Oregon Public Broadcasting featured Southern Oregon’s fermented food pioneers in their latest segment. Kristen and Christopher Shockey moved to Applegate Valley years ago with hopes of getting their 40-acre homestead to pay for itself. They began selling sauerkraut “before it was cool.” OPB said: “They saw the process that makes sauerkraut, called fermentation, as a way to literally bottle and beauty and the landscape around them.” The Shockey’s started fermenting any and every vegetable their neighbors were growing in surplus. They wrote the book “Fermented Vegetables” in 2014, “helping to propel the fermentation wave that swept things like kimchi, kombucha and kefir into mass culinary consciousness,” OPB added. Today the Shockey’s are teaching fermentation classes and releasing another book.
Read more (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Put down the Gatorade, athletes — the best performance-enhancing substance is fermented food and drinks. An article in sports magazine STACK says athletes are overlooking fermented products for workout nutrition. Fermented products — like raw sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir — heal the body with beneficial bacteria and combat gut imbalances. “The better our digestion, the better we utilize the food we are putting into our body, leading to even better improvements in our strength and health,” the article states. Though there is little research in the field, the article points to one study which found probiotics helped female college athletes improve body composition and deadlift performance.
Read more (STACK)
Superchef David Chang is transforming his restaurant business into a multimedia empire. The restauranteur, author, publisher, TV celebrity and podcast host announced this month that he’s adding another television gig to his resume: “Family Style.” Chang will co-host the food-centric talk show with celebrity and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen.
“We’re not trying to promote the restaurant; we’re trying to promote our ideals. And I think, to the younger generation, that’s more important to them than ever before,” Chang said at Recode’s Code Conference.
The Korean-American founder of Momofuku restaurant is known for shaking up the restaurant industry with cutting-edge culinary innovations. A major proponent of fermentation, Chang’s innovation in the cooking technique has propelled fermentation’s recent renaissance in America. In his Kaizen Trading Company fermentation lab, Chang develops his own line of fermented products for restaurants.
Chang aims for his media projects to reflect the values of the restaurants he’s created all over the world – authentic and honest. He compared starting a food-based media company, Majordomo Media, to chef Wolfgang Puck’s entrepreneurship. Puck “created a giant business of every kind of thing related to food,” like consumer-packaged goods, cookware and catering.
“If the media takes off, that’s more stuff we can bring back to the restaurants,” Chang said. The media arm feeds his restaurants. “Maybe people will never want to pay that much money for [Momofuku] food, maybe we can subsidize some of the costs with [the media projects] that’s alleviating our bills.”
Changing Kitchen Atmosphere
Majordomo Media produces the Netflix series “Ugly Delicious” and the podcast “The David Chang Show.” Chang won’t discuss viewership numbers. But he says the exposure has made Momofuku busier than ever, and that’s not because the restaurant is featured heavily in the TV show. It’s the message about the food industry and corporate responsibility that sticks with viewers, piquing their interest in Momofuku.
“Everyone has an understanding of food now; the food awareness is higher than ever before,” Chang said. “But no one quite wants to understand how that food gets made. They understand maybe from an environmental perspective, but they don’t understand it from a restaurant perspective.”
Customers should make themselves aware of restaurant ownership, especially in a post #MeToo world when sexual assault accusations have put into light the deplorable behavior of restauranteurs like Mario Batali.
Important, too, are proper working conditions. The culinary industry is historically a “brutish system,” Chang said. The hours are long and tiring. Today’s labor force is changing workplace culture, though. Millennial employees are disrupting the horse race work pace, they are “allergic to the working conditions and the stress that we were creating.”
“You work long hours in the culinary world, and I’ve always believed that the culinary world and those that lead people in the culinary world have maybe one of the hardest jobs because you can’t motivate people with a giant stock option package or a giant bonus that you might get on Wall Street. You have to motivate someone to do physical hard labor and to try and get better at that through sheer integrity and personal will and that’s hard, that’s incredibly hard to motivate people,” Chang said.
He added: “How do you balance out what’s essentially still a blue-collar labor, which is cooking, [that] is now glamourized to a point that it now has white-collar values? That’s a collision that’s hard to mitigate and sort out.”
