This week's guest is Daniel Liberson of Lindera Farms, a nature reserve in Delaplaine, Virginia. There, Daniel forages for items local to the area, and creates fermented pantry items for both restaurants and home cooks. His products include vinegar made from ramps, paw paws, and Virginia berry, as well as items like crab apple verjus, pecan tamari, and applewood soy sauce.
Besides discussing vinegar-making and fermentation, we talk about business topics like the cost of running restaurants, how he grew his business, and the pros and cons of making your own vinegar.
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Lindera Farms Website
CHEFS WITHOUT RESTAURANTS
Founder Chris Spear’s personal chef business Perfect Little Bites
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Welcome to the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. I'm your host Chris spear. On the show. I have conversations with culinary entrepreneurs and people in the food and beverage industry who took a different route. Their caterers, research chefs, personal chefs cookbook authors, food truckers, farmers, cottage bakers, and all sorts of culinary renegades. I myself fall into the personal chef category as I started my own personal chef business perfect little bites 11 years ago. And while I started working in kitchens in the early 90s, I've literally never worked in a restaurant. Hello everyone. This is Chris with the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. This week, I have Daniel Liberson. Daniel, is someone who I've been following online and talking to for probably close to a decade now. Daniel operates Lindera Farms, a nature reserve in Delaplane, Virginia. The farm is not a farm in the sense that they bring fruits and vegetables to a farmers market or sell to restaurants. What they actually do there is forage for some of the best and most interesting products local to the Chesapeake area and create really fantastic pantry items for both restaurants and home chefs. They give us here in the DMV region, kind of a sense of time and place much like when you think of restaurants like Noma, Daniel makes vinegars with flavors like paw paw, black locust and hickory, as well as other products like pecan, tamari and a variety of hot sauces. And while they're obviously great to use in whatever part of the country you're in, is really nice for chefs like me who are located in this region to use these goods. To really reinforce kind of the cuisines we're doing here using local ingredients. You know, one of the things we talked about is, chefs, I think, like to tinker and take on these projects of their own. I've even tried my hand at making my own vinegar. But at some point, that's not really sustainable. You know, it's a fun project, if you are into fermentation and want to learn how it works, but doesn't really make sense. Whether you're a personal chef or running a restaurant to be making these products in house. You know, I talked about having done some home brewing in my days. And while that was fun, you know, at this point, I can go in the store and get an amazing line of beers. So while I really appreciate the fun time that I had making beer, like it just doesn't really make sense. And the same goes for restaurants, which is why it's great when you have products like Daniels that you can buy and bring into your establishment. And of course, as we're talking about this, it kind of turned into a conversation about restaurants as a whole. So we don't just talk about the vinegar, we start talking about the economics of restaurants for a little bit and how that works. You know, some of what I was talking about was, yeah, sure. These places can be making their own vinegar when they have a lot of stashes who aren't getting paid to work or they're under paying their employees, but when you're paying everyone $15 And up, can you really afford to be making vinegars and house? I don't know. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. And obviously, we talked about some business things. I wanted to find out how he got his product to market. Dino talks about, you know how he started which was kind of building relationships for him. It was connecting with chefs and getting his product in their hands to us. And then it kind of builds on that right you have some credibility. When you go to sell your product to other people, you can refer back and say, Hey, Jose, Andres is using my products. So if it's good enough for him, you know, it's probably good enough for you, right. And I also asked him what he wished he knew before starting a business. And I don't want to spoil it all here. But one of the things we talked about is having people to work with, you know, again, I think a lot of us who listen the show, if you're like me, a personal chef, you're maybe a solopreneur, or have a very small team. And I think, you know, Daniel kind of reinforces the fact that if you want to go far, you kind of have to go with people. So we're going to dig into that a little bit on the show. So I hope you enjoy this episode, you can find all the links in the show notes where you can pick up Daniel's products, he's selling most of them directly through the website. And just a quick reminder that I love to connect with people on social. So hop on over to Instagram at Chefs Without Restaurants. And if I were to direct you to one link, it would be chefs without restaurants.org. From there, you'll find not only the link to this week's episode, but also a link to our private Facebook group where food entrepreneurs are interacting with each other. