Monday, December 27, 2010

There’s No Crying In Baseball (Jumping in on the End of Year Wrap-Ups)

Photo by Allison Jones

The past year has been frightening enlightening, and while we reached for our goals (like some below), it was tough not to get sidelined by every hurdle, sand storm and trial by fire this tough economy has thrown at us. In many ways, it’s made me a far better manager and (I think) stronger business owner, while reminding myself if running a business was easy, everyone would be doing it.

So, how did we match up to my goals for 2010? My philosophy with the goals to make some progression large or small, keeping our momentum moving forward.
Here’s a brief recap of a few of them:

Gluten-Free Tarts: Soft launching and test marketing a gluten-free line of tarts. From past posts you can tell we spent time (lots of time), working out our gluten-free crust. The response has been highly positive - to the point of a few emails from fans crankily succinctly requesting we add them to our online store. Working out how support a larger scale production of them (which includes investing in some additional equipment) will be part of 2011.

Expanding our Social Media: I’m social! I really am, if you were sitting next to me in a bar, on a plane or in the stall next to us at a farmer’s market, would you hear an ear-full about all sorts of things. Just starting this blog was a huge step. I like the tweet and try not to over load anyone who likes us on Facebook. I aim to tell you more about our company culture, what we are working towards and what I like/dislike. A content plan is something to aspire to, until then, I’m shooting off the cuff.

Growing our Distribution/Sales Region: The year was about loss and gain. We lost some of our smaller coffee house clients but in turn upped our sales and distribution a bit to larger clients (I’m not going to say our sales wildly grew, however I see a chance at a turning point in making gains). We’re dipping our toe into the Seattle market (w/PCC Natural Foods) and we’ll see where this takes us. 

As the year wraps up, I’m pretty grateful that I was able to keep us floating through. More than a few of my peers can’t say the same, and while there’s no crying in baseball, every small business owner has some emotional attachment to the thing they’ve built and some days, just opening the door and turning the lights on is the largest (and most satisfying) goal achievement.

2011 goals are rattling around and being vetted, then we’ll be social. Really!

Oh, and a friendly elf promised me a new phone soon, so with a better camera you might actually get some decent pics to peruse. Progress, eh?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Figlet Made Me Do It (or What We’ve Been Occupied With)

Holy carp have the holidays landed on us like frozen turkeys falling from the sky and I can’t say I’m complaining (well, my feet might be a bit more tired and there’s certainly less laundry getting done at home, but who really complains about not doing laundry?).

I haven’t abandoned you, my few readers, but the coming weeks will be a bit content scarce as we truck ahead on our projects, like making pies (Pecan, Vegan Pumpkin, Apple Cranberry) for New Seasons Markets.

The photo above is one of the specialty items we’re “trying out” with them. This one is a fig tartlet (smaller format than our regular tarts), with our vegan crust and a spiced fig filling. At the sampling I did back in September, one person remarked that it “tasted like Christmas”. Hopefully customers will enjoy them enough at Thanksgiving we’ll have them through December. It is a little product trial by fire, but I am thankful to have a supportive client that is willing to take a risk.

Upcoming things I’m thinking about (when not scaling pecans or corn syrup in my sleep):
-       Website revamping (or at least updating)
-       Review of goals from the past year (I’m sure I wrote them down somewhere)
-       Goals for the coming year
-       List of cleaning projects around our kitchen (see top parens)
-       A better camera… maybe… someday

So bear with us as single handedly split our kitchen into sweet & savory, which I’ll recap once I unglue my fingers from the sugar and cranberries (and our regular tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms…)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Am (Not) Public Speaking Goddess… New Seasons Market Hawthorne Store Opening

A few weeks ago I received a call from one of New Season’s marketing staff asking if I’d be willing to say a few words at their new Hawthorne store grand opening. New Seasons is a very supportive (and large) client of ours, so of course I would want to participate in their grand opening in some fashion. In my mind I assumed there would be a few of local companies invited to speak…no, I was the only one (the other speaker outside of Lisa Sedlar the CEO was from FISH a local food bank partner).

While you might be thinking “eh, what’s the big deal, it’s just a grocery store”, the fact that I/LPPCo. (one of many possible local vendors) was asked to be part of the event, speaks volumes about the importance of building great relationships with your clients. And really, I was excited and thrilled to be able to support such a great client back.

Many of you following along outside Portland (and some that weren’t able to attend), ask for some pictures and wanted to know what I said. Below is the excerpt, in which I tried not to bumble and stumble through - along with a few pic’s.

Photo by Jill Oppenheim
When Lisa was introducing Little Pots & Pans Co. & myself, she touched upon why I don't call our tarts pasties (pah-sties). Perhaps she read our blog post. Below she's standing on a step-stool to project over the crowd (and is not actually 7ft tall!).

Photo by Jill Oppenheim
Here's the text of what I said:
Good Morning, What an exciting day to be part of the New Season’s community!

The Daily Grind, who was formerly here, holds a special place in our company history as they were one of LPPCo.’s first clients. When New Season’s announced they were taking over this area for their next store, I knew it would be an opportunity to come full circle in offering the community a local grocery store filled with unmatchable local products.

It’s only been a couple of years that we’ve had the opportunity to work along side the talented team at New Seasons Markets who are consistently remarkable in their support of locally produced sustainable products and are truly interested in building relationships with their vendors.

My own relationship created the opportunity for Little Pots & Pans Co. to produce custom holiday themed fruit tarts and pies, adding to New Season’s already enticing offerings.

