Two years ago, I closed my restaurant. By mid-2020, it was already clear that, as a direct result of the pandemic, operating a fast casual restaurant in Center City Philadelphia was financially untenable. This restaurant, Poi Dog, was the second business I had started, but it is neither the last nor the end of a brand whose mission is to serve flavors rooted in the complex, nuanced food culture of Hawai’i. I am a chef by trade, accustomed to seasoning dishes as I go and preparing food for immediate consumption. This is a style of cooking that is antithetical to preparing a packaged product. The processes are wildly different, but for restaurateurs and chefs like me, looking for ways to sustainably grow and expand, our goals are frequently the same as those working in the packaged food space. I looked to food scientists and other leaders for inspiration.
Brewing Bottles of Fire with Vulcan
The history packed into the little pink bottles of Chili Peppah Water, on shelves of specialty grocers across the country, is inextricably entwined with Vulcan. For the first few months of its existence, Poi Dog the sauce company brewed its sauces on the Vulcan range at my husband’s restaurant, Musi. These were the bottles I sold at farmers’ markets and craft fairs in Philadelphia, testing out the recipe I was simultaneously developing with food scientists at both Drexel University and Rutgers University.
My husband, friends, and former restaurant employees and I would cut through bushels of fresh long hot peppers, blinking through capsaicin tears. We’d weigh out vats of rice vinegar and heat everything up on his trusty, six-burner Vulcan range.
If only I had invested in a large-capacity kettle for our prep kitchen. My co-manufacturers currently brew my sauces in 200-gallon batches. Vulcan kettles can handle up to 75% of that capacity, an astounding 150 gallons at a time. They’re also versatile and need not be Chili Peppah Water-specific. I think about how much gravy, soup, and stock we produced at Poi Dog the restaurant and shudder, imagining the ways I could have scaled up my operation and taken pressure off our line during service.
Scaling up means something different to each entrepreneur, but the initial steps are the same. We transform raw materials into something innovative. Innovation requires imagination but scaling up will always require reliability and accuracy.
Anna Hammond, the Founder and CEO of Matriark Foods, is fighting a battle on two fronts: against food waste and food insecurity. Prior to launching Matriark, she worked to create a healthy eating program for families in New York City public housing – “If we’re looking at population, it’s technically the tenth largest city in the U.S. and there’s a high rate of diet-related illness there,” she tells me. “I brokered relationships between farmers to donate their surplus.” Creating these relationships and experiencing logistical challenges (“Vegetables are volatile and hard to transport!”) led her to creating both affordable products and extra revenue streams for farmers.
Matriark now works with a group of co-manufacturers, developing recipes and testing product prototypes. “We were able to manufacture very early because our goals of sustainability garnered interest.” Matriark’s vegetable broth concentrate is one of the most exciting upcycled foods (and here are a few others) currently available. It is primarily geared towards food service operations, and I can personally attest, makes a magnificently rich vegetarian ramen broth. I ordered a mighty but miniscule 7.4 oz container of it that stood at just 3 inches tall but yielded an entire gallon of perfumed broth. Together with food scientists and leaning over the Vulcan stoves at the Drexel Food Lab, Matriark toyed with the percentages of the concentrate’s ingredients, adding porcini powder and nutritional yeast to bolster its flavor profile.
It's the Pits
Sheetal Bahirat, the Founder of Reveal, made a batch of guacamole in 2018 and wondered, “What do people do with the seeds?” Soon after, she found herself looking for a way to transform avocado seeds into something. In the same lab, she tinkered with using the seeds as a cosmetic ingredient. She whipped up face masks, hair masks, soap, and even a hair conditioner. She baked, grated, dried, blended and pulverized. She attempted an avocado seed sugar and an avocado seed flour, testing for the best polyphenolic content. Eventually, she landed on a beverage, for which maintaining the correct temperature is exceedingly important “to ensure food safety and pass quality checks. We’re always making sure that we know exactly what temperature Reveal is at.”
“It took a lot of time, working with a brand-new ingredient that no one had ever worked with before, making it into a product that can actually be manufactured,” Bahirat says. The result? An avocado seed brew that has three times more antioxidants than green tea and boats a daily dose of apple cider vinegar in every bottle, while being under 25 calories. “It gives you all the benefits of kombucha but without the carbonation and pungency, and with more antioxidants.”
As Reveal scales up, it only opens more doors for upcycling food and working towards sustainability. Bahirat marvels at her own journey, “When we started, we had no idea what an avocado seed beverage would be like. We’re creating something out of an ingredient that’s traditionally unusable. And after we extract the antioxidants and we’re done brewing, the avocado seed can be composted and completely broken down within a week. In the meantime, we’re totally rethinking the whole system of our relationship with food, being more cognizant of the parts that get wasted.”
Food Science & Culinary Arts
Operating a restaurant during the pandemic often felt like the sands were shifting beneath the feet of chefs and restaurateurs. We were forced to adapt and be nimble and creative, seeking out different streams of revenue to keep our businesses and brands viable. Many of us started lines of packaged goods based on the foods we served in our restaurants. By doing so, we entered a completely different industry. Bahirat and Hammond aren’t chefs, they’re food innovators. We happen to use the same equipment to achieve our goals. Chefs like myself can also learn from them, to push forward with new approaches to our food systems.
The Drexel Food Lab is a food product design and culinary innovation lab, but it is more than that – a network of entrepreneurs who aren’t necessarily chefs but are each on a mission to make the world a little bit better, through food. “Everyone who goes through the lab is part of a movement of changemakers,” says Hammond. “Being an entrepreneur can be grueling and lonely,” she adds, but this is one of the best resources available to those looking to start a packaged food company or product.
There are other resources before one reaches the co-manufacturing level, such as the Rutgers University Food Innovation Center. Witnessing the quick evolution of my own product from restaurant-made to co-manufactured has garnered many questions – How did you do it? How can I? More and more chefs have entered the packaged food space during the pandemic and oftentimes, they make their first products on the commercial kitchen equipment currently available to them, in their restaurant kitchens.
These fledgling products have been a boon in the pandemic for specialty grocers looking to stock outside of the industrial food chain. Many grocers did so to avoid issues that arose from long supply chains that originated overseas. More consumers are expecting to get the pasta sauce from their favorite restaurants in jars and beverages brewed nearer to where they live, looking to shop local whenever possible and putting their dollars back into their own communities. In short, it’s a great time to break into the space if you’re a chef looking to diversify your streams of revenue.
The Drexel Food Lab is physically housed in a kitchen space that includes multiple Vulcan ranges and pieces of equipment. Vulcan stoves are precise and as product development requires state of the art equipment to ensure consistency in products – foods tested in the lab go on to be produced in manufacturing facilities and replicated in stadiums or college cafeterias, where there can’t be variations in formulas and there isn’t the possibility of tasting as you go. Vulcan equipment delivers.