Lori Karis knows good food and knows babies, so it wasn’t a stretch for her to combine her two passions and create Sweet Cheeks organic baby food. Only one year ago, she began selling vegetable and fruit purees at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, and now she’s gearing up for another season of early weekend mornings with her ice-cream cart containing 300 bags of Newbies, Combos, Baby ‘roles, and Sweet Sneaks. Karis, a Wisconsin native currently living in St. Paul, still has her day job as a nanny and spends evenings and weekends cooking up hundreds of pounds of locally grown produce. She took a break from the kitchen recently to speak with the Heavy Table.
You began making baby food as a nanny, correct?
I’ve been a nanny for 24 years and am still, actually. So I’ve always made my own baby food for each baby I’ve taken care of, and the last family that I worked for had twins. They were the first family that I worked for that ate similarly to the way I do. They threw all these organic and local products at me and said: ‘Make whatever you want to — we’re open.’ And because of the twins, I learned a lot about making different quantities and sizes.
When you first started experimenting, were there some universal baby food truths you discovered?
I’ve always researched everything I’ve done with kids, whether it’s activities or physical development or social development. So I became pretty well dialed into the foods that were simply and easily digested, non-allergenic, and the healthiest. That’s why for my Newbies I only use butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and apples. I don’t believe that they need more than that. I’ve also learned and agree with pediatricians that say for the first year of life, the majority of nutrition should come from breastmilk or formula, so to me, the food should just be a supplement. So I do smaller portions as a result of that. Giving them too much food throws off the balance of fats and other vitamins and minerals, and development can suffer if you mess with it too much.
How did you take the recipes from the food you created for that family to Sweet Cheeks?
I just came up with the things that I thought were simple and easy and also tasty. I don’t use any fats or oils or seasonings, and I think the foods complement each other. The biggest thing that I developed with the twins I took care of was, they wouldn’t eat pasta, and they went through phases where they eat everything in sight and then they don’t eat anything, and it drove me crazy! So one day I happened to bring for my lunch butternut bisque soup made at home and I stirred brown rice into it, and I shared it with them and they went crazy over it.
So I thought I can take that same base and just convert it and freeze it in muffin tins so that it was the right portion size, and that’s what they learned to feed themselves on. They liked the flavor of it, they liked the grains. In hindsight they’re probably weren’t my best guinea pigs because they really did eat anything else, but it turns out that everyone really likes that kind of food. It’s just the comfort flavors – it’s not over-the-top flavor but enough flavor so that you feel like you’re eating something good. I knew they were getting a grain and a vegetable and I felt better.
When did you get the idea that this could be taken out of your own kitchen and it could be a business?
That family [with the twins] was really encouraging, and they would say that they tasted it to make sure the temperature was right and it was really good. All it is is pure food, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t taste good. They said: ‘You know, you really should market this’ and right away I said there’s no way I could, it’s just too daunting, it’s too much responsibility, too much liability.
I took probably six months solid of really researching, trying to find out Minnesota laws and where I would have to prepare it, and would it be cost-effective. When I came up with the idea of selling it at farmers markets and then was accepted at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, it seemed that everything else fell into place. I’m licensed through the state Department of Agriculture and I cook in a commercial kitchen in West St. Paul that a kind woman rents to me at a really reasonable price.
But everything is still made in small batches by hand, by me, and I hope to continue that. Initially, I guess I didn’t know enough about food production really well and I’ve been able to keep up with it. I had thought I might grow to more of a manufacturing plant or process, but I think that people really appreciate that it’s small-batch made, and I don’t know why I couldn’t just grow it to a bigger kitchen with employees who could make the food to my standards.
What was the reaction when you first started selling Sweet Cheeks at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market?
Unbelievable! People were really so excited about it, and a lot of them would come and say, ‘I did that for my kids’ or ‘I don’t have any babies, but I’m so happy you’re doing this.’ People were really supportive, so how could I not keep going?
How did Sweet Cheeks expand from the St. Paul Farmers’ Market?
I started selling there last summer, and by January I was in six local co-ops. So when you asked how well-received the food was, everyone thought I was around longer than I was. That was a big compliment. I am going to be at Mill City Farmers Market, too, this summer one Saturday per month. I will start there May 9, for sure. I met with Lunds, but it has not said it will take it for sure. I had different packaging before and I actually improved my packaging after meeting with Lunds, so I’m hopeful it will take it. I had met with Kowalski’s and it passed on it, but I’m always open to it changing its mind if it chooses to. I would love to keep the distribution local. I’d rather look at franchising rather than national distribution. Ideally, I’d like to sell a franchise and help someone set up and find a good place to launch locally like a farmers market and to find whatever food that grows in that area that would also be baby-friendly.
So you source your fruits and vegetables not only organically, but locally as well?
I work with a small family farmer [Old Orchard Farm] out of Northfield. In fact, I just met with [farmer] Carolyn Joyce on Saturday and she’s going to be growing exclusively for me this year and by the end of the summer she’ll have a root cellar for me. And I’m going to keep all my food scraps and give them back to her for her pigs, so it’ll be full circle and I’m really excited about that. She’s great — I just give her a list of the quantities that I’ve been using and she has the acreage to grow what I need. She also has pear trees and blueberries, but I have back-ups if the fruit doesn’t grow. The apples I get from Hoch Orchards in La Crescent, MN. And in the off-season, I work with the Mississippi Market produce department — they’ve been amazing.
Where do you see the future of Sweet Cheeks?
Introducing the Sweet Sneaks purees is my first step at growth, and that’s been really well-received. I’ve been selling it online — it’s not in any stores yet — but it should be available in stores within the next month. To be carried by a store like Lunds and have it really well distributed throughout the metro would be fabulous. And then, like I said, to start franchising in other parts of the country would be really cool, too. It’s hard to say, I don’t want to jinx anything! I really do want to stay on top of things. I don’t want it to grow so quickly that I lose the integrity of my product. It’s really important to me to have that quality and to have it fresh and as nutritious as I can.
What advice do you have for parents who are dealing with picky eaters?
Find the food that they like and that’s the healthiest and just keeping making it. To me, it just doesn’t seem worth the battle when ultimately you just want them to have a full tummy and food that’s good and healthy. And buy Sweet Sneaks and sneak them into spaghetti sauce and macaroni and cheese!
Sweet Cheeks Baby Food costs $2-3/package and is available via home delivery in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for an additional charge. Visit the Sweet Cheeks website for a full list of products, retailers, and events where Karis will be selling.