Chang’s creating that white-collar environment at his restaurants, giving vacation days, mandatory breaks and a shift drink at the end of a service. He wants to professionalize the restaurant industry when, historically, it’s never been professional.
“I’ve been so allergic to a corporate body for so many years, but now I think I’ve convinced myself it’s the only way to go,” Chang said.
Experimental Triumphs & Failures
Lauded as the bad boy in the food world, Chang is a chef willing to take unapologetic risks. His innovation has not come without failures, though. Lucky Peach, the award-winning food magazine he co-founded, shuttered after creative differences. Maple, a New York food service Chang backed that prepared and delivered gourmet food, folded amidst massive debt. Ando, another Chang backed food delivery service, suddenly closed, then was acquired by Uber Eats. Chang closed Má Pêche last year, citing declining foot traffic around New York’s midtown thanks to extra security at Trump Tower. New York Italian restaurant Momofuku Nishi closed too after a touch review, then remodeled and reopened.
That review – by Pete Wells of the New York Times – was Momofuku’s first bad review. It destroyed the restaurant, Chang said. But he added that he’s weirdly thankful for that review because it helped Momofuku reevaluate, “our restaurants around the world are doing better than before because of that review.”
“My fear is that once you become too systemized in the restaurant industry, you’re going to lose any of the coolness, creative parts,” Chang said. “I got into cooking because it wasn’t cool. Everyone thought it was career suicide when I said ‘Hey I’m going to start to cook,’ it was sort of that sense of danger, that sense of recklessness that no longer really exists.”
“It’s completely different than a tech business because scaling a brand in food, yes, it can work in McDonald’s or if you have a beverage,” Chang said. “But the idea of scaling something that’s intimate, some kind of contract between you and a prospective diner, that’s hard because we’re still trying to be best in class in making the most thoughtful, delicious food and it’s hard to scale excellence I think.”
(Photo by Wall Street Journal)
Jared Schwartz was in art school when the quality of the American food culture struck a nerve in him. He worked in restaurant kitchens while studying photography in Boston and was disturbed by the mindlessness of the food industry. No one was paying attention to the food they were eating, from the ingredients they were consuming to the source of the food.
“I started looking at the most traditional aspects in the food world, the way Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese people eat. Everything comes back to salt and fermentation,” says Jared. “It creatively made me think what can we do in fermentation that’s not around the standard. We have this standard – but what’s the future of it?”
Jared moved to update New York and began fermenting full-time. Heavily involved in multiple businesses, Jared is growing five local food brands – and adding more. Today, he is the director of operations and innovation at Farm Ferments (a fermentation hub in New York’s Hudson Valley), Hawthorne Valley Ferments (the fermented vegetable line of Hawthorne Valley biodynamic farm), Poor Devil Pepper Co. (the fermented hot sauce company started by Jared and wife Laura Webster) and Sauerkraut Seth’s (a raw sauerkraut). Hawthorne Valley Ferments, Poor Devil Pepper Co. and Sauerkraut Seth’s source almost all ingredients from organic, regenerative farms in New York state and the northeast.
“With Farm Ferments, we’re trying to create that middle ground for fermentation processors instead of becoming a monster powerhouse. We want to include smaller brands in that,” Jared says.
“With Whitethorne, we’re trying to create that middle ground for fermentation processors instead of becoming a monster powerhouse. We want to include smaller brands in that,” Jared says.
Though he began Poor Devil Pepper Co., he loves seeing more fermented sauce and dressing labels join the industry. More brands means more customers learning about fermentation. He adds: “If there’s only one fermented hot sauce or one fermented salad dressing in a case, people are like ‘Why buy it?’ It’s not going to move. There’s strength in community.”
Below Jared, a board member of the Fermentation Association, discusses successfully launching multiple fermented food brands, the importance of collaboration in the fermentation industry and how brands can support the farmers that source their food.
Q: Tell me about Hawthorne Valley Ferments, you’ve helped triple production.
When I started about 7 years ago, I started pushing the envelope in terms of production capabilities and sort of recipe fine-tuning, and we’ve started to grow progressively.
Q: What do you mean by pushing the envelope?