Today is an exciting day for us at LPPCo., not only am I thrilled to be here as part of the New Season’s Markets Hawthorne small vendor family, we are also celebrating our own 5th year anniversary this week as a company.

I look forward to growing my relationship with the New Seasons Hawthorne team members and wish them all the success they deserve in this fantastic new location!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby. Five Lessons I’ve Learned in the Past Five Years.

As we progress as a company, everyday I learn something new in running Little Pots & Pans Co. While most days, I feel like that old cigarette ad “you’ve come a long way, baby”, it hasn’t been without learning a few lessons along the way.

Sometimes these lessons come gracefully and sometimes they drop on you like the anvil in an old cartoon scenario (Beep! Beep!). The best you can do is absorb the knowledge, take it in stride and keep moving forward. Below is a selection of five, which, um, struck me.

Business is not predictable.
Really, if the past 18 –24 months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. We’ve seen sales rise with some clients only to loose others along the way. It’s not always an even one to one, and just because you’re on an upward trend doesn’t mean there won’t (or can’t) be a dip.

There will be snap decisions, go with your gut.
We are still small, and moving fast. Opportunities, ideas, recommendations present themselves and can’t always wait for analysis, review and/or discussion. Trust that you’re making the right decision. You know your vision and your company best.

You can never have enough cash.
I could have five times the cash banked in our company bank accounts and I’d want more. There’s always an expenditure lurking on the horizon. Equipment breaks, you need more inventory/equipment/employees to increase sales. Unfortunately, item #1 has a direct effect on what can be in the bank at any given time.

HR is it’s own special entity. 
I’ve come to appreciate people in the past who uphold a company’s policy, screen candidates, deal with hiring and firing (and all the associated paperwork). It becomes necessary at a certain point and I’ll take it as a sign we are growing.

Embrace risk.
You can’t run a business without embracing a certain amount of risk. Everyday presents a challenge and if you’re not able to take some leaps of faith with your risk to gain ground or reach for a business success, you’re not the right person to run it. (This is not to say I don’t lose sleep some nights agonizing over said leaps of faith).

I’ve certainly grown a lot in the past five years with the company, and while we’ve come a long way, I quite expect, we still have a long ways to go. I’m already working on the next post of five things… 

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Possibilities of a Monday Morning

One of the tasks during Fridays in our kitchen, as I’ve mentioned before, is to scrub down and organize for the coming week.

Walking into kitchen on Monday mornings, before anyone has arrived, when it’s quiet and still gives me an opportunity to envision the coming week and it’s possibilities. Soon the counters will be cluttered with all the things that make our day go and the clatter of dishes along with the roaring of ovens have us moving quickly through our end tasks.

But until then, it’s mine to fill with thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Recipe Outgrew the Apron. Reflections from the Past 5 Years.

Our first recipe book.

When I launched Little Pots & Pans Co. 5 years ago, I started small, dipping our toes into the product development side of the grocery business. Testing out assumptions I had made about tart product varieties and pricing, and watching our (then clients their customers reactions to us.

I began working by myself in a rented kitchen at night. (Insert your Jewish yenta/Italian grandmother here – oye! It was dark! oye! It was a lot of work! oye! You never called/wrote/came to visit!) But then one day I realized perhaps I could afford a little help. Someone to come in and help with production, making the nights smoother and less lonely.

Prior to beginning to sell our tarts, much of my recipe development took place between my home kitchen and the commercial kitchen I was renting. At home, I have one taste-tester, in the kitchen there were at least 4-5 other companies working at any time that I could call upon to proffer input. (Don’t get me started on the um, challenges of trying to work in an over crowded kitchen with everyone clamoring to use the same equipment for their production and still only put in a 7 hour night).

Both were a big help in finalizing our original set of recipes, but as it still just me working, my notes were sort of my own. Some modifications got written down, some didn’t, I knew what each one was, and how each filling should taste. It wasn’t much different than holding up your grandmother’s apron and reverse engineering her recipe for brownies (or red sauce) from it.

The first person I ever had help out in the kitchen, showed up on the first night, ready to go. I pointed her to where the knives and a cutting board were and what she would be making. Her first question… “Is there a recipe for this somewhere?”

I still have a penchant for jotting recipes down on paper, with notes and revisions (some things get typed, some don’t). But I do keep some plastic shelves around to drop them into so at least their staying power has a fighting chance while I fight for time to properly type them up. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Tart and a Toaster Walk Into A Grocery Store… (Tales from Tart Sampling)

At some point prior to starting Little Pots & Pans Co., I must have been sitting on my couch thinking… ‘You know, these 48 hours in between Friday and Monday are really too much, there must be something I can do with all this time’. Now I find myself spending many Saturdays traveling around to our customers promoting our tarts and handing out samples.

One of the best ways to get people to try your product is to hand out samples. There are several ways to do this – provide extra product to your client for them to give out, hire a professional (and supply them with product) to do in store sampling, or do it yourself.

The upside to being on site is that no one knows your product better than you, and it’s easy to let your passion and enthusiasm show. The reality side is that sometimes your own experience ends up seeming like a rendition of one of those home video shows.

People love trying free samples, to many it’s a veritable buffet, some stop and are truly interested and others avoid the table like you were going to demand something untowards from them. For the people who stop and try our samples, I’m just happy to get them tasting as I do see it generating interest.

