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Tales from the country’s fancy food kitchens

Fancy food always tastes better when it’s served with a side of story, and there were plenty of those at the Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, from empty nesters whose suddenly free time leads to starting a food business to a Cuban exile whose family started over to a foodie pair whose issues drove them to create a new confection.

Can you call it Cuban coffee?

Jose Gaviña’s story started when the coffee business his grandparents began in 1870 was lost to Castro and the family fled Cuba for Spain in 1960. Three years later, the teen and his parents and siblings settled in California, taking odd jobs of all sorts while they finished school and saved the money they would need to start over.

They bought some used equipment, started small and grew steadily selling wholesale to small ethnic markets, then adding restaurants, offices and eventually gourmet shops.  Today, Jose and his sister and two brothers own and operate Gaviña Gourmet Coffee, which sources beans from around the world, sells its coffee under several brands including Don Francisco and counts McDonald’s among its biggest customers.

Oh, and the tradition appears destined to live on — nine of the 10 members of the next generation now have a hand in the business, he said.

A commitment to candy       

Foodies Torie Burke and Howard Slatkin turned their talents from interior design to healthy confections after she discovered a gluten intolerance and he lost 110 pounds. Replacing chemicals and preservatives with whole, fresh foods was pretty simple, until it came to candy, Slatkin said. “We needed candy, but we were not going to eat chemicals anymore.”

Instead, the pair hit the kitchen, experimenting with turning organic ingredients into fruit-flavored, gluten-free, hard candies with 12 calories apiece. The trickiest part was finding vegetable-based colorings that didn’t alter the flavor, said the founders, whose days included plenty of trial and error for a year before the first products were ready to sell. Today, 16-month-old Connecticut-based Torie & Howard’s  often leads by telling what the candy doesn’t have, like GMOs, wheat, casein, dairy, artificial dyes and soy. It’s also kosher and certified organic by USDA and Oregon Tilth.

A grain by any other name 

Quinoa is a staple in Ravi Jolly’s New York home, but these days he’s spelling it differently. Two-year-old I Heart Keenwah started when Jolly and his three partners came back from Bolivia inspired by the grain’s versatility and disappointed in the options they found at home. They created four flavors of quinoa snacks, began making them in Jolly’s kitchen and selling them at artisan markets in Brooklyn and Chicago. Demand quickly outstripped the capacity of his home kitchen, and today the fair-trade certified roasted quinoa snacks are made in a factory and sold at more than 700 retail outlets in the U.S. and Canada.

When the birds fly away

Self-taught cook Lili Courtney taught cooking classes for 20 years, but she didn’t start Delightful Palate until the kids left home. Her empty nest left her with time and energy to create a line of “culinary condiments” including Stone Fruit Nectar, Balsamic Garlic Honey and Wild Mayhaw Berries. She serves up her product marketing with plenty of recipes and blog posts with suggestions on how to use the products.

New Hampshire resident Tammy Fahey’s story also started at home. Years of making caramel candies stood her in good stead when the kids left, and four years ago she started Süss, selling caramels in rolls meant to be eaten a slice at a time. She launched first at a local farmer’s markets and soon expanded to a web store and specialty stores including Williams Sonoma.

This year’s show brought 2,400 exhibitors with 180,000 products from around the world, each with a story to share. Sharing their food and their stories might have been fulfilling enough, but  many also accepted coveted Sofi awards at a ceremony Monday night.