In terms of getting to the nitty-gritty of ferment time, turn overs, the farms were working with and sort of diving into the effective quality of different salt types. We’re finding the sweet spot that kind of creates a smoother cog of the fermentation system because I feel like every company is doing the same thing, but they all kind of have their own twists on it that takes a bit to come into.
Q: What are some of the twists?
Trade secrets. But like their own salt types, their own weight systems, their own ferment times. And a lot of it is environmentally related. Out west, they’re going to do things different than what we’re doing out east because of yeasts in the air. Northern California wine country is going to be battling yeasts off grapes where we’re dealing with different frost times on the east coast.
Q: When did you and your wife start Poor Devil Pepper Company?
A: Poor Devil started in 2014 working after hours at Hawthorne Valley Ferments. I started making sauerkraut and ferments at Hawthorne Valley and, at the same time, started taking the logic of basic sauerkrauts and kimchis and turning it into salad dressings, hot sauces, everything under the sun. We started in 5-gallon buckets and just grew it. We distribute on the east coast and down to about North Carolina currently. We’re mostly with eastern distributors.
Q: Is fermentation a growing industry?
Oh, 10,000 percent. It’s an interesting time because no one has ever really studied the good benefits of bacteria until the last five years. Now, every few months, you start hearing about these scientists all over the world that are actually taking the time to study gut bacteria. I saw something recently about a connection between gut biome and autism. There are all these amazing studies. The more focus that can go to that, the money, the time, that’s what truly keeps probiotics alive. There was never really money behind that before, because that’s really what it comes down to as much as people could do pro bono scientific research on it.
I personally don’t like the idea of taking an extract or like a powderized version of something. But, especially in the organic environment, people are well-informed and know where their food is coming from. The more light that is shed on fermentation, the bigger it can be.
Q: You have a generation coming up that’s caring about GMO and they care about clean eating. Do you see more consumers educating themselves about where their food is coming from?
Oh yeah. The only yang to that is that I fear in some ways every certification under the sun is dumbing down consumers too much. There should never be a need to have a non-GMO seal and an organic seal next to each other. But we take it because it’s all good in the long run. But in some ways, you feel extorted. I’ve gotten so many calls because our labels saw raw so we don’t say unpasteurized and we get calls saying “It says raw – but is it unpasteurized?” You can’t walk both those roads. It’s back to that sort of what people are told to eat. If someone says “Eat unpasteurized sauerkraut,” they say “But it says raw sauerkraut, I don’t know what to eat.” It’s confusing people.
Q: Tell me why Poor Devil is so unique compared to other sauces?
It’s down to that umami flavor. You’re able to take the natural fermentation and unpasteurization and you’re instantly tasting more flavor. In some cases, it brings out more heat because you’re not cooking it. It’s true sauce work. Like making a true gravy. There are layers to it. Fermentation allows you to keep levels of flavor in a sauce and not combine them.
Q: How did Farm Ferments start?
It started at Hawthorne Valley, which a is a nonprofit biodynamic farm. It started out of there. We were looking for a means to grow the fermentation movement and our food access program and looking at the supply chain in a different way. We still source 98 percent of everything we make from New York state, and probably 80 percent from our county. We started look at the supply chain from a different angle. We thought, instead of these farmers growing for a CSA or a farmers market, let’s give them the backdrop of a wholesale producer and work with some other producers in the area. That’s a guaranteed outlet. And so it kind of grew out of that. We were in a 2,500 square foot basement on a farm making krauts and hot sauces, then this past year we moved 10 minutes away to a fully renovated, building that is soon to be a state-of-the-art production facility for all things fermented vegetables.
Q: So Hawthorne Valley helps brands find farmers they can work with?
Yeah, that was definitely a big piece to it, creating social impact of more jobs in the area. Part of Hawthorne Valley itself, there’s a biodynamic farm, there’s dairy that’s part of it, there’s a bakery, a farm store and a Waldorf School that are part of the nonprofit. The hope taking Farm Ferments is growing that Hawthorne Valley name to create more education about biodynamic farming and regenerative, sustainable agriculture.
Q: Where are you hoping to expand Farm Ferments? How do you scale?