I get all sorts of questions and comments, most very encouraging and positive but some that just have you wondering. Some of that fall on that side include:
“ This would be great with some cheese” (the sampler selected the only vegan sample on the table)
“I’m dieting, I really shouldn’t” (sampler ate multiples of all flavors on the table)
“There’s no flour in this, right?” (After asking what the crust was made of)
“What are the blue speckles in the crust?” (We add black pepper to our vegan dough)

The odd questions help shape how we talk about our tarts, what we should be saying (or perhaps not). And, since my weekend is less than 48 hours, at least there’s a chance of some humor to it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Reindeer Were Schvitzing (or, Holiday Recipe Testing in the Dog Days of Summer)

Much like the fashion industry, many food companies plan ahead for their seasonal offerings. While my friends in the fashion world are figuring out what’s going to be hot in Spring 2011, we’re (literally) getting hot over recipe ideas for our holiday 2010 projects.

In the past couple of years, we’ve been creating holiday specific products for a well loved grocery store chain in town. Until the plans are set (and the favorites chosen), I can’t spill the apples beans too much about the project.

We’ve been spending the past couple of weeks revising recipes from last season as well as working out and refining some new ideas, and if my staff isn’t tired to eating apples and cranberries in 90 degree heat, they will be. (Either that or I will have gotten clobbered with a rolling pin before the next test batch makes it out of the oven).

There are always challenges when thinking about what customers will be interested in eating/purchasing in the coming months. As someone who struggles to meal plan for the week ahead, it’s tough to imagine what I’m going to be eating in October. So we use our best guess, a bit of creativity, sales data from the prior year and put some ideas out there.

Additionally, we find ourselves work out recipes sometimes with less than seasonal (or local) ingredients to get to our decisions. It’s definitely not apple season yet here in Oregon, but I needed a couple of fresh (erm not frozen) ones and was grateful I could find them, even if they were from last year’s crop.

At the end of the day, it’s also a good team building and learning experience. Everyone has a different palate and likes & dislikes. I try to give everyone a chance to input their ideas and feedback and I enjoy watching the process evolve to arrive our final recipes. Obviously not every idea is marketable, but it gets us thinking about the various elements of a recipe.
Besides having an opportunity to contribute, if there’s a chance we’re going to be baking a few hundred of any of these, the process is smoother if we’re excited about the outcome.

Now I need to get back to my costing spreadsheets and finalize the ingredients pricing. I know leather is a hot item in fashion for fall 2010, but how much do you think cranberries will cost?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Weekday Cooking: Tarting Up The Vegetable Left Overs

We’re in vegetable harvest heaven right now (isn’t everyone?) and as much as I enjoy the summer bounty, there are generally left over harvest remnants from the week. A few tomatoes, an extra ear of corn, a partial bunch of basil, I know I’m not alone in this.

During the week, the goal is to find dishes that allow something to simmer/bake/marinade while the rest of the meal comes together (or sometimes just cooks on it’s own while I relax on the couch).

I dislike wasting food, especially during our local growing season when everything is at it’s peak and that encourages me to get creative using up the bits and pieces. It was a pleasant enough day that using the oven wasn’t out of the question, so I arrived at a simple ricotta tart as the base for a simple salad of vegetable remnants.

The tart is simple to put together: 15oz (one small container) of fresh ricotta, 3 eggs, one cup grated cheese of your preference (I used aged parmesan) and two teaspoons of herbs.  I had chives in the fridge and thought they would work well.
Grease a 9” round or square pan and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes. (Everyone’s oven is different, so check on the tart after 30 mins).
You’re welcome to use a pie crust as a base if you’d like something more fancy, but I was serving the tart with garlic bread and didn’t want to over starch us up.

While the tart was baking, I diced up the tomatoes, sliced the corn from the cobb and added it to the tomatoes then hand tore up a few leaves of basil. It came out to be a little less than 2 cups of salad. I tossed the mixture with a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of red wine vinegar, and pinches of salt, pepper and oregano.

After pulling the tart out of the oven and letting it rest for 10 minutes, I cut the tart into wedges and spooned some of the marinating salad over it.

The ricotta tart is a great base for most vegetables as the herbs you add can be tailored to whatever your mood. I’ve made it to go with various vegetable sautees, fresh tomato sauces and in colder weather warm sauces. (And in our house, it’s also great for breakfast!)

Now I just need to work on not photographing things on our black plates… 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Data Geek (or For Once, It's Not My Math!)

I like data, which is interesting for someone who failed badly at math in school.
Unlike my dislike of calculating distances/points/planes/lines to get from x to y (or some days, just simple addition), data gives me answers right off the bat. Basically, someone else did the math and I get to review the outcome.

Mostly I am referring to our various web-tracking services. In running any business, you can never have too much information. For this case, I’m interested in how people are looking at our website and reading our blog (yes even you, good friends!).

Information such as how much time someone is spending and what content they’re looking at while visiting us helps form plans for updating our content (yes, it’s probably time) as well as the types of content users (which could be customers or potential clients) are looking for.

I consider our website a constant work in progress (much like owning anything else) some projects get taken care of and some languish (erm, sorry about the farmers market calendar this year folks!).

However, the average visitor spends 1.5 minutes/90 seconds on our site looking at an average of three pages (I filter out bots like search engines, so it’s not all Google downloading our site). The industry “norm” is about 30 seconds. Yeah, I am awed and impressed.

I also enjoy where visitors are coming from (esp. outside the US). Hello Finland, Australia and Japan!  There’s been many a week when I’ve walked into our kitchen and said “who knows someone in absolutely-no-clue-where-this-is Minnesota?” No one? Cool! Wonder how they found us…

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Blog Notes: What We’re Working on/Obsessing/Jingling About

Yes, I know, I managed to change the profile pic here on our blog without posting anything new. There’s just been lots of running around lately (really!). Fuggedaboudit!

Latest Tart: Peach Feta Arugula.

