Most people’s kitchen pantries are stocked with staples like jam, pasta sauce, jellies, salsa, pickles, spices and condiments – and increasingly, those items are coming from local artisans. For farmers, crafting value-added products creates reliable off-season income and reduces waste; for chefs, they help build brand awareness and generate extra income. And for artisan food-and-drink producers, shelf-stable products answer a growing demand for more locally made items.
After 25 years in the mushroom business, farmer Nicola Macpherson, owner of Ozark Forest Mushrooms (and otherwise known as “thrifty Nicky” to friends and family), saw value-added products as an outlet to save and reduce waste for the mushrooms she grows on her farm in the Ozarks and distributes in the St. Louis area.
“I guess you could say the 100-year flood of 1993 started it all – a farmer’s desperation to sell a product that I couldn’t bear to throw away,” she says. She and her husband, Daniel Hellmuth, were inundated with wet shiitake mushroom logs after the devastating storm, which they’d been selling fresh at farmers’ markets for three years. Hellmuth bought a bun-warmer to act as a dryer to make and package dried shiitake mushrooms, and their value-added business was born. Fast-forward to today, and the side business now consists of dried mushrooms and nearly 40 other products, including green- and red-pepper sauces; purple, green and Thai basil pestos; pickled baby okra; elderflower cordial; and tomato tapenade, all grown and processed on her farm. Ozark Forest’s shelf-stable products make up about 8 percent of the business.
“Farming is very much planting the seed; watering it; paying attention to detail; hard, physical labor; working with the weather and other variables,” Macpherson says. “[With the other products] you’re extending your season of selling. And I’m not as worried about perishability, which is a huge advantage compared to my farming business.”
From the very beginning, Macpherson pursued selling her products at local retailers and getting her dried mushrooms into grocery stores and specialty shops in the St. Louis area. Currently, her products are sold at Annie Gunn’s Smokehouse Market, Local Harvest Grocery, City Greens Market, Larder & Cupboard and Truffles Butchery, as well as farmers’ markets and CSAs.
And, true to her nickname, Macpherson says reducing waste is another huge advantage to making value-added products. For example, she uses small, excess or “grade 2” shiitakes to make the farm’s mushroom rub, powder or soy sauce, as well as for dried mushrooms, as the flavor remains the same.
In order to get her products onto store shelves, Macpherson had to establish a commercial kitchen, get her products Food and Drug Administration-approved and negotiate with retailers.
“Being so small, not only do you have to run a farm, but you also have to be a businesswoman, an accountant, a food scientist,” she says. “My son always jokes that I spend $50 of my time trying to save $50 worth of mushrooms, where a large industrial plant would have just thrown them away. I can’t bear to, knowing all the work that went into growing them.”
While Macpherson uses excess mushrooms and produce to make products sold at local grocery stores, a growing number of chefs are doing the same. Some make a combination of value-added and shelf-stable products, while others focus solely on the latter. In Kansas City, Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue’s sauces, rubs, Bloody Mary mix and more can be purchased online, at its restaurants or in retailers like Costco and Price Chopper in the Kansas City area. In St. Louis, examples include John Perkins, chef-owner of Juniper, who offers a line of spreads, sauces, baking mixes and more through his label, Gift Horse, and brothers Adam and Jason Tilford, owners of Mission Taco Joint, who sell Mission’s popular line of hot sauces.
Chefs aren’t the only people developing products for market, though; in Kansas City, artisan producers Wood + Salt make finishing salts, rubs, brines and infused sugars; Kansas City Canning Co. produces small-batch preserves and jellies; and Springfield, Missouri-based Askinosie Chocolate sells cocoa powder, roasted cocoa nibs, hazelnut spread and sipping chocolate along with its award-winning chocolate. In the St. Louis area, Two Men and a Garden’s locally made salsas and pickles and Missouri Wild Edibles’ mustards are examples of artisans making use of locally grown or foraged produce to make shelf-stable goods.
Kate Banks, on the other hand, isn’t a farmer and didn’t have professional culinary experience before venturing into the food industry. She was, however, passionate about hand-crafted and well-made food products. She co-owns Vain Foods, based in Leawood, Kansas, with longtime friend and classically trained chef Charlie Hammond, and together they’ve turned a baking staple – vanilla extract – into something truly distinct and special.