There’s always growth for it, and I feel that’s where the Fermentation Association is helpful to all brands. How to create a competitive brand in the fermentation industry from my experience is competitive, but it’s also collaborative. The true growth of it as a whole, there’s a place for everybody. To me personally, no one on the west coast should have a predominantly stronghold on the east coast on ferments. At this point, there’s so many people doing it. There’s room for them. You walk into a Whole Foods in New York City, I’d rather see five local brands taking up the shelf than your high performance SKUs from the west coast. But I think there’s room for everybody. The same products are going to be different because of the production process.
Q: So you see the fermentation industry as a community of collaborates rather than competitors.
Yeah. I think that set will only expand. Especially as the research and science behind the industry growth finds new ways to naturally produce probiotics through fermentation or finds a way to extract them. The greatest thing I could see would be larger ferment sets over the board, whether its krauts or kombuchas, yogurts, less in the vitamin set in terms of probiotics.
Q: You’d rather see ferments growing naturally through food than probiotics through a pill?
Q: You recently added Seth’s Sauerkraut to Farm Ferments. Are you actively looking for more brands on the east coast?
Off and on. We’re reaching a point of automation that’s kind of unique to the field. We’re actively looking to be a stepping stone for helping other brands grow in a collaborative effort. We’re not there yet, but it’s a goal in terms of our capacity.
Q: I love how in tune you are to local farmers in your area. How do you think fermentation brands can connect with and support farmers?
The biggest question I’ve learned to ask farmers what are their strengths. Every farmer will always tell you they can grow you everything you need. But to really work with farms and invest in them, let them supply you with what you need and work with them with what they grow best. Not every farmer can grow the best cabbage, but maybe they can grow the best carrots or garlic. Not every farmer has the same equipment either, see if they’re hand cutting or mechanically doing it. See what they’re setup to do. Find a system that works for everybody, work on communication between those farms.
Also, it’s kind of always hard knowing in terms of nature what’s going to happen to the crop. But the biggest thing brands can do is to still support local farmers even if someone has a bad crop one year. Still go back to them. In terms of working with them, get to know them. Get your fingers in the dirt, learn about how they’re growing things.
Q: Tell me more about working on communication between brands and farmers
The food system as a whole, there are too many people at this point all trying to grow 70 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for the same audience. This is a scary thought, but a lot of farmers are dying off or retiring and it’s the younger generation that’s only focusing on heirlooms, focusing on what’s trending. They’ve become these specialty fancy vegetable farmers. We’re seeing it in upstate New York. But who am I going to be buying cabbage from in the next 10 years? People want to be growing those heirloom tomatoes even though there isn’t a full market for it, but at the same time, they don’t want to be a cabbage farmer. That’s the mentality we’re seeing with the newer farmers. How does the next generation of farmers fit into the current and next generation of fermentation folks?
Regardless if you’re a consumer or a producer, looking at the future, there are a lot of good food things that are happening. But there’s got to be this the full circle connection for it to make sense.
Q: If farmers just focus on growing what’s popular right now, where does that leave fermented product producers?
As the fermentation industry grows, it will be interesting to see how that affects the farming industry. As messed up as our food system currently is, where everyone one way or another is going to make something cheaper, the farmers are the ones who are getting the short end of the stick. How that gets solved, I have no clue. But we need to keep doing what we can to support each other, the fermentation folks and farmers.
Q: What changes do you think are needed to propel the fermentation industry.
The industry is going up and up. It’s almost like a defined set. If you go into any grocery store, kombucha is established already, they have a defined section. But every other fermented food product is this whirlwind between fresh produce, cheese, meat. Categories for fermented products need to be outlined. Especially as there’s more exposure for fermented products.
Q: Fermentation is in the news a lot lately as a trend. Do you think its trending or a movement?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s always trending depending on what the crowd is. It’s big with the DIY foodie crowd, fermentation has a type. It’s really big w chefs right now, everyone is starting to pickle their own things, test the water, and I think Rene Redezpi and the folks at NOMA are championing a lot of great stuff, opening their ferment lab. That’s the energy that keeps the trend bubbling. For such a traditional, ancient thing, there are so many unknowns to it. And the more energy behind it is going to keep the next wave of it moving.