We’re having a great season testing out various fruit flavors at the farmer’s market, I love this flavor combo, but it’s not selling as well as the Strawberry Goat Basil Cheese one did. Looks like it’s time to work on a new flavor.

Latest obsession.
Business cards from Moo arrived! Great way to extend you marketing with a noteworthy product shot.

Latest project: Holiday 2010
Yes, while most of you are planning your last summer get away, we have holiday 2010 projects to plan for. There’s forecasting, labor allocation estimates and cost analysis galore going on in spreadsheets behind the scenes.

I know I’m not alone in this, I started out an email to one vendor we work with quoting the lyrics from “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”  - he answered with the next stance (There'll be parties for hosting / Marshmallows for toasting/And caroling out in the snow).  We all like to eat during the holidays, figuring out how much we’ll all be merrily consuming takes some planning.

So that’s the latest from our corner of tart world. Still waiting on word for tomatoes, they’ve been waylaid by our non-conformist la nina weather pattern this year. And if tomatoes are this late…I can only imagine when our first butternut squash will arrive! 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Classing Up The Joint

At Little Pots & Pans Co. we don’t offer many customers “packaged retail” , it’s a great way to service the local co-ops, smaller grocery/cafes who do not have kitchens/ovens, plus it was an initial step of getting our tarts into Whole Foods. I hadn’t given our labels much thought until I was woo’d by a new printer offering me a great deal.

Here’s our former label:

Ta - da! Fresh off the press and out to customers this week:

It was time to be (as my great-uncle use to say channeling a little Rodney Dangerfield) “really classing up the joint in here”. He also had a penchant for polyester checkered pants, but that’s a post for another time.

If you’ve been following us on twitter or even reading some of the posts below, you (might) have seen reference to things stepping up for us here at Little Pots & Pans Co. We’re beginning a transition period of taking our tarts to the next level in our efforts to grow as a company and our client base. Transitions aren’t known for being easy (it would scare me more if things went smoothly out of the gate) and we’ve had our bumps to contend with. However, I’m looking forward to seeing where our tarts will take us (and where they’ll land). 2010 is about working on recouping, stabilizing and growing and I’m pleased to see progress (no matter what size) in our goals to do so.

In October we’re going to 5 (yes 5, can you believe it?), and with it will be coming guest blog posts and an assortment of fun things (maybe a party?).

For now, though, I’m tasked with thinking about the coming onslaught of tomatoes we’ll be (finally) hit with. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Weeknight Cooking: A Bite Off The Grill Via Bittman

After a day of all things tarts (and depending on what day it is can drive what happens in our world of tarts), there is still dinner to be made. We tend to eat dinner at home most nights, as much as I enjoy heading out and trying new places, there are very few of us these days who are comfortable floating the expense of eating out every night.

So, much like most of this country, I get home and start figuring out what’s for dinner. I try hard to be organized about meal planning, well, mostly to insure I don’t wander around the grocery store and/or farmers market aimlessly (we’ve all had those days when we’ve gotten home from buying food to only realize we’ve purchased 5 heads of lettuce from various farm stalls and not much else even to make salad with). Luckily, by the fact we’re several farmers markets gives me opportunity to pick up last minute ingredients (like for the rest of the salad).

A few weeks ago I had picked up a lovely piece of halibut and the first (!!) sungold cherry tomatoes of the season among other things at the farmers market. (Oh how we’ll be talking much more about tomatoes very soon.)

Initially I was thinking panzanella salad as a side one night and maybe an asian-ish grilled halibut another. Then I saw NYTimes Mark Bittman’s recipe for Greek Fish 

I didn’t follow it verbateum (what fun would that be?). I added a few tablespoons of capers (plus a little brine), a few dashes of hot sauce, and part of an Indian long pepper that I had sitting around in the fridge. All added an extra little snap as the flavors came together. The halibut, which I had roasted on the grill, went into the mixture while I sautéed the last of the snap peas and finished the herbed rice.

If I had been more patient I would’ve snapped the whole dish, but it was late, we were hungry and I had tomorrow’s day of tarts to think about (new fruit flavor!).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tart and Sultry

Things are heating up in our world of tarts. Literally and figuratively.

We love summer, we really do. Bright sunny days, our herb garden (eh hem, lone basil plant) sprouting up fragrant leaves. But with the sun comes the heat, and on any given day we assemble and bake hundreds of tarts. Bake. Turn on the ovens and add a few hundred degrees into our quickly sweltering space. Some days it’s like swimming through the waves of heat.

Our current space isn’t partitioned, so whether you’re making dough, assembling tarts or doing admin/paperwork/boss-type things (um, me), there’s not much of a chance of a breather from the ovens. (Of course in January it’s the opposite story, any reason to get the ovens going is a good reason).

I keep us plied with gallons of iced tea, fans and mandatory refrigeration breaks. Conversation tends to drift to topics like whether ice cream sandwiches can be considered dinner (they are sandwiches, right?). Our neighbors next door are nice enough to let us occasionally come sit in their lovely air-conditioned waiting room (chiropractors) and we never arrive without a plate of treats for their staff.

Friends of mine have commented that it must be great to have days when you literally feel like you’ve sweat off 5lbs (and can eat or drink anything as a result). Hmmm… I wonder if I can turn this into the next biggest weight-loss thing. Sweatiest Chef? Doesn’t quite have “that catch” now, does it?

