and would not have taken either product line very far. So we decided to grow the Kitchen Twins portfolio.”
When it comes to that portfolio, everyone agrees that the twins have the final say. “Our dad’s a really good business person, so we learned a lot about PR agencies and marketing from him,” Emily states. “And our mom is just great at critiquing every little detail. They’re awesome. But it’s really our decision on what the product is.”
Asked to name one thing they learned from their parents that has been particularly helpful to their success, Lyla says, “Just to pursue your dreams and never give up.”
The Kitchen Twins hard at work taste-testing
A box of their branded riced cauliflower