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter where I send you some of my favorite recipes, gear that I love, links to interesting cooking videos and that stuff. So if you're interested, please check that out. If you want to join the Patreon, donate via Venmo or buy me coffee, financial contributions are always appreciated. And as high end to that is this show would not be possible without our sponsors. So the show will be coming up right after word from this week's sponsor. COVID has redefined the world of dining. While the pandemic certainly up into the restaurant experience the personal chef industry experienced record growth. The United States personal chef Association represents nearly 1000 chefs around the US and Canada and even Italy. You SPCA provides a strategic backbone that includes liability insurance, training, communications, certification, and more. It's a reassurance to consumers that the chef coming into their home is prepared to offer them an experience along with their meal. Now, join with our inflation fighter special and save $75 on premier provisional and preparatory memberships, you can join email@example.com and use code inflation fighter 22 You can call Angela with questions at 1-800-995-2138 extension 705 or email her at a PRA th er at OU spca.org payment plans are available. And as always, all this information will be in the show notes. And now on with the show. Thanks so much and have a great week. Hey, Daniel, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for coming on.Daniel Liberson:
Thanks for having me, Chris.Chris Spear:
You're someone I followed from back in what I call the old days of Twitter probably like a decade ago or something, you know, when there was just a handful of chefs on there talking about interesting stuff. And you know, being a DMV local as well. So I think I was trying to connect with a lot of people in the area who are doing some interesting stuff.Daniel Liberson:
Yeah, it's it's funny that to think really like the last 10 years or so actually started further back than that, but like it was you could see palpably were kind of the, I guess kind of like posts, palette and generation started to come in, for lack of a better reference point. My first gig was as a prep cook at inox with John Mathis and Jonathan cran. And like at the same time, Johnny Sparrow was over at Faro Olivia, and we actually wound up connecting, I guess it was taste to the nation was one of the one of the sort of local events. And I remember how weird it was to have a conversation with somebody else who knew what anger was, you know, or so there's like this kind of group of people that, that I think we're sort of getting on the modern curve that kind of probably kicked in around like 2008 2009. And then like really persisted up until recently where things have I think, really blown up and probably post guide, I guess the Michelin Guide maybe is one of the kicks in, I don't I have a tough time keeping track of like, what the milestones have been, you know, for for DC cuisine and delay.Chris Spear:
Let's jump right into this. You have lindera Farms, which I think when people hear the word farms, they maybe think of rows of vegetables and things you're harvesting and to take to the farmers market or animals grazing what what is it you do there? I don't do any of those things. Because I'm I'm not a sane person. The so basically the gist of what we do. We have a 225 acre nature reserve on Delaplane. And originally started as it was like it was a cattle farm that we had since lost all of its cattle and it's sort of cease to be a farm but it had kind of all of the markings of it. So there's a stream that runs through the property that the cattle used to have basically wander into and they pretty much destroyed the embankments over a series of years. So what we did and at the time, this was the largest private undertaking of a nature restoration in Virginia's history. We basically rebuilt the entirety of the stream that runs down length property and lands out in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And as party did that, I kind of was pushing for the idea of doing kind of local native ingredients, the covenants that we entered, we would stick entirely to native plants and native wildlife being reintroduced to the area. But I tried to kind of push where I could to make some of them more edible. And the original idea was that this was going to be like the side of a restaurant, right, I do kind of a longterm, maybe I could do like a father kin Noma sort of deal. And at the time, I was, you know, still cooking and doing some work as that was 2007 to 2010. So I was still a cook at that point. And overtime, I kind of learned how to like preserve things more and more. And now what we do is we take