I can’t complain about the heat too much, it’s just part of what we do. Besides, the great summer weather (after drying out the farmland fields finally), is growing some good things for us.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Observations from the NYC Union Square Farmers Market

When I was living in NYC, the Union Square Farmer’s Market was the only easily accessible farmer’s market. The market wasn’t nearly as large as it is today (think mostly produce and honey), and as I spend much of my summer preparing for, setting up and occasionally working at markets my company participates in locally, I was curious to see what’s changed.

Any vendor that attends a farmer’s market in NYC already deserves a lot of credit just for showing up (literally). Braving the long drives and steep traffic through the bridges and tunnels is on a good day daunting. Traffic is no joke on the east coast and you could be looking at a 2 hour (plus) back-up just to get in and out of the city. The market it’s self runs from 8am – 6pm already making it a loooong day. 

The two days I walked through the market it was over 90 degrees out, thinning out the crowds (though it did make it easier to grab a few photos). We have much of the same produce on both coasts, though some farms had early corn and (non-hothouse) tomatoes.

Prices in some cases were higher than what we find in Portland (garlic scapes were oddly expensive) and some were the same (cherries, lettuces, artisanal goat cheese). 

There is less prepared food in the Union Square Market. The baked goods I saw were from farm stands who were baking items like pies (and occasional breads & muffins) or bakery off-shoots of existing restaurants. Kitchen space rental for small food companies is tight and very expensive and/or non-existent (which was part of my own deciding factor in founding my company in Portland). Additionally, hot food vendors aren’t allowed in the market.

During one walk through the market with a good friend and our hostess we dropped off compost (those large Tupperware containers you can’t fit into your cabinet get a new life!) and picked up assorted produce, cheese and yogurt, happily making our way back to the central AC to enjoy the bounty.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I come from driving folk, where long Sunday rambling drives “just to see what’s out there” were a common occurrence while growing up. Later in life, while living in NYC, it was never a big deal to throw a bunch of friends in the car and zip up to Cape Cod (5 hours on a good day) or to visit friends in Maine (8 hours, likewise).  And as we’re an “all hands on deck” type of company, when our delivery driver decided to take a vacation week I (got) volunteered to deliver to our clients in the outer metro area.

Below are a few snaps (taken with my Blackberry) of the morning:

All loaded up (my share). The large black object in the back is one of our “coffin” coolers. It has great volume, and probably many alternative uses than tarts & ice.

Sometimes there aren’t a lot of landmarks around to guide you. It was a beautiful morning for a drive, however. For those of you in Portland, this is the corner of Cornell Road & Cornelius Pass in Hillsboro.

 Our client’s bright and sunny colors were out in full force.

Some of them are even out of this world.

I try hard to get out and about to connect personally with our clients when I'm able to. It goes without saying that all of our clients are important, and a few minutes spent chatting can lead to insights you might not learn otherwise.

So 3 hours and 6o miles later it was nice to spend some out on the road seeing our clients (you’re bringing food, who’s not pleased to see you?) and enjoying the morning. I only managed to get slightly lost once! Hillsboro, sheeesh!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summer is Making Us Fruity

The second most frequent question we get asked (right behind the gluten-free one) is if we make any of our tarts with fruit fillings. There are a lot of great pastry chefs (some who occasionally produce fruit turnovers and bake pies), so invariably my response has been “no”. 

This year, as the strawberries started arriving in small spurts and local chefs started talking, tweeting and posting about great local berry desserts on their menus. Panacotta! Sorbets! Pie (with and without rhubarb)! Perhaps it was a reaction to long gray winter we just had, which made me wonder, why couldn’t we do a savory strawberry one?

I had some initial ideas, from dishes I had made and seen in the past, and we rolled it around the kitchen for a few days tossing in and out options. A savory strawberry tart might be strange enough that we didn’t want to alienate people from trying them by making them possibly too weird (yes, yes, Portland likes to be weird but there are limits). So we narrowed it down to three recipes ideas, and had a bake-off.

There are certainly worse ways to spend part of an afternoon than taste testing our ideas, but at the end of the day we unanimously agreed that the Strawberry Basil Goat Cheese was the clear winner for this berry.

Our goal for the summer is to try out a few different fruit flavors. See what kind of interesting savory concoction we think will fly. Not go crazy and jump on every berry or stone fruit arrival and take it from there.

We’re only going to sell them at the farmer’s markets this season. So try one (and then hunt Nat down for another one at a farmer’s market later in the week as some fantastically supportive customer did). Let us know what you think. We’re already tossing around ideas about what our next savory fruit will be…

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Wee Bit About Gluten-Free

In the past couple of weeks we’ve been doing a soft-launch of our new line of gluten-free tarts. This has been a learning process for us. Much like crawling before walking (then climbing the living room bookcase), my team has been testing the limits of our dough recipe and its ingredients. For all of us, it’s new territory and we’re up to the challenge.

We’ve been getting requests for gluten-free products for the past couple of years. Those of you whom I chatted with at farmers markets (or in your home kitchen, and also over the phone) were subjected to a litany of questions such as - can you eat corn? (50/50 split), do you eat dairy? (also 50/50) are you vegan? (almost everyone wasn’t). I wanted to learn more about where the boundaries of people’s intolerances lay (and learned a lot more about their personal eating preferences to boot).

Then one spring Saturday afternoon, I was sampling our tarts at a local Whole Foods and in the course of two hours, four people came up to our table and asked me if we had anything gluten-free. Hmmmm, if that wasn’t a sign it was time to test out some gluten-free crust ideas, I don’t know what was.

Thus far, we’ve been able to set aside a day to for gluten-free dough making (and rolling), when no wheat flour is in use. We have separate equipment for creating and filling the tarts. At the moment my team is producing the dough in small batches, by hand, until we can justify adding additional equipment to make their production larger and faster.