In wine making, the grape is the critical element. The majority of the wine’s characteristics come from the grape. “But for sake making, it’s a little bit different. It’s more about technique, about people controlling the process,” says Yoshihiro Sako of Den Sake Brewery in California. Sako was featured in the Los Angeles Times Rice does not include natural sugars like grapes, so a sake brewer must add koji (a specialized fungus) to convert the rice’s starch into glucose, which then gets fermented into alcohol. Sako says weather conditions, too, can affect the flavor. His latest batches — made after the recent California rains — taste different than batches made during the change. Sako says it’s a way sake “expresses the locality.”
Read more (Los Angeles Times)
Chef Daniela Soto-Innes — who runs New York City’s top modern Mexican restaurants Cosme and Atla — has been named the World’s Best Female Chef, by the same group that names the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The 28-year-old is the youngest recipient. A fan of fermentation, Daniela says her fridge is always stocked with ferments (“like kimchi and different types of bacteria, to help with digestion”). She serves a unique variation of tepache at her restaurants, a lacto fermented beverage made with pineapple rind, piloncillo and canela.
Read more (Wall Street Journal)
It’s absurd to call fermentation a new food trend, says Sandor Ellix Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation” and “Wild Fermentation.” Fermenting practices date back to early man. But, after decades of active pasteurization and a war on bacteria, fermentation is experiencing an awareness as a food phenomenon, Katz says.
Katz – who calls himself Sandorkraut, the fermentation revivalist – spoke at a TEDx Talk in Sao Paulo on wild fermentation and the power of bacteria. Coffee, bread, cheese, beer, wine – Katz points to these as examples of “the greatest delicacies that people around the world enjoy, products of fermentation that have never gone out of style and have not recently just come into style.”
No one needs to master biology or study microorganisms to practice fermentation, Katz stresses. Before microbiology became a field, fermentation historically was viewed as mysterious or mythical because no one understood the mechanisms of it. He adds: “I cannot find one single example of a culinary tradition anywhere the does not incorporate fermentation.”
Microbiology has illuminated and harmed fermentation. For decades, the information surrounding bacteria and microorganisms was negative. People were taught the dangers of bacteria and disease – and grew to fear fermentation. But discoveries in microbiology also found that everything we eat, plant and animal, is populated by microorganisms. All life is descended and created from bacteria.
“In a way, we’re bacteria super structures,” Katz said. “For the first time, from the scientific analysis, we began to understand that fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms.”
Fermentation often gets a bad reputation because people consider fermenting the process rotten or spoiled food. But fermentation is manipulating environmental conditions to encourage the growth of good organisms and discourage the growth of bad organisms, Katz explains.
“Fermentation is making food that is more stable than the raw product of agriculture that we began with,” Katz says. “We’re creating something that is more delicious, we’re creating something that is more easily digestible, we’re creating something where some toxic compound in the food and the otherwise dangerous food is made safe.”
For the first time in history, science is revealing the benefit of eating the live bacteria in fermented foods. The prevalence of antibiotic drugs, antibacterial cleaning products and chlorinated water now kill all bacteria in food. This war on bacteria narrows the diversity of bacteria in our intestines, Katz points out.
“If they were to kill all those microorganisms, we couldn’t possibly exist because we rely on those microorganisms for our digestion, for our immune system, our ability to withstand disease our brain chemistry,” he says. “Yet this chemical exposure…narrows biodiversity that we have inside of us.”
Katz focuses his work on public education of fermentation, helping shed light on its safety and effectiveness. More people today are seeking fermented foods because of the growing recognition of the benefits fermentation, Katz says. He teaches that the greatest benefit of fermented products are the bacteria themselves. Eating fermented foods – foods that haven’t been cooked or heat processed, since that kills the bacteria – restores the biodiversity in our intestines.
“In addition to being this important mode of transformation of food and beverages which enables people to make effective use of the food resources that are available to them, fermentation is also an engine of social change. And all of us are the starter cultures,” Katz said.
When Drew Anderson was ready to sell sauerkraut he homemade with brother-in-law Luke Visnic, Drew knew just where to start — the farmers market. His mother started farmers markets all over Northeastern Ohio, markets where Drew and his little brother Mac spent their weekends working as kids.