ingredients that we formed from the property, we brew them into different needs wines and turn those into finished vinegars. And then in some cases, you know, we do things like soy sauces, barbecue sauce, fermented salts, it's a it's a really wide range of kind of pantry goods built on what we forage out here. So you have a super when I consider like hyperlocal you know, bunch of products Papaw vinegar or black locust hickory, you've got cool things like pecan tamari, you know, I really love that, because it's of time and place, I guess, kind of like in that five akin Noma kind of idea. I mean, is that how you see it, that was definitely where it started from, I think it was definitely built with the idea that like, cuisine is largely informed by its pantry, frankly. And if you wanted to start from creating a unique identity, in a geo specific way, you have to actually have like pantry goods that reflect that. And for Virginia that just didn't exist. And I think really, for the United States, at the time, it was pretty limited, because a lot of what you saw in terms of locality, as far as pantry was concerned, was really driven by a desire to emulate what Europe had already been doing, and really what the rest of the world had been doing. Right. And that's changed a lot in the last 10 years. Now there's a ton of other people doing kind of the same sort of thing where it's, it's it's locally defined pantry goods, that they're brewing themselves, but that was really kind of the impetus was like not to just to give that to what I wanted to do, but also to give that to other chefs. Because the other thing too is, you know, when you talk to a vendor, and I kind of learned this as a cook, but like if you talk to a vendor, if you talk to a producer, a farmer, and artisan, they don't really think like chefs, that mentality of kind of, sort of constant experimentation combined with or just, you know, like radical add, if you want to put a little more bluntly, and then like, sort of a need to be able to do things like comparing and contrasting flavors with their, their base inputs. There, it's it's a field that's largely governed by tradition, right? Whereas with chefs, there's a lot more experimentation, there's a lot of versatility, there's a lot of accommodation that you need to make. Hospitality is a feature of the restaurant world, it's not a feature of the artisan world. And so you know, all those things were sort of influences and how I was making products that I think, you know, if you were looking at somebody like a traditional vendor, who was making, you know, red wine, vinegar, balsamic or whatever, that's just not how they think about a product. So it was it was kind of a nexus of those two ideas of like, how do you get to something that is at once accommodating and versatile, but then also, like, really reflective of where you are, and sort of a tradition that doesn't necessarily exist?Daniel Liberson:
And how did you feel about that in relation to the history and tradition of vinegar? Like, these people from Italy, Spain, places like that, what would they think of your vinegar making methods?Chris Spear:
They'd want to kill me, I think is the, if they're if they're in a good mood. I want you know, it's interesting, because part because part of it is like who you talk to, right? Because like, you know, Eric gegen Bauer, right? That's, that's a name that's been making oddball vinegars for, you know, since I was born, and the family had been making vinegar for, you know, over a century, as far as the larger sort of, you know, brewing worlds of vinegar is concerned, it's really out of step with what most people would be doing. And also I, you know, I'll admit that that was somewhat self serving in a couple of respects, right, one of which is, I'm not going to compete with a 200 year old house in Modena. I've got you know, nine years under under my belt as of April of lindera. Existence, you know, a little over a decade, if I take the experience I had prior to starting lindera I don't I don't really think I owe much of a candle to a series of houses who like combined 1000s of years of age into an experience into what they're doing. So like try not emulate what they were doing. Felt like a fool's errand and then on top of that, like, you know, just sort of an economics underpinning to it to where like, you know, if you've been around for 200 years and you're selling 100 Euro little vinegar that commands a pretty high price point that I'm not going to be able to like even if I were to like, emulate that and even nail it to to a tee I'm not going to be able to like turn around and kind of hit that sort of price target because there's simply isn't the narrative to it. That on the other hand, they can't make a Virginian based vinegar right they can't make a Pol Pot vinegar they can't do you know what we can do with ramps or elderflower, or black locust or you know any of these things. So, you know, I kind of had to take a look not just as like, you know, how do you take a look at something like that traditionally and see how do you fit it, but we had to really sort of say like, we're not going to be doing anything like that because we would die. We wouldn't be competitive at all.Daniel Liberson:
