Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
What might sound like the bro-show spinoff of I Love Lucy is, in fact, a new grab-and-go healthy food concept created by husband-and-wife team Kathleen (Fred, a nickname) and Richard (Ricky) Waidmann. Several of Ricky’s relatives had died at an early age of heart disease, and he knew that this could be his fate as well—so the couple decided to do something about it.
How did Kathleen get the nickname Fred?
RW: When we started dating, I just started calling her Fred for no particular reason. Sometimes I just give people unusual nicknames. I call my daughter Olivia "Peanut."
What was the genesis of Fred and Ricky’s?
RW: My dad suffered multiple heart attacks and strokes. His dad died at 47. Both my mom and her dad died at 62. My uncle at 68. I knew how I was going to die if I didn’t make some major adjustments. I was 35, in shape, and thought I was eating healthy, but my cholesterol was still sky high and going in the wrong direction.
So what did you decide to do?
RW: I attended a seminar on how to prevent and reverse heart disease—the whole Forks Over Knives movement, as in “Change your diet or risk going under the knife.” I learned that rural Asians who ate a plant-based diet had almost no heart disease, but when they moved to the cities and began eating a Western diet, they began suffering from Western ailments.
Who conducted the seminar?
RW: A guy named Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. In a 12-year study, he put a group that was deemed too sick for bypass surgery on a plant-based diet. Those who conformed to his diet didn’t have a single heart attack; those in the control group had more issues, and many of them died by the end of the study.
When did you adopt a plant-based diet?
RW: Seven years ago, the day I walked out of that seminar.
How hard was finding plant-based foods back then?
RW: Finding foods with no meat, dairy, nuts, and saturated fats, including oils, was very, very difficult.
I thought that some oils were good for you.
RW: Studies have found that any kind of oil damages the endothelium [the inner lining of the artery walls], eventually causing inflammation and a buildup of plaque, which is what clogs the arteries. We’ve all been told that some oils are OK, but research says, "Umm, not so much."
KW: The diet that Rich is on is very restrictive, as it cuts out all oils. Lots of plant-based eaters are fine with things like avocados and plant-based oils.
RW: Those who are worried about heart disease, as I have to be, should stay away from all oil.
Is that the reason some vegans are supposedly overweight?
RW: It can be. Some meat substitutes, fake cheeses, and nut butters are high in fat, which is harder to burn. It takes seven calories to burn a gram of fat and four to burn a gram of protein or carbs. Just because you’re vegan doesn’t mean you’re eating healthy. Potato chips are vegan. Oreos are vegan.
What did you end up eating?
RW: Before I met Fred, I ate a lot of steamed vegetable…gunk. It wasn’t very tasty, but I felt great and my cholesterol dropped a hundred points in a month.
KW: A lot of what I found in the early cookbooks tasted like cardboard, so I knew I had to start over. I took my family’s recipes and reverse-engineered them, replacing the meat and dairy with produce, adding spices to each ingredient. I started by asking why all foods taste good—different spices, cooking techniques, and combinations of ingredients—and applied those same principles to plants.
You use different cooking techniques as well.
KW: We all know that part of the secret to a great hamburger is the taste that comes from the sear, the caramelization that results from high heat. Sautéeing or roasting vegetables over high heat accomplishes the same thing and produces a completely different flavor than steaming.
RW: Sear some mushrooms, then deglaze the pan with a little wine or veggie stock. You’ll never know they weren’t sautéed in oil.
Discuss the differences of cooking plant-based foods versus eating them raw.
KW: Everybody listens to a different master when it comes to what they put in their body. Cooking provides additional flavors, some umami, different textures and mouth feel.
RW: Dr. Esselstyn’s diet advocates raw products, and they play a big part in what we do. The diet is against juicing, for example, which breaks down the sugars so you lose a lot of the fiber and digestive benefits. You’re better off just chewing your food, which provides more glucose, slowly absorbed. No,w I don’t want to come out against juicing because it’s better than the alternative, but you’re better off just eating a nice, hearty salad.
Even though a plant-based diet is by definition vegan, you avoid that word.
KW: The word turns most people off. A lot of vegans tried to make plants look like meat—that whole Tofurky thing. Traditional eaters were usually disappointed. There’s no reason to make a plant taste like meat. Let meat be meat and plants be plants.
I like that attitude.
KW: We just want everybody to eat better, but it’s hard to be a plant-based cook unless you shop—and cook—every day. We’re making all that easier and faster. We feel grab-and-go is the way to go and set up the company that way.
Was there a moment when a light bulb went off—when you said, "Wait a minute: We have something here"?
KW: Rich is a constant light bulb going off.
RW: I’m a born entrepreneur. I love to start companies. This one we approached naively. We just wanted to make things taste like they did hundreds of years ago, before fillers, chemicals, colors, and additives.
