Local Companies Find Value and Vocation in Organic FoodFeb 28, 2011 ● By Carrie Jackson
While farmers’ markets and specialty stores are making locally produced and organic products more accessible, there is still a void in mainstream markets. Finding food that is also free of gluten, soy, dairy and nuts, or companies that use eco-friendly packaging and sustainable farming is even more difficult. Often those unaddressed domains can provide inspiration and motivation for people who have thought about starting their own businesses, as several local entrepreneurs have found.
After four of her five children were diagnosed with ADHD, Jill Motew of Highland Park noticed that they felt better when they avoided extra sugars and gluten. But Motew had a hard time finding exactly what she was looking for in the stores, so she experimented at home with ancient grains and gluten-free ancient whole-grain flours. Two years later, she had developed five flavors of mixes that can serve as bases for almost any bakery product, and Zema’s Madhouse Foods was born. Motew is very active on Facebook, hosts special tastings and gluten-free workshops, and sells her mixes online and at community events. “Most of my customers don’t need gluten-free, but they are sick of buying the junk, too,” Motew observes. From biscotti to quiche, the mixes serve as a blank slate. “If people want to add dairy or nuts they can, but those with allergies don’t have to worry,” she says.
Be Real Cereal also was born out of frustration. Jack Segal, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor in Highland Park, was tired of cereals created by food engineers that use chemicals and fillers such as rice and sugar and that seem to hide what’s really in them. “We’ve been conditioned by sales and marketing to turn a package around and look at the back to read the ingredients, and they put it in a box so you can’t see the actual product ,” he says. He worked for over a year to develop a cereal that was high in fiber and protein, displayed all of the ingredients on the front and, most importantly, tasted good. His cereal, which is packaged in a clear pouch, is available at Sunset Foods and several other North Shore grocery stores. “Be Real reaches out to people who are going to look at it and say, ‘Hey, that sounds really good; I’m going to try this,’” he says. “I don’t feel people should need to be scientists to understand what is good for them and what isn’t.”
While some food entrepreneurs have no real culinary background, others have privately been making their products for years and have decided to turn their passion into a vocation. Katherine Anne Duncan grew up on a sustainable Wisconsin farm and by the age of 10 was selling her own caramels, made from hormone-free, unhomogenized cream, at her father’s business. As an adult working full-time as a manager at Potbelly Sandwich Shop, she made truffles for leisure in her kitchen and gave them away as gifts, occasionally taking orders from friends. They were wildly popular, and after doing some research she realized there really weren’t any other products like them. “I started with very low-budget, basic marketing,” she says. “I brought samples to people and they loved them. I didn’t put that much money into it but it worked and was a great way to get started.” Now, Katherine Anne Confections are mixed in her own production studio, where she spends two days a week up to her elbows in candy. Her chocolates, caramels and truffles are available online, at farmers’ markets and special events, at many Whole Foods Market locations and selected coffee shops and specialty stores. Duncan acknowledges that having a background in the food industry helped her navigate many of the hurdles involved in starting her business, but noted that for someone new to the industry all of the regulations and restrictions could be challenging.
Steve Schwartz, of Wheeling, did run into some obstacles when he started Munch Upon a Time, his family’s line of gluten-free and organic fruit and nut mixes. Neither he nor his wife had backgrounds in food service or grocery channels, but he was so passionate that he quickly learned his way. “We did research on farming communities and decided we could buy the ingredients from sustainable farmers at a decent cost,” he says. “Getting the certification for food sanitation—being allowed to handle and process the foods—was one of the easiest things, and the basic business setup was simple.” Becoming USDA-certified organic, however, proved to be more difficult. With fees of more than $10,000—and an application alone of several hundred dollars—many small businesses find the process cost-prohibitive. Shultz instead lists his ingredients as “organic,” but not “certified.” He partners with smaller farms that have been approved by organic-certifying agencies, which means there are no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or chemicals used in the growing or packaging process, and he doesn’t add sugars, preservatives or sulfites. Shultz’s products are available at area farmers’ markets, online and at America’s Market in Wheeling and The Gluten-Free Store in Northbrook.
Chris Covelli, head of Tomato Mountain Farm in Brooklyn, Wisconsin, is certified as an organic farmer but it doesn’t really impress him. “Heck, I should be called conventional and the other guys should be called chemical,” he says With a background in environmental science and 18 years of farming experience, he’s had plenty of time to nurture his simple yet ambitious goal. “Having a farm that makes money, provides a good product and is socially and environmentally responsible—that’s all I need,” he says. He started selling tomatoes and other produce at farmers’ markets in Wisconsin and Illinois. Eventually he started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) delivery and introduced tomato-based soups, salsas and preserves that he sells online, at farmers’ markets in northeast Illinois and at Foodstuffs and other specialty stores. The products are gluten-free, vegan and bottled only in season. This means there are no added preservatives and Covelli has a shelf-sustainable product to sell year-round, unlike farms that have to rely on selling what is currently growing.
Finding what sets their products apart from those already on the market can be key for small businesses. Motew knew there were dozens of gluten-free mixes available, so she conducted extensive taste tests until the feedback confirmed a perfect mix of taste and texture. Duncan uses a treeless paper that is recyclable and biodegradable to box her treats. It costs a little more, but she has found that her customers are willing to pay for sustainability.
“It’s hard to get people to want to spend more money on something that’s harder to find,” says Covelli, “and we’re trying to compete with gigantic food companies.” He stays committed to quality and sustainability and tells his small staff, “If our stuff is this good, how can we fail?”
Motew has learned to ask for help and file away all the advice she receives; good or bad, it may come in handy someday. Schwartz wrote down his vision for the company before starting anything, and he goes back to it as a reminder of what they’re striving for. Although the business is still quite young, he’s starting to market more. While most small companies don’t have the funds for traditional advertising, and the best source is word of mouth, many are finding that a presence on Facebook, at charity and athletic events, and with blogs have strongly boosted sales. Most small business owners are interested in more than just the final profit, however.
Says Segal, “I can’t think of anything more fun than feeding people a food I believe will really nourish them.”
Be Real Cereal, Highland Park ; call 847-650-4594 or visit BeRealCereals.com.
Katherine Anne Confections, Logan Square; call 773-727-3248 or visit Katherine-Anne.com.
Munch Upon a Time, Wheeling; call 224-365-4304 or visit MunchUponATime.com.
Tomato Mountain Farm, N7720 Sandy Hook Road, Brooklyn, WI 53521; call 608-862-3446 or visit TomatoMountain.com.
Zema’s Madhouse Foods, Highland Park; Call 847-910-4512 or visit ZemasFoods.com.
Carrie Jackson is a freelance writer, blogger, and regular at the Evanston farmers’ markets. Visit her at www.SpeakingOfCare.blogspot.com.