Where did you start? What was your line? What was your first vinegar or vinegars? How many did you have when you first startedChris Spear:
out? The first three vinegars we made were honey, elderflower and Mulberry, the Huntington style that is still kind of the one I've I think I've been most proud of over the years because it's a it's really tied to one producer and that's golden angels apiary out in Harrisonburg, Virginia. With elderflower in the Mulberry, we're forging those, and that's coming from here. And it's they've also like, like improved a lot over the years when mulberry has become a reserve rival because it's always been really difficult to make. And you know, your risk when you're first starting, if you make like 10 gallons of something and you go and sell to your friends. I mean, you're technically operating a business at that point. But like, if you actually want to think about scale that was just never really going to be able to take off. Same thing with for like for elderflowers. Just it's a temperament there temperamental planets, whereas you know, honey, that was really just a question of like, that was the first time where I think I had to work with a producer and really know backwards and forwards what their practices were and got a chance to see how that translated into a product. And as we've grown, we've always kind of come back to that one even as you know I foraging new places or, you know, we work with new farms on one ingredient or the other the honey is the most consistent thing that we always go back to because what they do at Golden angels is really innovative in that they are a, you know, non interventionist beekeeping operation, they're kind of a testament to the idea that like, actually honey should be like a totally sustainable thing that is beneficial to the bees, and the quality of the product that they produce as a result is like immaculate. And so um, yeah, that was those are the first three and I'm still I still kind of look back on them pretty fondly at this point.Daniel Liberson:
For the honey one, do you have to make that into like a Mead like a honey alcohol first? Yeah. Yeah. SoChris Spear:
the process for vinegar making is actually it's stunningly Simple, right? Any alcohol can be converted through a seed of bacteria into A into an acetic acid and instead of other byproducts, and that, that that composite of acids and residual sugars and everything else is what we understand to be vinegar, right? And so really, if you have alcohol and you have a seat of factor, you can make vinegar. It's just that simple. So the question that is, you know, how do you make alcohol? Well, anything you do anything that has sugar, sooner or later, you can you can, you can figure out a way to convert that over into an alcohol and then into vinegar. So, you know, for honey, that's a really direct meat, right? For something like a mulberry that's actually a composite meat, it's, you know, like a sizer would be the cider slash mean term for it. And I think he kind of take that idea and apply it to, you know, a lot of other things that we're doing. And it's really ingredient specific. This is another area where like, I tend to think like a chef, where, you know, what you're really trying to do is you're trying to highlight whatever you're working with. And so, you know, the way I work with flowers is completely different from the way I work with honey, which is completely different from the way we work with berries, which is completely different from cider, etc. So, yeah, it is that initial process, but it just changes from thing to from product to product.Daniel Liberson:
So what does that look like? Process wise? Like? How long does it take? You've got an idea to use a new berry plant something for vinegar? How hard is it to kind of get to that final product? are you basing it off of something similar? Like if it's a berry you look at previous berry vinegars?Chris Spear:
Sure. I mean, you know, you want as many reference points as you can get when you're trying to experiment with something new. Because you know, you at least you don't necessarily want to be operated in blindly sometimes I think if you have kind of more of a set, like if I, if I know, I'm not going to sell something that first year, then it's a little easier for me to kind of just let it do whatever it wants to do. And you know, you go back, you check it over time, you see what happens, you do your best to sort of document what you have. And then once you land on a product that you know, you either want to sell or you don't you kind of reference it the next time around that you want to take a crack at something and other things where I want it to be a little more of a certainty. And that's usually I'd say that the ones where I can afford to be a little bit more experimental are usually things that I'm forging or that I haven't forged previously or that we have like a really good year of and I just want to see kind of what it does, right? I remember the very first time we did a Pol Pot vinegar was pretty much like that, and the flavor profile was great, but it weren't that behaving