There's been a lot of discussion (due to all the buzzing surrounding the upcoming election) about voting lately. Much like voting for a candidate, each time you go to the grocery store or farmers market or co-op, you are quite literally voting with your dollars. From the products you buy, to the stores or farmers you support, even to how you got there - each choice can have a butterfly effect on how our food system operates, often without us even realizing it. We cast our food votes daily - at every meal. Scrumptious Pantry is a business that I feel resonates deeply with this process. Founder Lee Greene, produces condiments crafted not only with care but with carefully selected heirloom varieties of ingredients. By putting only the best into the process - she gets products that burst with authentic flavors. And while I'm sure doing things Lee's way may seem at times like an upstream battle, the end product proves that it is something worth fighting (and voting) for. Read on for more about Lee, how her business began, and addressing the struggle to find balance between good, clean and fair all at once.
What was the idea behind Scrumptious Pantry? How did you start?
Well, I did my MBA in Milan and was blown away by the fierceness with which my friends debated the difference between a tomato grown in one town and the one grown five miles down the road. I had no idea food could create such passionate debates! Nor did I previously understand that, yes, five miles do make a difference. That intrigued me, so after graduation I joined a small Tuscan biodynamic winery – Cosimo Maria Masini - as their Managing Director. You can find their wines in Chicago, by the way. There I really understood the concept of terroir (or sense of place) and what it means to have a truly sustainable agricultural production. We had started selling our wines to Chicago with the help of our awesome friends at Candid Wines, so I spent quite a bit of time here hustling the wines. Consumer interest in food and its origins was beginning to grow, so I figured why not take the concepts of terroir, regional varieties and culinary history and create a food brand based on these values. So in 2010 my cats and I arrived in Chicago. We launched the first products showcasing domestic heirloom varieties in March 2011 at the Good Food Festival.
What would you be doing right now on a typical workday?
There is no typical workday. I might be visiting a farm and discussing some new heirloom crops to grow, developing recipes, doing a photo shoot, making sales calls or checking on our numbers. Accounting is the least sexy thing, but the most important. You gotta know your numbers!
What’s the best part about your job? The hardest part?
I love any type of event where I can meet customers and feed them samples. It is invigorating to see their eyes widen in delight and the best compliment is to hear “That tastes like *insert food memory*”. Touching people with food is very powerful, and that is where the chance for change lies.
The hardest part is surviving. Unfortunately most of the food businesses dedicated to sustainable food are far from being sustainable from an economic perspective. It takes a lot of money to build a brand, serve the retail customers, keep inventory on hand... Consumers might think “that is expensive” if they see a jam or sauce or what not on the shelves in a store at $5.99. But rest assured – no one is making a killing on that. You need various levels along the distribution chain to get the product to customers. Back to the $5.99 example - to break even as a business that sells their products with an MSRP of $5.99, you have to sell 1,000 units a day. 365 days a week. For products that are not consumed several times a day (like bread, meats, dairy, produce), it is almost impossible to only serve a local market. You need to have a much wider customer base. And that takes a lot of time and money to build.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle for Chicago’s food systems to overcome?
We are very lucky here in Chicago, we have such a bounty surrounding us. The fruit, veggie and dairy farms are plentiful. The cheesemakers amazing. We even have local fish in the Great Lakes. And then there are all these talented food artisans and chefs creating beautiful interpretations of the ingredients. It is truly a celebration of the Midwest.
But we still have ways to go to make these experiences accessible for more people. Right now we are stuck: there are a few niche customers that are willing to pay the premium that it takes to make better food, but they are not enough to really impact the cost of the food. After all, it is a market: more demand leads to more efficiencies and better tools and that leads to lower cost, at which point more consumers can access the market. There are a great number of people working on solutions: collaborative structures, food hubs… Those are crucial if we really want a good, clean and fair food system.
How does Scrumptious Pantry’s work relate to the Slow Food objectives (good, clean, fair food)?
Scrumptious Pantry is about the true flavor of food - that is why we are highlighting heirloom varieties in our products. If you have great tasting ingredients, you do not need any additives to make up for the lack of real flavor. Ingredient lists of processed food started to read like a science project, because there was no more flavor in the raw materials once we turned to mass-produced agriculture. If you adjust varieties for ease of cultivation, uniformity, shelf life… There is a round-up on how flavor was bred out of the tomato on our blog. It was not done intentionally, flavor was just not the priority anymore. (http://scrumptiouspantry.com/loosing-flavor-why-tomatoes-dont-taste-they-way-your-grandmother-remembers/)
So by going back to real flavorful ingredients, and celebrating those flavors, you’ve got good and clean. Growing food with flavor takes time and dedication, and is often more risky than relying on hybrid varieties. You got to be a fair partner to the farmers, if you want good product. Plus, I am on the lower end of the totem pole myself. I’d like to be fairly treated and be able to sell my product for a price that respects the work that went in to it. You cannot really ask for fair treatment of yourself and then disregard the fair treatment of your partners.
What do you think is in store for 2016’s trendiest food item- kale’s successor?
I wish we would stop running after food trends. They are distractions from actual food education. Or maybe we can make food education the next trend?
Why Chicago? If not Chicago, where?
I came to Chicago because it’s truly the heartland. As I mentioned before, there is such a bounty here for sourcing and of ideas. From a business perspective as a consumer good New York is the place to be though. That is where the opinion leaders and the influencers are that reach the nation far and near. As well as the money. It is almost incestuous, but boy, they are successful in creating launching pads for new brands.
What is your second favorite Chicago food related social media account to follow? (Can’t be first, because of course, SFC is your first favorite.)
I love to follow what my fellow good food entrepreneurs and cheer them on. IF I had to choose one it would probably be Mike and Anne at Sauce & Bread Kitchen/Coop-Sauce/Crumb Bread. They tell so many great stories, and their pictures of their food makes me hop on my bike and pedal from Logan Square to Edgewater, so I can enjoy their creations to the fullest.