“We saw how small food businesses would start. Farmers markets a great way to test your products, to pitch, to get direct feedback on what’s working and what’s not. You’re getting paid for market research,” says Drew, who started Cleveland Kraut with Luke and Mac (chief marketing officer) over six years ago. “Farmers markets are going to be some of your most honest customers, and those original farmers market customers are still some of our best customers to this day. We raised our first capital at farmers markets.”
Sage advice from the fastest growing brand in the fermented foods industry. Cleveland Kraut continues to grow since its humble beginnings in 2013 as a side hobby of three brothers. Back then, when Cleveland Kraut was ready to expand to retail, Drew liquidated his savings to buy equipment, slept in the warehouse and drove truckloads of kraut himself to avoid shipping costs. Today, Cleveland Kraut will produce 4 million pounds of sauerkraut this year, thrives on capital from backers like NBA star George Hill, employs a growing staff of 20 full-time employees and will expand internationally later this year.
Check out our Q&A with Drew, a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree and board member of The Fermentation Association.
Q: What is your advice for other fermented food producers who want to sell in retail stores?
Honestly, you have to grind. It’s a category that buyers are just now waking up to, so getting in the door is difficult. Especially when you have established players who are doing really well. You have to go in and say “How am I going to compliment the competition? How am I going to add these other flavors?” It takes time. It’s a lot of grind, you’re going to lose some sleep.
Q: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Obviously, you have a lot of beverages out there that really paved the way, kombucha has been a huge success story. But fermented vegetables I think are, one, you’re getting a ton of free press from dietitians and doctors who are saying you need to eat this stuff, the rest of the world eats this every day, Americans need to eat it, too. Second, gut health is tied into everything, and that’s pushing fermented product sales. There are studies proving gut health is linked to your mental well-being, its liked to weight managements, its linked to your skin health. Then third, exciting flavors and new and exciting brands. Fermented products need to be approachable products for the American palate, and I’m proud to say that we’re a big driver of that. We’re showing what can be done with a simple product.
Q: What problems do you see facing the fermentation industry?
It’s not a huge category right now. The challenge is continuing to push consumers. We have to taste test, teach consumers what is this, what are the benefits, we need to get the mass market to understand what real fermented foods are and to test them out. We need to expand the category by showing people how good fermented foods are and how good they are for you. That’s going to be a big challenge.
I also think, the challenge on the retail side, buyers are continuing to expand the set. I think there’s room for a lot of different brands in one fermented set. When we go in to the market, we have a lot of competition. But competition brings the whole category up. It’s less cannibalization, it’s opening up a category and growing it.
Q: What about strengths, do fermented producers have unique strengths for the food industry?
There are not many co-manufacturers that make a quality product. So you have young companies who are still manufacturing their product. It’s not just a brand with a manufacturing facility miles and miles away. These young companies are putting really quality products out there. And I think that’s a real strong suit. The product is the same as everybody else when you have co-manufacturers involved. Brands that own their manufacturing, I think you get more interesting, higher-quality products.
Another strength is fermented foods can be something that’s delicious and exciting but also super beneficial for you. This is true health food, this is not fake healthy. This directly impacts people. If more people were eating fermented food products every day, our country would be a lot healthier. I think that’s a huge strength for us and we’re going to lean on that hard.
Q: Tell me about Cleveland kraut. What makes it so unique?
We are a manufacturer but we’re culinary branded. We really care about taste, texture and health. If you’re doing fermentation right, then its always going to be healthy. But we want the crunchiest, most vibrant sauerkraut. We’re the taste leader, we’re the fastest growing brand in fermented foods. We’re about flavor. You go to Asia and they eat fermented foods every day. For us, we’re creating the fermented foods that Americans will eat every day. And we’re seeing that with our customers. They’re eating it with their eggs for breakfast, they’re putting it on their salads for lunch, they’re making it traditionally and eating it with meat and sauerkraut for dinner. It’s fast, quick meals, throwing it on rice bowls, soups, burgers.
Q: A lot of Americans are still scared to eat a fermented food. They’re unsure of trying the food, they don’t know what it is. Do you think that’s starting to change?