pretty oddly because it These are pretty massive pectin, this and it was actually a sharp rock that referenced me over to the idea of using pectinase to break up that mist. And so you kind of you sort of learned as you go with some of these things, because, you know, there's, there isn't a tradition for it. And there isn't a, you know, necessarily a flat recipe that you're kind of referencing and going back to and figuring that out. So, you know, there's always sort of a living learning experience to everything that we're doing. And it's also worth saying, you know, you learn every you relearn things or learn new details over time, like, like kind of any other craft, you know, we making the honey vinegar, you know, to the earlier point for over 10 years now. And I still feel like there's things that I'm pulling out of it, there's different combinations I've tried over the years, there's different you know, woods, we've touched it, we've had to touch and, you know, you pull out something different every time you try and land on sort of a similar space to where you were similar place to where you were the previous, the previous batch. But there's definitely things that like, if I could, I would probably tweakDaniel Liberson:
I love Paw Paws, first of all, and I want to try that pop up vinegar sometime I, I go harvesting for them every year, but I don't think I'm going to try making my own vinegar that sounds like a big can of worms.Chris Spear:
So rather than go wrong, particularly with Pol Pot, because there's so many different aromatics there, and there are so many different qualities, you can wind up with, like some pretty unpleasant odors, it's really tricky. So you've got to kind of, for lack of a better terms, what you're trying to do is optimize for certain types of yeast to become dominant, or you're trying to like, create a batch first with like a meat or something along those lines where you know, you're gonna have a predictable outcome. And then you're sort of feeding that there's, there's a couple of different ways that you can get to these get to a finished product on these things. But like, anytime you're foraging, you're sort of gambling that whatever you're about to make isn't going to take on, you know, some random yeast that makes every that you know, makes everything smelled like eggs for the rest of your life. Which you know, when you when you've had that happen for like, you know, 100 gallons of something, you that's pretty discouraging, it definitely makes you it makes you second guessed the idea of doing welfare that's pretty pretty aggressively at that point. But you know, the times where you get something that's like really super relative, and you know that nobody else is really going to hit that because it is such a unique product because they are wild yeasts, and it's a wild product and everything else that went into it. Those are those are pretty rewarding moments too.Daniel Liberson:
Do you recommend people try making vinegars at home? Like is it something that could become an amateur hobby,Chris Spear:
you know, it's funny, I've been dealing I've had people who have done it and people who don't, I guess my My thing is always it's fun to play around with. It's definitely if you're like are into fermentation, it's a it's a pretty accessible way in what I always kind of tell people is like, you know, do it as long as it's like fun and not too too too space consuming and don't kind of go haywire over it. You know, if you like kick around like our fermentation on Reddit or something like that. There's a lot of people with kind of like fun small projects, I think that's cool. Where you see people kind of in misery themselves with their hobbies is when they kind of get into this sort of like odd middle space where they start like making it for you know, a bunch of their friends or for their colleagues are like it you know, I've met a lot of cooks over the years who like do stuff in restaurants. And it's interesting to see how that always goes into decline. Nobody ever really person unless they turn it into their own business, right. But like, it never really persist because the truth is that like it's a really, it's an idiosyncratic field that lends itself better to things like economies of scale, it's like hard to operate in the position that I'm in which is still small batch, like you're much better off doing something like what Assa league is doing right where you're going for a much larger scale. And you're kind of doing like a Heinz Kraft thing, where you're going to have a ton of different products across a bunch of different lines, and you're going to use you know your vinegars at baseline, like, it just it's a weird field to be in. And when you talk to other people further down the line, it's really interesting to see people who are bigger than where we are at lindera, who kind of say like, ya know, because there's promise there, but a lot of people's perception is still kind of negative. So I always tell people, if you want to do it at home, like Have at it, but um, you know, maybe second guessed that if you're like, you know what I should do time to start my own business. And then, you know, nine years