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.