Kansas City’s largely industrial East Bottoms neighborhood is the definition of tucked away. Flanked on one side by heavily trafficked railroad lines and on the other by a bluff that juts 200 feet up to the city’s Historic Northeast, only 360 residents live inside its 2.6 square miles. What the East Bottoms lacks in population, though, it makes up for with a handful of popular local businesses, including Local Pig, Pigwich and J. Rieger & Co. distillery. The newest addition to the neighborhood is Kansas City Canning Co., owned by Laura and Tim Tuohy.
The Tuohys’ production facility is located inside what is instantly recognizable as a former Town Topic diner, another local favorite. (Fittingly, it also happens to be just four short blocks from the long-shuttered, turn-of-the-century Speas Vinegar Co. plant.) It’s a small and stout structure made of red brick and glass, topped with the curvy silhouette of the iconic Town Topic sign, although the neon is long gone.
The interior also still resembles a diner, but you won’t find burgers sizzling on a griddle: The counter is now topped with polished granite and, at times, empty glass bottles. The kitchen has been outfitted with modern equipment, including a commercial gas range, a proofer and a tilt skillet – a large, rectangular kettle with a hinged lid.
On a recent visit, Tim attends to the tilt skillet: With the lid propped open, he stirs a very fragrant, pale yellow mixture of Meyer lemon purée, lavender, white balsamic vinegar and sugar that he keeps at a steady high temperature. The mixture is perfuming the air with citrus and the sharp scent of vinegar. He’s finishing a batch of Kansas City Canning Co.’s signature Meyer Lemon-Lavender Shrub. As he works on one side of the kitchen, his wife and co-owner, Laura, fills custom mail orders at the counter.
Tim allows the mixture to cook to 185°F to fully develop its flavor and adhere to Food and Drug Administration safety standards. The Tuohys must be exacting about pH levels to prevent harmful bacteria from growing in their products, and they cook each mixture at a high enough temperature to both kill bacteria and preserve the contents to ensure everything is shelf-stable.
After about 10 minutes, Tim pours the tilt skillet’s contents through a strainer into a brew kettle. The brew kettle is a large, open-topped cylinder with a spigot near the bottom – sort of the stainless steel version of a big orange Gatorade dispenser. As he pours the mixture into the kettle, the vinegar in the air is enough to make your eyes burn. Tim attaches a rubber tube to the spigot and begins filling Kansas City Canning Co.’s signature rounded-top bottles with the shrub.
The company’s shrubs have quickly become one of its most popular items, although they were added to the lineup almost on a whim: When a spiced-pear butter failed to properly set, the couple transformed the resulting mixture into a shrub.
“From there, we realized that shrubs were fun – way fun,” Laura says with a laugh. The company now produces shrubs in five flavors: Watermelon-Habanero, Apple-Caraway, Blood Orange-Ginger, Smoked Spiced Pear and the Meyer Lemon-Lavender.
On another day, Tim might be making preserves or pickles. To make pickled products like their popular Pickled Balsamic Grapes, the Tuohys use acidification, one of two ways to pickle food. Acidification involves adding an acetic acid, such as vinegar, to reduce the pH level of produce, preserving it. Acidified produce is then placed into jars and sealed airtight.
The other method for making pickles is through fermentation: Ingredients are soaked in a salt brine, allowing good bacteria to naturally create acid inside the jar. Soon – and for the first time – Kansas City Canning Co. will begin making fermented products, including a Fermented Missouri Black Garlic Paste.
Tim and Laura were raised in different cities – she’s from Leawood, Kansas, and he hails from Old Bridge, New Jersey – but they bonded over a mutual love of canning and preserving foods. “Growing up, I canned with my grandma on her farm, and Tim grew up making Sunday sauce and canning tomatoes,” Laura says. “My grandma would let us light off fireworks if we canned all of the tomatoes.”
Laura met Tim while the two were both living in New York City. He attended the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, and the couple eventually moved into an apartment together in Astoria, Queens. Their backyard included a large sour cherry tree, and soon, the couple began harvesting cherries.
“Tim was so zen about it,” Laura says. “I’d come home from work, and he’d be out there picking. It’s so rare in New York to find a tree that bears fruit that you’d be comfortable eating. We made everything… shrubs, we made pie filling for days. We didn’t even have a pitter – our hands were raw and stained red.”
In 2012, the couple made the move to Kansas City: Laura took a job at The University of Kansas (KU), and Tim began working as a chef at the hospitality group Beer KC, which owns Beer Kitchen, The Foundry and McCoy’s Public House. Two years after moving to the Midwest, the Tuohys got married, bought a house and founded a company.
“We made our Clementine-Thyme Marmalade for the wedding,” Laura says. “And Jill [Myers] from Moxie Catering also used it to make us a Bourbon Smash. It was a really boozy cocktail, but people couldn’t really taste the alcohol. We also gave out little jars as favors. People were like, ‘You should sell this.’”
Within seven months, Kansas City Canning Co. was officially in business, offering its first four products: Pickled Balsamic Grapes, Clementine-Thyme Marmalade, Ancho-Date Butter and 7-Pepper Jelly.