later, you're, you're going like, oh, wow, this is really hard. I don't make this bigger. So it because I only say that a reference to it, because I think part of whatever somebody says that there's a small part of me that goes into my head and says, Oh, I started making vinegar that way. Alright, it was mason jars with little coverings held in place on you know, my counter my apartment, and, you know, nine years in the company later, it's funny how hobbies get bigger. It is interesting, you know, I tend to only do those things if I can't find the product and now products are so available. You know, it's like, if there weren't a million amazing, interesting flavors of vinegar, maybe but it's like beer, right? Like I home brewed for a while and it's fun. And at some point, you're like, man, there's like 4000 different varieties of beer at my local store. Like why am I doing all this to get 50 bottles of like some mediocre IPA When I could just go buy a better beer. Some of it comes out of cooking, though, right? I mean, yeah, definitely, I mean, enjoying that process. But you can go down that rabbit hole where it gets really weird and become super time consuming. And then you're starting to like, maybe not even enjoy it anymore. I kind of wonder where whether this is a cart before the horse question. But I kind of think that cooks in particular are really predisposed towards that experimental aspect of learning something new and the sort of hands on nature of it. Because you see this, I think, with a lot of people who do well in kitchens, where there is sort of an add quality. And as we see new projects, we think, like, Well, can I make that or I could make that right, depending on who you're talking to. And, and then like, well, what if I try it with x, right? Or what if I substitute y what if I do it at this temperature? What if I do it in this space? What if I oxygenate it, if I don't What about you know, and you want to play around with these things? I think part because when you're you know, when you're when you're a cook, there is a I don't want to short so how difficult the job is, but there is sort of a boredom that can kind of creep in when you're, you know, prepping and plating the same thing, you know, day in day out for, you know, a stretch of time. You know, I think every cooks experience the sort of monotony that comes with that. And then you get distracted by, you know, the opportunity to do sort of your own r&d When you're making somebody else's food for other guests, right there is that kind of like, oh, this is for me kind of quality to experimentation. And whether it's home brewing or fermenting, or anything else, I think that that sticks with us, even as we leave the field. And I definitely see where you're at with that, how that kind of played into what I was doing and how lindero started. And I think you're right, it's the kind of thing where you don't have that exact motivation, right? If you've got other things on your plate, it's like I if I don't really need to add something to the space, it sort of begets the question of like, why go unnecessarily do it except to see like, how it works. And even then if you've got other things on your plate, maybe not that interesting to you at that point. You know, now I'm a personal chef. And I work by myself, I used to be part of a big corporate kitchen where I had 100 employees, and you could do these kinds of fun side tangente things. And when I started my business, I said, I'm only going to serve 100% of the things I make, right. And like I remember making gluten free crackers for a customer. And it's just like, it was fun. But then you're like, This is not sustainable. Like there's no way that it's just going to work in any world that I'm doing a dinner party for six people, and I'm going to like make homemade gluten free crackers, like you can buy really good, like pick those battles, right? Like, where's that time, best spent. And it's a fun project. I'm glad I learned how to do it. But the same with the vinegar is it's like, Yeah, I'd love to maybe learn how to make some. But if I can also buy ramp vinegar from you, like the smart choice is probably to buy that and then use it in a dish where I can be creative using really awesome products. There's a question of economics to it too, right? Like I, you know, I had a conversation with a chef who was making his own vinegar a while back. And he kind of remarked at how like, it's super cheap, when you're just thinking about what you're putting into, you know, for him for Canberra, right? But then the second you sit there and say like, okay, but now I gotta I gotta keep making it because I got a dish that's working really well. And now I gotta think about the labor and I gotta think about the space and the storage and everything else. And now it's become a real hassle. And I'm like, Well, yeah, because it's, that's the nature of it. Right? And you do, I always second guess, the DIY aspect of kitchens. And the way that that's developed over time, and I keep, you know, one thing that I've learned through through lindera, and we are we aren't at this point, but it is more visible now that we're was is like, you can