Going into the “food entrepreneur” business can be risky: You’re putting your palate, time, and creativity on the line. We talked to three local entrepreneurs with dreams of making it big with their food products.
Lee Zwiefelhofer and Chad Gillard, l.c. finn’s extracts
A beer-fueled conversation in 2009 gave Chad Gillard (above, left) and Lee Zwiefelhofer (above, right) the idea to start making and selling homemade extracts. The two St. Anthony neighbors were talking about the products available at local farmers markets and what kind of products they could come up with to fill an unserved niche.
Not long after that, they came across a recipe for making homemade vanilla extract. Zwiefelhofer recalls, “I just bought some vanilla beans, threw in some alcohol, and let it sit.”
The two were inspired to keep going after that first batch. “If [Lee] could come up with the formula, I’ll be able to sell this,” Gillard recalls thinking. As one of the founders of Aunt Else’s Æbleskivers, Gillard had the marketing experience to get the product out into the public eye. That left Zwiefelhofer, a photojournalist at KSTP-TV (full disclosure: he’s also my co-worker), to try and nail down the perfect formula.
Because extracts are highly regulated, they had to have a specific vanilla bean-to-vodka ratio. They also started trying other ingredients. Soon, they had three recipes ready to go to market: a vanilla extract, a cinnamon extract, and a cardamom extract. They officially launched l.c. finn’s extracts in 2010.
The guys make the extracts in small batches. A batch of vanilla extract takes 30 days to create. The cinnamon takes the longest (six weeks) while the cardamom takes the shortest (four days). They pride themselves on using as many local ingredients as possible. They don’t put additives, sugar, or water in their extracts. “We want it to be local, we want it to be pure, we want it to be about the flavor,” says Gillard.
Right now, the cardamom extract is their biggest seller. Zwiefelhofer and Gillard will soon have an anise extract ready to sell in stores and on their website. They’re also working on a few other flavors, including a pecan, an almond, and a chocolate extract. By the end of the year, they hope to have three more extracts to add to their lineup.
“If we can keep finding the niche [extracts]…I think that’s what will set us apart,” Gillard says.
And they want to be good community stewards, too. Using some of the l.c. finn proceeds, Zwiefelhofer and Gillard plan to create a scholarship to help someone attend Kindred Kitchen, a training program in north Minneapolis that helps food entrepreneurs start their own businesses.
Where to get it: $7.49 a bottle online at www.lcfinns.com, Golden Fig in St. Paul, Local D’Lish in Minneapolis, Byerly’s Culinary Shop in St. Louis Park, Annona Gourmet in St. Anthony, Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls.
Donna Cavanaugh and Bonnie Alton, A Gourmet Thyme Too
This year, Donna Cavanaugh (above, right) will celebrate 20 years since launching her catering company, A Gourmet Thyme. She says her focus on high-end, gourmet food for home-based dinners and parties has caught on, earning her a loyal following without any advertising. Her menus consist of everything from open-faced tenderloin sandwiches and grilled shrimp to spiced beef skewers and elegantly displayed cheese platters. “The flavor is important, but how it looks is just as important,” she says.
Over the years, Cavanaugh developed more recipes, including a cayenne-flavored shortbread (to use as an hors d’oeuvres base) and a brownie. Her clients loved them so much, they suggested she sell them as a side business. She first took that idea up three or four years ago, renting out kitchen space to bake shortbreads and brownies, and selling them at Coastal Seafoods in St. Paul.
About 18 months into her new venture, Cavanaugh stopped. “It just got to be too much between the baking and the catering,” she explains, “so I stopped the baking.” But people were constantly asking Cavanaugh where they could get her brownies and shortbreads.
In February 2011, Cavanaugh met Bonnie Alton (left, two photos up), the owner of Great Harvest Bread Company on Selby Avenue in St. Paul. The two set up a meeting and struck up a partnership now known as A Gourmet Thyme Too. Alton works on baking and packaging the shortbreads, while both of them work on marketing and distributing the product to local food stores. Since summer, they’ve also added some new recipes to their lineup, including a pistachio shortbread, a cocoa shortbread, and savory-spiced walnuts.
The shortbreads and walnuts can now be found in Kowalski’s Markets and several local food stores around the Twin Cities. And Cavanaugh has plans to expand their selection in 2012. “We’re looking to do something for Easter / Mother’s Day, then maybe move into something that’s more fall-like,” she says.
A website to sell A Gourmet Thyme Too products should also be ready to go before the end of winter. Cavanaugh is using Facebook to communicate with customers and share new recipe ideas. Plans are also in the works to have a booth at the Food & Wine Experience in March.
So far, Cavanaugh is thrilled with the results and feedback from customers. “We like to think that we’re just a little bit unusual without being too peculiar and weird,” she says. “It’s been a good fit.”
Where to get it: Kowalski’s Markets, Golden Fig, Local D’Lish, Coastal Seafoods in St. Paul, Great Harvest Bread Company in St. Paul, Gourmet Oil & Vinegar in St. Louis Park, Fleurish in Wayzata (around $7 a package).
Lori Turner, Elle-Tee & The Kitchen
Say the word “cheese” and Lori Turner’s face instantly lights up. Her love for cheese turned into a job as a cheesemonger at Kowalski’s Markets about four years ago. “When people walk up to an imported cheese case, they’re immediately overwhelmed,” she explains.
As she would suggest types of cheeses for a customer to try, Turner discovered many customers did not like certain kinds: blue cheese was “too strong” or goat cheese was “too tangy,” as she puts it.
Turner (above, second from right) was inspired to make a torta-style product (cheese flavored with other ingredients) after a Wisconsin-made one, sold at Kowalski’s, was discontinued. She incorporated ingredients such as garlic, olives, and herbs, into the cheese. “We did have to put ‘training wheels’ on some of these cheeses,” she says. “It dresses up the cheese so people get over that scary hump of having a bite of cheese and having it be too strong.” Thus, Elle-Tee & The Kitchen’s line of cheese tortas was born.
Three years into the venture, Turner now has five cheese tortas in her lineup: a blue cheese torta with date jam and roasted hazelnuts; a goat cheese torta with peppadew peppers, roasted garlic, and black olives; a feta cheese torta with an apple curry chutney; a cheddar cheese torta with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts; and a dessert-style ricotta cheese torta with Austrian rum-chocolate ganache and orange. In addition to the tortas, she has added almond florentine crackers and coconut macaroons to her product line.
But Turner’s not the only one involved this food venture — her whole family helps out. Her two children, Lydia and Jack (far left and center left, two photos up), and her husband, Brian “B.T.” Turner (deejay at Cities 97, far right, two photos up), regularly lend a hand, from making and packaging the tortas in a kitchen space in Crystal to marketing and distributing them to new customers.
Turner has demonstrated her product at Kowalski’s, Golden Fig, and various food shows such as the Food & Wine Experience. She also has featured them on local television shows. This year, she hopes to sell the tortas at some local farmers markets, including Mill City and the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.
Turner has some other big goals for 2012, including expanding her product line. “I always want to stay a little bit fresh and keep motivating myself to come up with new ideas,” she says. She also wants to create more crackers and cookies. “[Ideally,] I want to make crackers to go with all the different tortas.”
And Turner is excited to publish more ways to use the tortas on her website. “People have been coming up with awesome recipes,” she says. “That just brings a whole new mindset to the game.”
Where to get it: Kowalski’s Markets, Golden Fig, online at www.elle-tee.com (around $11 a package).