In 2013, Banks’ mother bought her far too many fresh vanilla beans in a sampler pack she purchased online from Beanilla, which sources from around the world. Banks decided to use them to make extracts, which are typically made by placing vanilla beans in grain alcohol to extract flavor. After much discussion, Banks and Hammond decided to experiment with rum, bourbon and vodka as the extracts’ bases. Six months of research and development later, Vain Foods launched in November 2014 in the Kansas City area with products like Mexican vanilla bean extract in Kentucky bourbon, Tongan vanilla in cane rum, Indian vanilla in ginger vodka, as well as aptly named Coffee Drops in flavors like vanilla with Irish whiskey or vanilla with Kentucky bourbon.
Each bottle of Vain is filled by hand, using beans sourced from around the world (Banks says they still use Beanilla as a supplier) and high-quality spirits that are then cold-processed for six weeks. Vain products are currently sold at seven retailers in the Kansas City area, including The Sundry Market & Kitchen, Pryde’s Kitchen & Necessities and The Culinary Center of Kansas City, as well as through the company’s website.
“It’s something people haven’t seen before,” she says. “People will say, ‘There’s no alcohol in here, right?’ And we’ll say, ‘Well yes, and that vanilla on your shelf at home also has alcohol in it.’ But of course you’re only using a teaspoon of it, and the alcohol often cooks away.”
Because educating customers is such a huge part of selling Vain’s products, Banks and Hammond knew the labels would have to do most of the work for them.
“We wanted, from the very beginning, for our labels to convey how unique we are,” Banks says. “It tells you everything – how the vanilla is extracted, the ingredients, where the beans came from. People really do care more about where their food is coming from, and that’s always been something I was interested in with cooking – it really shrinks the world.”
Early on, Banks and Hammond spent a lot of time on logistics – trademarking the logo, applying to be an LLC, shoring up insurance for if they ever needed a commercial kitchen – which Banks believes made the process of getting into retailers more seamless. And as busy working parents with dreams of growing the business, Banks and Hammond also chose to focus on selling at retailers versus exclusively at farmers’ markets.
“Charlie and I are extroverts, and we love nothing more than talking to people in our free time,” Banks says, “but we knew that if we were ever to go regional or national, selling at farmers’ markets and shows isn’t a good long-term plan because it’s seasonal and numbers are less consistent.”
For Red Top Oven out of Buffalo, Missouri, though, selling at small farmers’ markets gave its co-owners, Jane Ford and Kathy Hubbard, the confidence to vend at the massive Farmers’ Market of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri. Eventually Red Top’s shelf-stable products were picked up by Springfield retailers including Hörrmann Meat Co. and Walnut Street Inn, as well as at restaurants in the area.
“Kathy and I started the business thinking we’d focus on our natural, low-sugar cheesecakes and fresh bakery items,” Ford says. “After the first farmers’ market in Fair Grove, Missouri, in 2013, though, we quickly realized people were more interested in our jams and preserves.”
Ford has been canning for 35 years, just like her mother, grandmother and great-aunt before her, and she grew up on a big farm with an overflowing garden, so fresh food was always a part of her life. She uses her grandmother’s techniques and recipes (though she cuts the sugar drastically and adheres to FDA guidelines) to make Red Top’s products, which now include jams – ginger-peach, strawberry-jalapeño, rhubarb-habanero and staples such as blackberry and cherry, sourced locally – along with zucchini relish, smoked chipotle salsa, sauerkraut and marinara.
Red Top has 10 federally approved products, but the process of getting them approved wasn’t easy. The first approved product was her grandmother’s zucchini relish. After passing a required online course through University of California, Davis, Ford sent the recipe and a sample to a laboratory to test for pH, water activity and other variables.
“As someone who’s been canning a long time, it’s hard because everything is so automatic at this point,” Ford says. “It’s like writing a term paper.”
Once the zucchini relish was approved by the lab, Ford sent the approval and analysis to the FDA for verification, and then, months later, Red Top was free to sell at retailers across the country. The pair is always thinking of new products that will stand out on shelves – a smoked salsa, a spicy sauerkraut with four types of local peppers – but there is a limit to what the two women can do.
“We’re both retired and getting close to – or over – 60,” Ford says with a laugh. “We sure didn’t want to do any sort of storefront – the farmers’ market serves as our storefront. Selling in retailers is necessary for if we’re traveling or need a weekend off. It’s such a movement. I had no idea starting out that going local would take off. It’s just what I grew up with.”
Ozark Forest Mushrooms, 314.531.9935, ozarkforest.com
Vain Foods, vainfoods.com
Red Top Oven, 567 Red Top Rd., Buffalo, Missouri, 417.345.8828, facebook.com/Red-Top-Oven-479546505435740