actually do really high end product at scale. And once you hit a certain scale and hit a certain level of we aren't here again, but like there are mechanical solutions for what we're doing. Right, you can mechanize you can, you know, if you are a large enough work with, you know, other whether it's a co Packer or you know, a marketing team, any number of things that sort of reduce your costs in a way that you can pass on to your consumer. And that goes doubly so for the wholesale side of the equation. So I sometimes wonder if you know, like, rather than having like around 2000 or so like the entry boom, that that cooks all hat and fine dining hat, right. Like, like, like if Anthony Bourdain had been like a brewer or something, you know, like, Where would we be on like restaurant costs in aggregate? Right? Would we see things like commercial real estate much lower than where they are right now? Would we see kind of less saturated markets? Would we see more artisans and kind of a bigger, you know, presence of like really high end or kind of cool stuff in the DTC field. I know it's opportunity cost. You're trying to gauge what would have landed there, but you're 100% Right. And I actually wonder if some of this stuff would be better and more accessible if we saw people buying on it. A routine basis and this is this, there's no way to say this without sounding self serving to some degree, right. But like, you do wonder where it would have landed, if you kind of had more competition in the space, and less sort of on monetized value outside of it from, you know, clientele that you would prospectively have, right. And I don't like to pick on fine dining, but I am gonna poke a little bit because we have had this history of these, you know, high end, whether it be Michelin or whatever kitchens where they had a lot of labor quite often unpaid, whether it's in the form of stages, or just super low paid. So you can do a whole lot of stuff when you're not paying everyone in the kitchen. $15 an hour and up. And I think as we start to reconcile that, and kitchens, you will probably see some of this stuff drop off. And we're not going to be making every single ingredient in the kitchen, because you don't have a guy who's not getting paid to stand over in the corner and do some of your work. I find it in a weird spot on restaurants, which is like, I actually think that the villainous aspect in a lot of restaurant restaurants is actually its capitalization, right? Like, when you take a look at restaurants as a whole and the people working with them, you'll meet some of like the most talented industrious people that you'll meet, if any professional especially if you go from the restaurant world, and then sort of see, like either the corporate or just sort of like, you know, the larger professional space for people who don't work in sort of a craft or, or let's call it a physically demanding field, right. And there's a ton of redundancy, right, there's a ton of there's hundreds of these aspects to those fields that you cannot see in a restaurant. Whereas in a restaurant, it's like the polar opposite, right, there is still those sort of, there are still those sorts of kind of Bourdain esque stories about, you know, Chef slash account slash repairman slash, you know, that you you kind of have to figure out how to wear all those different hats, whereas the story of kind of corporate America is one person wearing half a hat, right? But being paid for three. And then you take a look at, like how these things develop. And it's one chef with 10 different restaurants. And, you know, any calm one on one course will tell you that that's driving up the price of real commercial real estate, inputs, labor, etc, within a given field, because a lot of this stuff is localized, right? Traditionally, when you see a Restaurant Group, it's in one city. And then on top of that, they're cannibalizing their own clientele. So now you're actually detracting from your own sales, even as you're expanding your footprint. And all of this isn't coming from just like the returns of the restaurant world, right? This is not like getting built off of the 10% profit margin of a cup of a restaurant making, you know, $1.5 million a year, it's coming from finance, from finance, and that finance is being reckless in a way that it would never be in other fields, you're not really going to like double or triple down into our restaurant group where like, the aggregate profit is like 300k, a year across three different channels in any other space, except restaurants, because for some reason, the expectations game changes with restaurants in a way that allows for certain opportunities. So like, you'll see chefs who who become, you know, frankly, celebrity chefs, and they do really well on the back of their own towels because they're being afforded an opportunity that I think if somebody was taking a look at their books, the way that they take a look at like say a startup in almost any other space, they probably wouldn't really go for it's almost it's impossible to have a conversation about without taking you up like several hours of time because you're dissecting all of these different sort of