Also along with the process, we’re feeling out which of our fillings customers might be interested in (so far anything dairy-free is winning, which is interesting since most people I spoke with about being gluten-intolerant ate some dairy).
So expect more questions from us at the farmer’s markets if you purchase one of our gluten-free tarts, we’d like to hear what you think.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Advice for Renting Commercial Kitchen Space (Portland Edition)

I find it encouraging that our phone is ringing more and more with people looking for kitchen space to either launch or upgrade their food start-up into. Regardless of if I am looking for a tenant, I’ll gladly spend a few minutes chatting with callers about where they are at in their process and what their next move might be. Based on the questions I get asked, and what I went through when starting LPPCo., it appears (and please send me some links if I’m wrong) that there really aren’t good resources getting a food business launched.

As much as I am full-force working on our company growth, I actually enjoy having a small tenant or two, as much for the overhead offset, as being able to help foster another food business.

The first questions I always ask people who call are, Where are you in the process? And/or where are you producing out of currently? This tells me a lot. First, it tells me if your product has legs or if you are a “tire-kicker”. Secondly, how much time/usage do you need in a commercial kitchen initially?

Generally the conversation then turns to licensing and insurance. In Multnomah County (where we are based out of), a food company is required to: be licensed by the health dept (either Multnomah Health, or Oregon Dept of Agriculture), have a City of Portland Business License and business insurance.

Not everyone realizes all of the above, and often they’re stymied as to what to do first. My advice is to get your business license and insurance in order first, as the health department licensing will be tied to the address of the kitchen you rent.

And speaking of rent, rent for kitchen space is based off of overhead. Almost everyone I talk to who runs their own commercial kitchen knows exactly how much it costs per hour to run. This is something you have to factor into your own business plan. The “friend” who could be lending you his (restaurant/kitchen/catering) space for some cheap hourly rate, while helping you out initially, could be also doing you a disservice at the point you want to grow. Understanding what the market rental rates are will help with your growth plans and mitigating any surprises when you start calling around to other kitchens.

There are a few scenarios for renting kitchen space.
One is a pure commissary kitchen, which will rent time & space to as many companies as will fit. They tend to be more accommodating with schedule and usage, as well as allowing you to move specialty equipment into their facility. The downside is, depending on how crowded the kitchen is when you want to use it, there could be a wait to use the equipment (like ovens and the dishwasher).

Another situation is a kitchen that was formerly (or is) something else. An event space, restaurant, or a church kitchen. It’s always best to ask up front what the restrictions are for usage.

Food companies which have their own production space, and might want to lease out the off times to a smaller company (where we fall) are another option. We tend to be your least flexible options in what we’re interested allowing for time and usage.

I once had someone pitch to me that they needed to extend our hood system to include their 80 gallon boiler for their bagel making business. Um, no.  A friend who runs a vegan food company is not interested in sub-leasing space to companies who work with meat. Then there are a few newly-sprouted gluten-free only kitchens.

In these scenarios it’s important to realize that these are facilities where companies (and their employees) are making their livelihood and sometimes your company is just not a good fit for us, whether it be how much time & space you need or the types of product you’re producing. Luckily, we are a small(er) industry here in Portland, and I try to refer inquiries to other kitchens who I think I might have time/space available.

As of now, I might take in one small tenant, a company who doesn’t need a lot of storage space and is interested in working at night. Which is based off of how I see my own company needs expanding. Should I see it change, you can bet you’ll see our rental ad up on Craiglist.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let it grow, Let it grow, Let it grow (Part 1)

Here in the Portland area we received 4.5 inches of rain in the past month (since I’m writing this closer to the end of the month, chances are the amount will be higher).
Rain, while great for our water tables and washing all of last year’s dead leaves down my driveway, is not conducive to planting and harvesting (or highly lucrative farmer’s markets).

Friends, neighbors, people I’ve never met before in the grocery store, are all complaining that their got washed out in the past week and they’re waiting to replant.

While, as much as someone like me who barely gets around to mowing their lawn can empathize, regardless of the rain, this is going to be an even more interesting locally agricultural tied year for Little Pots & Pans Co.

Somewhere 50-70 miles south of us rows and rows (and fields and fields) of tomatoes have/are being planted, and some of those rows (and potentially a field or two) of crop yield will come to us, as I’ve been working with local farmers to contract grow vegetables for our tart fillings.

In past years, I’ve spent much time and energy running around sourcing (what I think will be enough) vegetables to make our tart fillings for the winter. At it’s best, the time spent was a great way to get to know regional farmers and what their ability to grow is. At it’s most frustrating last season became an organizational nightmare of trying to purchase produce, following up with farmers as to where it would be, and settle on a wholesale price (many farmers would rather sell direct to customers at farmer’s markets and take the sales risk over a guaranteed wholesale sale). Much running around for very little yield indeed.

This year, I decided it was time to take a more proactive approach. Using farm contacts from my customers (e.g. local grocery stores and food service providers) who purchase produce directly from regional farms, and a newly founded farmer-producer connection website underwritten by the Ecotrust, FoodHub, I put out requests for the amount of produce (tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant) we think we would need for the coming year.

The one thing that dawned on me (being consumed by the processing side of the food business) was whether or not I had missed planting season. Luckily, it was February when I was considering this and hit upon most farmers in planning season for their planting season.

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about the responses I received from the agricultural community and how far we’ve gotten in getting closer to crops, and how I have my fingers crossed for a blight-free robust growing season. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Retail Not Right (Now)

At the farmer’s market, sometimes by phone (my apologies to the woman who called at 7:30am one morning that we could not accommodate her reservation) but more often since our article in the Oregonian, we get asked if we have a retail store.