Several local shops, including The Sundry, Westside Storey and Urban Provisions immediately began stocking Kansas City Canning Co.’s goods. The Tuohys also began filling orders from the company’s website. “We were blown away by the reception,” Laura says.
The Tuohys waited to release pickles and other pickled products until spring 2015, when they could meet local farmers and source fresh and seasonal produce. Today the couple sources fruits and vegetables from local organizations such as BoysGrow, Cultivate Kansas City, New Roots for Refugees, Kansas City Food Circle and Powell Gardens (Kansas City’s botanical garden), each of which strives in different ways to connect urban residents with farming. In the case of BoysGrow, the Tuohys can select their own seeds for the crops they want to yield.
“Going out to the farms is such a privilege,” Laura says. “We’ll go out to Juniper [Gardens Training Farm, home of New Roots for Refugees], and the farmers will pull something out of the ground, brush the dirt off of it and ask you to taste it. It’s exciting to be a small part of what is driving our agricultural system.”
The Tuohys choose produce based on what’s in season and available. In the summer, that includes green beans (used to make their tangy Sriracha-Pickled Green Beans) or green and blush tomatoes for their Pickled Green Tomatoes and Half-Ripe Tomato Relish.
The couple also tries to work with farmers who need to unload excess or seemingly unsellable produce – bruised tomatoes or oddly shaped cucumbers, for example.
“We take green [tomatoes] at the end of harvest that won’t ripen,” Laura says, referring to the core component of their pickled green tomatoes. “And the Half-Ripe Tomato Relish is from the blush tomatoes that we can’t pickle.”
Local produce is only part of what makes the company’s products so special: The other component is the couple’s creative flavors – surely a big reason why their goods fly off store shelves.
“Both of us lean toward bold [flavor] combinations – we like people to find unexpected elements in something familiar, but not so much that we blunt the natural notes of whatever produce we’re using,” Laura says.
“We chose the pairing in our Sriracha-Pickled Green Beans based on the idea that green beans have a great ability to stay super crisp when pickled – their mellowness can foil the complex intensity of the spice and heavy salt brine so well. We wanted them to be a pickle equivalent of a potato chip: salty and addictive.”
Tim agrees, adding that the couple labored over the recipe for their Cucumber Dilly Pickles, their take on classic dill pickles.
“We want things to be delicious, and another important thing is that there is a nostalgia factor to it,” Tim says. “I probably did more test batches of those [Dilly] pickles than anything else. It takes a while to get the texture right.”
In January, to the Tuohys’ great surprise, Kansas City Canning Co.’s Apple-Caraway Shrub was named a 2016 Good Food Awards winner in the spirits category. Such recognition would be impressive for any new company, but it’s especially significant given the stiff competition from across the country. (The company’s 7-Pepper Jelly was a finalist in the preserves category, as well.)
“When we were in San Francisco, they announced ‘from Missouri,’ and we were like, ‘Who else is from Missouri?’” Laura says. “And they said we won, and it was crazy! That has given us a great network of people to meet and collaborate with.”
In the nearly two years since Kansas City Canning Co. launched, its product line has expanded from four offerings to 16, featuring six types of pickles; five varieties of spreads and preserves, including 7-Pepper Jelly, Ancho-Date Butter, Vanilla-Bourbon-Peach Preserves and Rosemary-Fig Spread; plus its five flavored shrubs.
The products are also gaining the attention of notable chefs and industry experts across the country. While at the Good Food Awards, the buyer for Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern tried a few of Kansas City Canning Co.’s shrubs. Laura and Tim sent the buyer a few more samples, and not long after, she reached out to say that Zimmern liked them so much he wanted to sell two of the flavors (Watermelon-Habanero and Blood Orange-Ginger) on his website.
Kansas City Canning Co. plans to release more products this fall, including a Pickled Bloody Mary Mix, Charred and Pickled Shishito Peppers, and three items the Tuohys are particularly excited about: spicy Pickled Mini Gherkins Laura has dubbed “Lil Wollops,” a Beet-Tarragon Shrub and the Fermented Missouri Black Garlic Paste, which Tim is eager to make using the company’s new proofer.
The Tuohys still look for inspiration locally – and not just at farmers’ markets.
“At Powell Gardens they grow something called roselle,” Laura says. “When you dry it, it’s beautiful and pink and citrusy. We’re going to make a tamarind-roselle shrub out of that. We want to highlight the amount of beautiful produce being grown in our state.”
Kansas City Canning Co. products are now available in 25 stores across the country and grace the pages of a dozen menus across the Kansas City area, including Plate, Julep, Tom’s Town Distilling Co. and Green Dirt Farm Creamery.
The company has become an almost full-time job for Tim, who consults on the side – most notably for the menu at Tom’s Town Distilling Co. – while Laura now works in the health clinic at Cerner.
At the end of the day, Laura says she and Tim love creating food that brings people together – and the couple’s products do just that: shrubs for mixing into cocktails and snacks for sharing with friends and family.
“Tim and I believe in the opportunity food has to create and facilitate memories for people,” Laura says. “We love being a small part of someone’s experience.”
Kansas City Canning Co., kansascitycanningco.com