Fertile Ground for Foodies
Austin's artisanal foodmakers bring home the bacon, perhaps
Englishwoman Tracy Claros arrived in Austin in 2003 with a unique food product idea and an interest in entrepreneurship. The speech and language therapist was ready for a career change, and she thought the dessert puddings from her native England might just be her ticket to self-employment. Claros founded the Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. in 2004 and began selling puddings, scones, quiches, and desserts at the Downtown Farmers' Market that same year. Fast-forward to this spring: Claros' distinctively delicious sticky toffee, lemon, and chocolate puddings are now available at all eight Central Market stores in Texas, outlets in nine national Whole Foods Market regions, plus Costco stores in Texas and Northern California. She's in negotiations with both the Harry & David and Norm Thompson holiday catalogs, a Starbucks' buyer is calling, and a fall appearance on QVC is on the horizon. Claros is also currently basking in the glow of a CNBC segment featuring her company that aired last week and the April announcement that her puddings are once again a Silver finalist at the upcoming National Speciality Food Trade Summer Fancy Food Show.
The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. is a bona fide Austin artisanal food success story, but Claros is only one of about 100 small local food producers with products in various stages of marketing success currently blossoming in Austin. It turns out the same city that proudly promotes itself as the live music capital of the world, famous for producing bands and singer-songwriters, is a fertile breeding ground for artisanal food talent, as well. (See lists of local food producers and homegrown restaurant chains in our sidebars.) Yes, today's Austin is a dramatically different city from the sleepy college town with cheap rent where our vaunted music scene first took root. But the development of our artisanal food scene bears several interesting parallels to the growth of the music business.
Famous local musicians got their starts in a series of legendary music clubs: Kenneth Threadgill's roadhouse, the Skyline, the Victory Grill, Duke's Royal Coach Inn, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Castle Creek, Antone's, the One Knite, Soap Creek Saloon, the Continental Club, Liberty Lunch, the Cactus Cafe. Now replace those club names with homegrown natural foods behemoth Whole Foods Market and H-E-B's specialty food retailer Central Market as food product incubators and the parallels begin to emerge. Lucky up-and-coming Austin musicians got exposure on the locally produced PBS music series Austin City Limits, the Kerrville Folk Festival, and South by Southwest. Emerging culinary stars have used the 21-year-old Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, community food events too numerous to list, and a strong network of area farmers' markets to showcase their tasty creations, building their customer bases and gaining marketing savvy in the process. Where local musicians could hone their chops in clubs, bars, restaurants, and hotels presenting live music, aspiring cooks can avail themselves of five respected local culinary education programs or work their way up in the kitchen brigades of hundreds of busy local restaurants.
Modern Austin also boasts several small neighborhood markets (Wheatsville Co-op, Fresh Plus, Whip In, Farm to Market, Royal Blue Grocery, Thom's Market, Live Oak Market, Antonelli's Cheese Shop, Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars) that enthusiastically stock local food items. The products of respected local specialty foods retailers Lammes Candies (established 1885) and AustiNuts are proudly marketed in gift shops at our airport and local hotels. Even drink mixes from popular local bars such as Opal Divine's (Divine Mary Mix) and the Cedar Door (Mexican Martini Mix) can be found on local liquor store shelves.
Perhaps all the community support stems from that famous, intangible, indefinable "Austin vibe" – the live and let live, keep Austin weird, we consume local (music, food, sports, books, theatre, art, movies, whatever) zeitgeist that has encouraged all manner of talented people to settle and blossom in this city. Miles Compton, creator of the award-winning Miles of Chocolate, explains it this way: "People here are willing to try different things and experiment. Austin's a wonderful town to root for the underdog." Let's take a closer look at a few of the Austin-based companies who've made it possible for culinary entrepreneurs such as Claros and Compton to bloom in Austin.