Oh yeah. One of our taglines here is “People try it, they like it.” You walk into a room and ask 100 people “Do you like sauerkraut?” and 75 percent of them are going to say no. We flip that after they try it. They try our product, they go “Wow, I never knew that was what sauerkraut tasted like.” It’s a natural fermentation, its crunchy, its vibrant, its bright, its fresh – that’s real sauerkraut. We change minds.
Q: You have a business background and were an analyst in finance industry. What made you decide to move over to the food industry?
Our mother started farmers markets in Northeastern Ohio. She was a chef, she had a degree in biology and she was super into where food comes from and what she’s feeding her kids. We grew up running farmers markets on the weekends, cooking in the kitchen, everything was central around food. We learned early on how to cook, how to prepare our own food and how to identify good products. It kind of helps you see why we’re so tall, we ate really well.
Fast forward, I went to school at Cleveland State University. I have a degree in statistics, so I was hired by a bank to build models and forecast. I moved to Virginia on the east coast where I couldn’t really get authentic, Eastern European fermented food, the sauerkraut and sausages which we grew up with in the Midwest. I started fermenting my own sauerkraut and making my own sausages. I got hired by a bank, moved back to Cleveland, and I found out my brother-in-law (COO Luke Visnic) was also making sauerkraut. He has a history – his grandmother is from Germany and they always had a crock bubbling away. One night over a beer in 2013, we’re eating some really fresh sauerkraut right out of a Mason jar. We’d been reading about this huge movement of fermented foods and probiotics. So we said “Let’s take it to the farmers markets.”
For a couple years, we would work our day jobs – Luke’s an architect, me in finance and my brother Mac who had just graduated college and was working in finance. We were teaching Mac how to ferment while he was in college. So all three of us, we’d work our day jobs and then come to the commercial kitchen in suits and start making sauerkraut until 2 in the morning, packing, processing. And then on the weekends we’d sell it at the farmers markets and to restaurants.
Q: When did you finally decide Cleveland Kraut was big enough to make the switch from your day jobs to working on Cleveland Kraut full-time?
In the second half of 2015, when we launched retail. We built a new commercial kitchen in this big factory, this old warehouse, that we cleaned out and made a nice fermentation space. I slept in an office way above the floor. There were no showers, so I joined the Y up the road, and I would shower there and then go into work and sleep in the office at night. It was great.
Q: Tell me about your unique flavors.
We have the traditional Classic Carraway that’s very Bavarian style. We have a Whiskey Dill where we add a little bit of whiskey, it gives it a subtle sweetness on the back end and a lot of dill up front. Roasted Garlic is probably our best seller besides the classic. It’s made of raw garlic, black pepper, its fantastic, super savory, people put that on everything. Beet Red is huge for us – it’s red cabbage, beets, carrots. This is the really fresh, super healthy sauerkraut that people are throwing on salads. Think of like an arugula salad with a little bit of spice, a goat cheese, almonds and then a light vinaigrette then with a Beet Red sauerkraut on there. Oh, its beautiful. Curry Kraut, that’s definitely going to be our healthiest. You have turmeric in there, ginger, garlic, it’s got a little bit of zip to it, a beautiful yellow color.
But our game changer, our conversion kraut is the Gnar Gnar. This one’s interesting. We knew we had to make a spicy kraut because our favorite is to eat a spicy sauerkraut like a kimchi. When we were first testing out flavors in my mother’s cellar, we had this spicy concoction going and this super, super potent smell and we were like “Man, this is going to be so gnarly!” and my mom starts saying “What’s that gnar gnar down there?” So we had to name it Gnar Gnar. That’s the one chefs are using. Iron chef Michael Symon, he’s got a BBQ restaurant at the Palms in Vegas, every plate serves Gnar Gnar.
We’re bringing excitement and life with our flavors, our crunch, our branding. We’re really brightening up this category and bringing a lot of new consumers.
When we go in to the market, we have a lot of competition. But brings the whole category up. It’s less cannibalization, it’s opening up a category and growing it.
Q: Your brand name, you wanted to true to the Cleveland area?
For us, fermented foods really come from the Midwest. It’s a lot of Eastern European roots, it’s a working-class food that comes from farmers. It’s a blue-collar food, its simple food, cabbage is cheap. It’s a way to preserve foods when you didn’t have refrigeration. People have been surviving on cabbage for thousands of years.
