ANCHORAGE – A two-story white house in Midtown doesn’t look like any other on its block, but the sounds inside are familiar. Last Friday afternoon, laughter emanated from a toothy grin on the face of 1-year-old Athina Tziolas. She chewed a cookie while in the arms of her mother, Zoi Maroudas-Tziolas.
With the curious mind of a child her age, there was only one thing that was able to keep Athina’s attention: food. Although foods like kale, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are staples of healthy fare, for children they usually aren’t a favorite.
Zoi Maroudas-Tziolas is working to change that.
Maroudas-Tziolas is the owner and founder of Bambino’s Baby Food. She says her mission boasts two simple concepts.
“Real food parents can trust and flavors children will love,” she said.
She wants to teach kids to like naturally sweet and savory foods from a young age before they are introduced to cane sugar and table salt. Working with local farmers and sourcing sustainable Alaska seafood, she’s created food for babies aimed at delivering the most nutrients without sacrificing flavor.
“Starting by the best ingredients is the key thing,” she said. “And then it goes with the process and the balance of all the different types of vegetables to create that harmony of flavors.”
Maroudas-Tziolas won’t divulge her processes but said Bambino’s has been tested for taste and nutritional value. Whatever she’s doing seems to be working — Bambino’s Hali Halibut flavor just won the grand prize and two people’s choice awards in the Alaska Symphony of Seafood, a contest put on by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, beating out large companies like Trident Seafoods.
The halibut puree won first place in the retail category, even though Bambino’s is not yet available in grocery stores, only at farmer’s markets and online.
Warmed, the Hali Halibut resembles a thick bisque in both texture and flavor. Onion and celery are the true stars of the dish, which is so naturally savory, it’s hard to believe it’s comprised of only vegetables, fish, rice and olive oil. When frozen, the veggies take a backseat to showcase the product’s signature ingredient and the star shape tested best for teething little ones.
Her business venture began four years ago, when Maroudas-Tzoilas started experimenting with baby food. After two years of research and working with pediatricians, allergists and parents to gather feedback, she created the final products Bambino’s now sells, including a teething biscuit designed to lower the risk of peanut allergies in infants — which Maroudas-Tzoilas says is the first of its kind on the market.
Her path to weaving food and health together started long before then.
Maroudas-Tzoilas likes to say her first education was in a restaurant and her second was medical school. She moved to Anchorage with her parents from a Greek island off the coast of Italy when she was 5 years old. In the ‘80s, her parents opened Pizza Olympia in Spenard. It was there she learned customer service, accounting and a love for people and food.
During medical school, Maroudas-Tziolas decided to make baby food while working with elderly patients. No matter what she tried, several patients couldn’t regain strength and their quality of life had begun to wane. Within a month of changing their diets, she said her patients were happy and active, plus they enjoyed eating again after years of being on strict diets.
“I think when you go back to traditional foods — 60, 70, 80, 100 years ago — one, we didn’t know the science behind mass production, quick production, quick drying, all these things. The food was pure, it was natural. And you didn’t notice children having significant allergies or eczema concerns, different types of dietary restrictions that we have now,” she said. “The quality of a natural fruit, the nutrients of a natural fruit or vegetable, to me, is incomparable between the two.”
To make products more affordable and convenient for parents, online orders are sold by the case — each a one-month supply. She’s shipped to 48 states, still holding out for New Hampshire and Hawaii, and last week Bambino’s shipped its first international order to Taiwan.
But why seafood?
“The omegas,” she said. “The omegas are so essential to a child’s diet.”
On the floor, Athina nibbled on her namesake Bambino’s cookie — Babalu, a term of endearment from her brother, whose smiling face is displayed on every Bambino’s package. Sweetened with carrot and oranges, the cookie is crisp, a bit crumbly and pairs nicely with a cup of coffee.
Later this week, Maroudas-Tziolas will take her place at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston, a spot she earned by winning the Alaska Symphony of Seafood. While she’s there, she has meetings to share her product with potential buyers and investors.
Founding a company so unique has gotten her quite a bit of attention. People tell her she’s now in the market with big-league names like Gerber and Plum, but Maroudas-Tziolas doesn’t see it that way.
“I want to think of it that I’m addressing concerns that parents are facing. Don’t get distracted on all that’s out there,” she said.
Maroudas-Tziolas said if you do something whole-heartedly and honestly, people will start to embrace it. It’s something she hopes other parents will do with Bambino’s.
“They’ll know the truth. And that’s what we stand on, the truth of nutrition.”
Published on KTVA.com on March 2, 2016.