Whole Foods Market: Natural Foods Giant
The Whole Foods Market chain was founded in Austin in 1980. Support for other small local companies that could meet Whole Foods' rigorous quality standards has been part of the business model from the start. That first Austin store has since spawned a natural foods retailing giant with outlets in 11 U.S. regions plus a new store in London. In the past few years, the company has established a local product loan program to support and encourage the growth of small companies with unique products in the various regions. That program was the subject of a segment on CNBC's The Call last week, describing how Whole Foods shares profits by offering low-interest loans with no closing costs, no penalty for early repayment, and minimal application fees to potential small business partners. Senior Global Grocery Coordinator Errol Schweizer explained that the loan program makes it possible for Whole Foods to complete the mission to "grow core products and prioritize brands of high quality."
The CNBC segment focused on Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. as one of the program's first success stories. Claros explained the Whole Foods loan's impact on her business. "As a small business producer, you're constantly bootstrapping and trying to find cash wherever you can. ... My production was being held up by the fact that we were just manually sealing two little pudding bases at a time, and they enabled me to buy an automated machine, which increased our volume greatly," she said. "Other retailers and specialty food outlets are now approaching me to carry the product. So I think, basically, it's kept me in business."
The Central Market Effect
Texas-based grocery chain H-E-B chose Austin as the home base for its specialty grocery concept Central Market in 1994 and that first store was indeed a sensation: a food store with a high-quality, unique product line; a casual cafe that regularly hosted live music; a cooking school that presented both national and local cooking talent; and a family-friendly outdoor seating area complete with a playscape. Central Market's other outstanding feature was an interest in discovering and developing new products. In the early years, Faye Greenberg was the company's ultimate arbiter of taste, but now that the chain has grown to eight (soon to be nine) stores, there's a whole department of buyers. These folks scour farmers' markets, boutique retailers, fancy food shows, and foreign markets looking for new products, and they get inundated with samples, as well. "Samples come to us in all kinds of ways – in cardboard boxes or wrapped in waxed paper. Some people back off when they realize what it takes to actually bring a product to market, but there's nothing more rewarding than finding someone who is so passionate about their product that they make it into the stores," says buyer Chris Bostard.
Claros certainly qualifies as one of the passionate ones. "I took my first pudding samples to Central Market in a plastic clam-shell box with a paper label, tied up with string," she recalls. "They said they loved the product but that I would have to have much better packaging. They gave me a list of all the things I'd need to get started, like a UPC code, product liability insurance, and nutritional information, and told me to come back when I had it all together." She did, and the rest is history. Miles Compton had a similar experience. "Central Market was great for a guy like me, who really didn't have any idea how to market what he had. I was trying to sell blocks of my chocolate to restaurant chefs, and somebody finally sent me to Central Market. The grocery buyer helped me a lot and started me out small, ordering a few blocks at a time. The product really took off after the first few in-store demos. We sold 69 pounds in four hours one day," he exclaims. Compton is currently developing individual serving packaging for his chocolate brownie/fudge/truffle hybrid in hopes of expanding the appeal to a wider selection of retailers besides Texas Central Markets and Whole Foods' Southwest region.
Farmers' Market Phenomenon
Austin's modern organic farm movement was cultivated in the early Nineties by a dedicated group of urban farm pioneers, encouraged by Whole Foods Market and the Sustainable Food Center, and ripened to its current robust condition by a network of urban farm stands, community-supported agriculture programs, and eight area farmers' markets. Austin foodies can now shop markets on Saturday mornings (Downtown, Barton Creek, Sunset Valley, Lakeline Mall, and 6701 Burnet Road), Sunday morning (HOPE Market), Wednesday afternoons (the Triangle and Round Rock), and Thursday afternoons (6701 Burnet Rd.). Each market offers a diverse selection of fresh produce, locally produced artisanal foods, meats, cheeses, baked goods, and dairy products, as well as live music. For some Austin food artisans, their farmers' market stall is their only sales outlet, while others use selling at the market as a stepping stone to build a bigger business. Claros represents the second category. "I loved selling at the market, meeting the customers. It was a great place to try out new products and build my business," she affirms.
When Claros' wholesale pudding business took off and she found a co-packer to produce her puddings (Austin's legendary Sweetish Hill Bakery), she gladly turned the market stall over to her former production baker. Melissa Brinckmann now sells delectable baked goods at several markets under the Cake & Spoon banner. These days, Claros concentrates on developing new recipes for her product line and marketing her unique puddings to interested retailers, making the most of the fertile ground where she's planted.