For us, growing up, sauerkraut was a food that was local. It comes from the Midwest. We have glacial till soil here, super nutrient-rich soil. All our cabbage is hearty, it’s delicious, you eat the raw cabbage and it has a spice to it, it’s fantastic. We’re super proud of where we are in the Midwest. Building a factory and putting our city on the front of the package has been key to us. Honestly, it creates a local vibe wherever you go. People in Southern California are buying us at Lazy Acres and Gelson’s and Bristol Farms and they’re saying “I like the Cleveland stuff. They know what they’re doing in the Midwest. They know how to ferment things.”
Q: Tell me about the Cleveland food scene.
The Cleveland food scene is growing. We have a lot of good chefs, we get a lot of ex-New York chefs who want to open their own spot and they come to Cleveland because there is a lot of wealth there so it can support the fine dining and experimental restaurants.
And the business food scene, the manufacturing, its growing. There’s a popsicle company from Cleveland that’s taking off, Chill Pop. Nooma is an organic electrolyte beverage that is taking off nationwide, they’re in stores like Walmart and Whole Foods. There’s a lot of us, we’re paving the way. Then the Akron, Canton, Cleveland areas, there’s a lot of big, big manufacturers that are behind the scenes, you’ve never heard about them, but there’s a lot of food being made here. Cleveland is young – we’re not a Boulder, we’re not a San Francisco, but its popping up. We’re going to give Brooklyn a run for their money in 10 years.
Q: Last year, you started putting your kraut in new packaging, you switched from glass jars to resealable pouches. Tell me about that.
The issues with glass jars is you’re putting in a live product. When you’re at natural stores, a Whole Foods, and you have early adopters buying it, they understand that when you twist that lid, it might bubble it, it is still alive. But when you get into a place like Walmart, Giant Eagle, Target, these people are later on the adoption curve, they may not know so much about what a fermented live product is, so when they open it up and see a bubble, they think “Whoa, something’s wrong.”
The other thing is we couldn’t fully automate the jar the way we wanted too. Our demand was so high, we were in there packing jars, and we couldn’t find the right equipment to automate it. We searched for years. And so the pouch solved the issue, because it has a vent and allows the kraut to breath, to exhale. And it can be automated.
We’re cutting down our carbon footprint significantly. A full truckload of glass takes so much diesel because it’s so heavy. Pouches can fit on a single palate and they’re fully recyclable. We have a great customer base, so I trust people are going out and recycling.
Q: What’s next for Cleveland Kraut.
We’ve got a lot of new products coming out. We’re going to really take hold of the fermented space, the fermented category, were going to drive a ton of growth. I’m excited for the next year and a half, you’re going to see some exciting things out of us, we’re going to keep pushing the brand.
We don’t just play in natural stores anymore. We love those stores, that’s where we started, we’re always going to be there, that’s where our best relationships are. But were pushing into conventional heavily. That means mass market people are getting the experience. On the back of our products, it says “Fermented foods for all.” This is not just a high-end product that only wealthy people who are super focused on health need. This is going to sell at Walmart, this is going to sell at Whole Foods. We’re going to get fermented foods everywhere. We’re going to push it very hard. In five years, people are really going to be eating fermented foods every week, every day, and were going to be a big driver of this.
Fermented foods are “a ‘new’ health trend with roots dating back to 6000 B.C. in civilizations all over the world” writes nutritionist Danielle Mein from the University of Maryland Medical System in a column for the Baltimore Sun. The amount of probiotics in a food is determined by the length of fermentation, Mein adds. True fermented foods, she argues, “must be refrigerated and unpasteurized” — what do you think, would you still call a product fermented if it was shelf stable?
Read more (The Baltimore Sun)
The head of the fermentation lab at NOMA, David Zilber, says fermentation is not making a comeback — fermentation is “undergoing an understanding.” He adds: “Fermentation is definitely a commitment. It is committing to something. It’s being responsible for life and watching it grow. It’s a slow and patient process. But it’s also being rewarded.” The Guardian’s recent interview with Zilber offers insight into the chef’s background in fermentation and NOMA’s lab, which houses 10 fermentation rooms at varying temperatures. He says his food is an artist’s statement.
Read more (The Guardian)