People are always flummoxed when we tell them “no”. 

I can see the appeal of “doing retail”, opening a little spot where people could drop in for a tart and maybe some other goodies. A place to direct customers who buy from us at local farmer’s markets. But is it right for your business as a whole?

It depends on the goals of your business and food product(s).

We are product company, focusing on growing our line of tarts (hence the name of the blog). Our business and daily tart activities center around servicing current customers, while working on expanding our client base. This alone requires much focus and effort. From my current point of view, as she who runs the books (bookkeeping, not bookmaking) and expends much of the effort, our time is best spent continuing forward growing ourselves as a product. To branch off into a tart shop, or small café, would be a risk and effort undertaking I can’t justify.

This is not to say I’d never open a tart shop or small café under our company umbrella. The idea would need to be very carefully thought through. Details such as location (e.g. our current location is on a busy street, but is not conducive to foot traffic and doesn’t have much of a neighborhood surrounding, which immediately rules it out), marketing/planning for vagaries of retail and staffing come immediately to mind.

It could be right one day, just not right now.

In a bold move, Elizabeth of Sahagun Chocolates, who appeared on the Neely's FoodNetwork episode with us (which will air again June 17th), decided recently to scale down her retail operation in order to focus on the growing wholesale demand for her chocolates. I don’t doubt it was a tough decision as to where she should focus her time for the best (and growing) results.

On our current path, I am pleased with the rewards that come in landing a new client, having a current one excited about a new flavor we’ve developed, or realizing we’ve gotten a tad bit busier in the past weeks and it’s time to up our ingredients order or risk running out of items (oh, it’s happened). I enjoy meeting with buyers, food service directors, executive chefs and coffee house owners walking them through our product niche of tarts we’ve created and how they could be a growth product for them. I also enjoy time spent interacting with farmers discussing what we’re going to be using their produce for and… hmmm… I think I just bled into our next blog post!  

Saturday, May 15, 2010

In Which I Eat Lunch and Gain Zucchini

It was a rare occasion on a warm spring day when I was out and about and happened to be driving past one of the acclaimed local sandwich shops right before lunch rush. For many of you, lunch is what happens between coffee and dinner. There is no loss of irony in the fact that our company centers around lunch products and yet I eat something cobbled together from my home fridge (or freezer) on most days. The concept of going out for lunch is a foreign dream and even stopping to eat can be a goal to aspire to.

So here I was facing said sandwich shop with a parking spot right outside. Being mostly vegetarian I knew there were going to be limited options for me to order from. But that’s ok, I’m not one of those demanding why-can’t-there-be-more-options-for-me-to-choose-from eaters. One (or two) really well done options are better than a menu full of half-hearted attempts, and in this case I knew what I wanted to try, the roasted mushroom sandwich.

The sandwich was everything I wanted it to be. Well seasoned portabello mushrooms, lightly pickled shallots combined with the tang of goat cheese and frisee on an onion roll. I was happy camper at the first bite. It was drippy and finger licking messy in the good way, and well worth $6.95.

A little while later (after more driving around), I was back at the Wednesday Portland Farmer’s Market to help pack up our stall and see what produce our friends from Rick Steffen Farms had brought.

Rick himself was manning his stall and had hot-housed zucchini in the past months finding himself with a bumper crop. He willingly (and probably gratefully, since he wouldn’t have to lug it back to farm) unloaded 50lbs to me on the spot.

Looks like we’re already off to a great growing season this year in the Pacific NW, and it’s a good thing I ate first, because at this rate, starting off with this much zucchini to process for tart-fillings, who knows when I’ll have time for another sandwich!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reflections on Opening Day @ PFM’s Wednesday Market

Every farmers market opens differently. Most to their own amount of fan fair and/or Facebook ballyhooing, but always with anticipation. Our first day at Portland Farmers Wednesday market was no different.

Adding to our anticipation, and our own ballyhooing of our market appearance, was a well timed Oregonian article, there's nothing like a homemade hand pie, which showcased Little Pots & Pans Co. on the front page of the Food Day section. (For those of you following along with the paper version of the article, no, those are not my hands folding our tarts).

The opening of any market prompts the question “How do we know what to bring?”. The easy answer is, for the first market, it’s a crap-shoot. Flavors which are popular at one market might not sell so well at another. Markets have various volume of shoppers, various amounts of other food vendors (which compete for the same buying dollars) and weather dependant. (Even though Portland claims to be weather-impervious, too hot or too much rain and the crowds stay clear). So, we bring a smattering of all the tarts in our current shapes/sizes.

Once at the market, we watch what sells, and how quickly. This week I surprised at how fast our tartlets went (bottom photo, top shelf). Clearly, they were priced right, and by prime lunch hour, we only had a couple left.

Additionally, the opening market gives us a chance to catch up with fellow vendors and farmers we might not have seen since last season (and also find out what they have in season and or may be growing…). A few of our local friends and loyal customers also stopped by to show their support (and bought tarts), which despite the chilly overcast weather, kept us upbeat.

Overall, our first Portland Wednesday Farmer’s Market was exciting, hand freezing, and tart-full for all.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Does Your Friday Look Like?

Fridays around here are like a revolving door and probably not too different from your working week. It’s all about getting our client orders organized, out and delivered as well as preparing for the coming week.

