Two Local Foodie Entrepreneurs - One Gluten-Free Baker, The Other Pimento Cheese Maker
There’s lots of mixing and tossing going on at Robyn Wright’s operation in Dousman, Wisconsin.
The entrepreneur moved out of her own kitchen into a 1,000 square foot square foot incubator space this past March. More recently Wright hired a small team of part-time assistants.
Her company called is kalyANa, which is Sanskrit for “well-being." At this moment, three white-jacketed, hair-netted women are putting together the ingredients for Wright’s sprouted corn bread mix.
Wright morphed from a career in financial consulting to creating her own business. She says her passion for our food system was staring her in the face - looking for an outlet.
She gravitated to her sweet spot. Wright started baking cakes from scratch at the age of nine.
She began to research ways to replace what she saw as “troubling” refined sugar and plain old flour with healthier ingredients.
“What I was concerned about was how white flour and white sugar were metabolizing,"Wright says. I thought, how can I still bake and enjoy the fruits of that without having to compromise my health."
She started experimenting with gluten-free concoctions using almond and coconut flour. “All these recipes started failing and then $15 gets thrown away because these ingredients are really expensive," Wright says. "It was so disheartening,”
Until her aha moment struck. Wright was an experienced baker; so if she was struggling to come up with tasty-healthy recipes, other people must be frustrated too. She set out to come up with a handful of foolproof recipes.
“I found test bakers around the country," Wright says. "I sent my recipe, but had them write down what did you actually put in it, because as we know, not everyone follows the directions exactly. And some people would write back ‘I substituted this for that’ they did their own thing, and I wanted to know, what do people really do."
She knew she was on the right track when she won an entrepreneur kitchen challenge hosted by Milwaukee Area Technical College and particularly revels in the impressions of one of its eight judges, who was vocal about being “anti-gluten free.” “He said not only was my product delicious, but you have to be a really good baker first to be able to be a really good gluten free baker,” Wright says.
The first product Wright took to market was her certified, organic coconut flour banana chocolate chip muffin mix. It’s her number one seller; now in a dead heat with her almond flour browned butter chocolate chip cookie mix.
Customers are apparently feeling good about Wright’s "healthly" approach – she sells to 16 stores in southeastern Wisconsin, another nine around the country, and a handful in Northern California.
Another part of Wright’s mission is to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit. Three of her six part-time employees are high school students. Usually the teams spend a few hours after school mixing ingredients and packaging items. High school student CJ Taubner says that Wright "really brought me into the organic lifestyle. I never really did it before, but it’s fun.”
Sophomore Grace Abler couldn’t be more serious when she says it’s the kind of business she can be proud to work for; not just because of its organic “eat healthy” tenants, but she believes its part of a bigger trend. “We built up to all this retail and all these bigger companies, but now people are shifting to smaller businesses, looking for different, alternative ways they can live their lives," Abler says.
Over at Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood, WUWM's Susan Bence reconnects with pimento cheese maker Martha Davis Kipcak.
Kipcak grew up consuming pimento cheese. In the south, she says it’s a condiment staple - like ketchup and mustard. She grew up eating white bread with the cheese slathered in between.
Late in 2012, Kipcak launched Mighty Fine Food, LLC and her version of pimento cheese – mild as well as a jalapeno version. She recently added Chile de Arbol – a totally different pepper she says, more like cayenne.
Her workforce has also grown - from two, counting Kipcak, to four.
Jasmine Rodriguez says she’s been with Kipcak almost since the beginning. Today, they’re preparing a big batch of jalapeno, part of the biggest order in Mighty Fine Food’s history. “We have 97 cases ordered for this week, which is the highest we’ve ever had," she says. "I think 80 are heading down to New Orleans which is a new market we just opened."
She opens can upon can of peeled, diced pimento peppers. Rodriguez says finding this version from a Tennessee producer carves hours off their production time. "We used to buy bulk cans and chopped the peppers ourselves and clean them," shw says. "But Martha found these peppers that are already chopped and they work wonders."
Forty minutes goes into prep time. Equipment is washed, Rodriquez handles the peppers, while the other worker cuts huge pieces of aged cheddar into 10 pound chunks.
Then they shred the cheese. Martha Kipcak says the quality and quantity of cheese makes her product special. "That’s something I learned from my mama around cooking," she says. "She was a fantastic cook. She always said make sure every ingredient is good. Don’t try to cheat and think you can slip some bad ingredients in there. That doesn’t mean it has to be expensive, just good – good quality to maintain that integrity.”
Kipcak says her pimento cheese is all about the cheese. “Some of them lead with mayonnaise, so they’re a lot wetter," she says. "But we’re trying to showcase Wisconsin cheese in a whole new venue."
But it’s become a more expensive proposition, thanks to changes in the cost of cheese. The price has tripled since Kipcak started her business.
Jasmine Rodriguez came up with a method to avoid waste. They used to lose up to a couple of pounds of cheese during the shredding process – it got “gummed up” in the grinder. She gathers up the odds and ends and sandwiching it between two slabs of cheese, before sending it through the grinder.
“Now all we have left is about a tennis ball worth of cheese. She takes it home to her kids and they fight over it,” Martha Kipcak says with a laugh.
Fifteen large bowls swell with grated cheese, heaps of pimento and coarsely grated cheese are added and then each is mixed by hand. Just enough to even distribute the ingredients. Then comes the jalapeno – purchased locally and pickled by the Might Fine team.
“Our product is as close to homemade as it can possibly be, that’s why it’s delicious but it also makes it challenging,” Kipcak says.
Her pimento cheese has an eight week shelf life. Early on Kipcak was encouraged to freeze it, but she wasn’t happy with the results. Her pimento cheese just didn’t taste right. So they closely time production to go out the door as quickly as possible.
Kipcak is perhaps a bit modest. In 2013, her pimento cheese took two ribbons at the American Cheese Society competition – first place for her pimento and second for the jalapenos version. Kipcak was ranked among the 2013 Women of Influence in recognition of her role as food organizer, networker and promoter.
But launching and surviving as a start-up business, she says, is daunting. Kipcak says aspiring entrepreneurs tap her for advice, “and I always ask them early on – do you have a support system, do you eat right, do you get enough sleep, do you get exercise? Because you really need to get to the healthiest place possible in order to navigate all you need to do.”
The company’s packages promise “Wisconsin Artisan Cheese – Authentic Southern Taste.” But Kipcak is coy about what the future size and scope of Mighty Fine Foods might be. “I would like to be able to still be able to call myself an artisan business, because I like high-touch food," she says. "I sincerely think it makes a difference when you have a food that is touched a lot – with gloves. I will constantly be reevaluating.”
She does have immediate and long-term goals. Kipcak is keeping up with the payments on the small $9,500 start up loan she received, along with insurance and workman’s comp, and paying her part-time employees. She has not yet paid herself anything; she’s hoping that changes in 2015.
She’s also exploring a gradual transition to an employee-owned company. “After giving it a lot of thought about what would be the most responsible model, I like that model," Kipcak says. "I like the buy in and more people sharing the profit.”
Kipcak also has visions of spearheading an urban cheese collective through which individual businesses would help promote one another. A marketing consultant might call that a “mighty fine” idea.