KW: Part of the impetus was the day we heard the CEO of Whole Foods say, "If you want to change the world, don’t go into politics. Start a business."
How did you test-market the products?
RW: Besides all our friends, our teenage kids played a big part. They still eat steaks and chicken, but in many cases they like our food better than normal stuff—which for kids is saying something.
So omnivores don’t offend you?
KW: No, I call myself a Flexitarian, which is another word for that, for people who sometimes eat meat and dairy. We don’t want to be exclusionary. People should eat what they want. We’ve just offered them a better option.
What’s the bestselling item at Fred and Ricky’s?
RW: The Plantasagna, a name we liked so much that we trademarked it. We sauté fresh veggies quickly to dry them out and extract the flavor you get from browning. We use a whole-wheat noodle that’s made using a bronze die, not a nylon roller, so it’s more tender and has more texture. The sauce clings to it that much better. It took forever to source fresh canned tomatoes without additives and extra…junk.
Which might be part of the reason that Plantasagna sells so well.
RW: All that special sourcing might sound excessive, but it’s not—it makes a difference.
You sell a lot of Italian-based dishes.
KW: The St. Louis palate is very developed when it comes to Italian food—and it’s very popular here—so we thought we’d test ourselves early. We use organic ingredients and source locally when we can, and we cook in small batches to maintain flavor and freshness, using no preservatives, additives, or colors.
Your food labels have to be easy to understand.
KW: The labels are “clean,” which means no artificial ingredients. You don’t need your cheaters to read the fine print because there isn’t any.
You sell breakfast items as well.
RW: Our kids, who are now young adults, prefer our pancakes to the traditional kind. What I call normal people—regular people— eat them and say the same thing.
Does the diet allow for desserts?
KW: We have several. Dessert needs to be an occasional indulgence, not something you have with every meal.
RW (smiling): It shouldn’t be lunch.
KW: We make the chocolate mousse with two kinds of dark chocolate. We can’t keep it on the shelves. We sell out of it every day.
Was there any item that just didn’t work?
KW: The difficulty is that some items are difficult to scale up. Going from a two-gallon batch to 40 is not a linear thing, which is what co-packers tend to do, along with adding things along the way. It’s the difference between when your mom makes it and when it’s made in mass for a cafeteria. That’s one of the reasons we built our own kitchen and didn’t go that route. That all started with baby food.
KW: When my kids were little, 23 years ago, the only baby foods you could find were the little jars that had been pressure-cooked, along with preservatives. So when I cooked a meal, I took a little and made baby food as well and froze it, which means I didn’t need to use preservatives. We’re going to do that here, too. We have farmers, like Molly Rockamann at EarthDance Farms, who are growing things for us to use.
So will you process your own tomatoes?
KW: Along with sweet potatoes, corn, and squash purée, we're freezing as much as we can for later. I grew up on a farm, so I know what can be canned and what can be frozen.
Talk about the packaging.
KW: The containers are all recyclable, BPA-free, microwave-safe, and reusable. And they had to be white; the super-clean look is part of the brand, as is recycling and composting.
How much of your clientele is on board the plant-based train, and how many are just curious?
RW: Most are following a plant-based diet already, but there are a lot of newbies, people who’ve heard or read how the diet has changed other people’s lives.
Is St. Louis ahead or behind the curve in regard to plant-based foods?
RW: Fred and I travel a fair amount and have had some of the worst meals at vegan and vegetarian restaurants in cities like New York that you’d think would be further evolved. Dishes layered with fake meats and cheeses, salts, and fats—things that really aren’t that healthy nor taste that good.
Does a plant-based diet prohibit alcohol?
RW: No. I like to have a little red wine, sometimes a few beers.
Do you own other businesses?
RW: We own Connectria, a hosting company that runs computing systems for both small and big companies, like Bank of America and Southwest Airlines.
How many Fred and Ricky's locations are there currently?
KW: Our commissary is in Maryland Heights, along with a front room containing a retail case. Creve Coeur is just a bigger version of the front room but with some seats and two microwave ovens so people can eat there if they want.
How many stores do you intend to open?
RW: This commissary will support a dozen, and we’ve had requests from hospitals and universities, but the plan is to take this nationwide. We’re not trying to get rich here, but we are trying to change the world.
What’s the deal with the "No Jerks Allowed" T-shirts?
RW: Like at Connectria, we wanted Fred and Ricky’s to be a great place to work for—and work with. No Jerks Allowed means that each employee treats everyone with courtesy and respect. Another goal is to help keep the workplace from becoming a jerk place.
Which brings up an interesting design element.
RW: We designated a wall where customers can post photos of family and friends who died too young. If anybody wants to know why we’re doing this, it’s right on that wall.