There are things that need to be taken care of prior to the weekend and items we push out into the coming week. Instead of meetings or reports, ours center around conversations such as “do we really need to break down (clean & slice) 100lbs of onions today?” (They can wait until Monday), and “what’s on the cleaning schedule for this week” (Scrubbing down the inside of the dishwasher).

Once the tarts are out the door, it’s time to start preparing for the coming week. Produce orders and ingredients (like 1000lbs of Shepherd’s Grain flour) which have started arriving Thursday continue to stream through the day and need to catalogued (we keep track of everything here!) and are either processed into tart fillings or put away for future use. Then we clean, scrub the kitchen end to end so we can hit the ground running come Monday.

As our current schedule is Monday – Friday, we use Fridays as chance to catch-up on the week’s events and upcoming ones (farmer’s markets, any catering), work on recipe development and figure out how we want the coming week to work (What’s that yiddish proverb? Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht - translation: Man plans, God laughs…Luckily we’re agile and can handle a little ribbing now and then.)

So as I’m writing this on a Sunday and you might be reading this early in your work week, just remember, if you ever feel like breaking out of your own routine, there’s a 100lbs of onions which could use your help!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Yes, We Do Cater

It’s a question we often hear while interacting with customers at the farmer’s markets, as well as inquiries by phone or email. Very few things are more gratifying than direct customer feedback which happens along the lines of “ I love your tarts, do you think you could put together a platter for our (insert event here) and also provide a few other dishes?”

Why would you say no?

For a couple of years, I held on to the idea that we should maintain catering menus, with items varied seasonally. Lunch, dinner, cocktail appetizers – I’ll email them right over to you, thanks for asking.

Then the great recession hit. Customers and corporations started (rightly so) and continue to measure their dollars.

This led us to the concept of creating custom menus, which we continue to do today. While it takes a bit more time to think through the menus, our sales success is greater because we’ve gotten the budget discussions out of the way and it can be all about the food going forward.

Catering also offers myself & my team a chance to think outside of LPPCo.’s weekly (mostly well managed) tart production cycle. For the time being, as we’re growing, it is still feasible for us to manage catering jobs with-in our week, and besides putting out some good food, offers some additional bonuses.

The process of pulling together a catering event have some similarities to how we produce our tarts. It also allows us to look at how we create other types of food and experiment with flavor profiles. If we notice an item seems popular (some menu items do get repurposed), it gets me thinking about “productizing” it. Could it stand on it’s own? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no. This will be an upcoming separate post in the near future).

These days, when I walk into LPPCo.’s kitchen and utter “hey, we have a catering job coming up” to my team, with-in moments someone’s grabbed a carrot out of the walk-in and is making carrot tulips, radish roses bloom profusely (except for the day we accidentally froze them in ice water) and platters are being sorted through.

A little diversity, for the moment, is a good thing at LPPCo.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Getting Ready for the Farmer’s Market Season

Getting ready for the farmer’s market season is like planning for a trip (ah, yes, vacations… remember those?). Much like you sorting through bathing suits and hiking shorts of seasons past (do they fit? Are they too tatty to be shown in public to people I don’t know and will never see again?), I spend time rummaging through our storage area assessing our gear the same way. Tablecloths not stained or torn - great we’ll get those in the wash. Whiteboard looks like it was the puck in an air-hockey tournament. Perhaps a new one and while we’re thinking about it would a chalkboard look nicer?

In reality, the planning starts long before now, back in late January/early February when the market applications start to be announced. I don’t know how well you like to plan your lives, but sitting down in January and committing to show up every week somewhere in the (hopefully) coming nicer weather can be a little daunting. This also tends to prompt a few sometimes not-so-tactful emails out to family & friends saying things such as “Congratulations on your engagement, do you think you’ll be getting married this year? And if so… any idea which weekend that might be?”

Once the applications have been submitted, and we’ve heard back from which of the markets we’ve been accepted at (which is generally a 6-week process), it’s all over but for the tart baking and keeping our fingers crossed for good weather and loyal customers. And maybe the chance of a quick get-away before it all begins, shorts and bathing suit willing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Riffing is a Good Thing

Fairly frequently, I get asked why I chose to call our products tarts instead of hand-pies (or pasties (pah-sties)).
Traditional pasties (pah-sties) regardless of if their fillings are vegetarian or meat contain onions and potatoes as a base ingredient. The fillings tend to be a bit “heavier” as in closer to what you would find in a pot pie*. The fact that I feel I need to explain their annunciation in every mention brought us to realize we’d spend more time teaching audiences about the derivative of the word vs. our products.
In truth, our tarts are closer to hand-pies than pasties (pah-sties). When I think of hand-pies, fruit fillings come to mind (like apple turnovers which we use to devour at our local orchard in the fall). The crust we use is very similar, though we incorporate an extra few steps to create the irresistible flake you see on them.
Our tart fillings are derived from a mixture of family recipes and eating experiences across globe with the goal of taking our customers to new places with all of our varieties (even if it is through a few short bites). With that in mind the idea of a “hand-pie” seemed a little too traditional while “tart” added a little extra character in embodying our products.
Besides, who wouldn’t rather be “Queen of Tarts” over “Queen of the Hand-Pies”?
What comes down to being most important, is however, that our customers enjoy them!
* This is not a dis on the pot-pie, we’re big fans of them!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It All Started with a Tart

About 4 and half years ago I brought our first samples warm tart samples into a potential client. It was tart love at first site. Since then we've been working to explore and expand our reach of tart lovers through out the Portland OR area and beyond.

Expect to see posts about our adventures in working with farmers for ingredients, farmer's markets and tarts on the road. I might even convince one of our employees to contribute from time to time.

Until then, sit back, relax and enjoy!