competing interests within the space and how we kind of got to this exact point but I do think it all it all feeds you know from one space into into the other so you get like the DIY movement born out of the idea that like well yeah, I can have these disposable labor costs in the form of stages or the fact that I'm just not paying cooks all that well. Right and a bunch of people sign off on that and so you get an in house recruiter in house vinegar and house for man's you know r&d You name it the whole the whole the whole gamut but like you don't you don't get to a place where like you know you can afford health care for like like like like good health care for people up until you know the ACA comes along right you get into a space where you have to come up with weird compensation for people you you find your you find people who like are like in favor of taking care of their employees but they don't want like the tipped wage to go you know, it just it's it's weird stuff like that because the competing interests don't align with like the economics of the industry writ large. Sorry, I spent too much time thinking about this and so it comes across as a giant jumble. Because all my thoughts sort of come out at once. We're looking at your business what do you wish you knew before you started a business? I mean, I'm sure like many of us you kind of did a little research and jumped into it. But if you could go back to yourself when you started what would you tell yourself? Capital in partnership is everything and don't do it if you don't have both? So I'm sure you can relate to this on some level but I you know, coming from Fortune because I was a product guy. And so what I do the best, ultimately is kind of trying to find sort of odd or interesting lanes, product wise, and that that aren't really they don't really exist within the market or didn't exist within the market at the time when I started them. I'm pretty good when it comes to, you know, coming up with a deliverable. So you know, the whole package, right, the bottle, the cork, the label, I'm able to kind of coordinate a team to get something over the finish line. That's, that's, that's better than what you know, the market typically provides by when I started, you know, everything was was was was bootstrapped. You know, when Dara we we literally operate out of a barn here on the farm, that I basically, I didn't build the building itself, but it was an equipment storage shed, I was a farm equipment storage. So we removed everything, I carried everything out by hand, I built all the shelving adult, you know, the fermentation tanks, I built everything that's in there. And that's a good way to start an idea, that's a good way to figure out if the idea has legs, but the second it does, you need to be willing to fund it. And you need to be willing to kind of go however you need to or go to whoever you need to invest, you're wise. And if somebody says no, you go to somebody until they until you get the kind of yes, that you need, and you properly funded and you aggressively hit the market. I think that with food, there was a trepidation that kind of stemmed that kind of mirrors, I think like, like you see this for food trucks, right, where, you know, it's like, yeah, I've got this, you know, small business, and I operate out of a food truck. And we know, we do have, you know, a couple 100,000 in revenue a year. And it's enough to kind of keep myself going. But like, there's no there isn't stability in that. And that's, that's a that's a personal aspect of it. But I also think the other thing, too, is if you really want to kind of see just how far you how far you can take something, you actually got to start pretty aggressively, pretty early, you're really only looking for sort of better than proof of concept, you're looking for positive feedback, but you need to the ability to like actually form a large enough team to like really see if your idea is serious or not. And if it's not, if it doesn't bear out, you know, there's going to be loss associated with that. But better to find that out quickly, than to drag it. And I think the other thing, too, is don't ever start an idea entirely by yourself. Or if you do have somebody who's willing to buy in fast enough to where you can get a second set of eyes that feels the same set of stakes, as you do. And I you know, Nick OCONUS talks about the idea of you know, skin in the game. And I think that that's like actually really critical when you're looking at whether it's an investor or a partner, or just somebody who you're working with right. Equity is a form of compensation, I think it gives some people the chills. But you know, the reality is that if everybody who's giving you kind of insight or guidance doesn't really have a stake in the success of what you're building, they're going to act accordingly. And it doesn't mean that they're poorly intention, I've had some really good advice from people or really bad advice from really smart people who meant well. And it's been really, really damaging over the years. And it's probably cost me a lot as much as the good stuff has helped me. And so really coming into it with a setup with an additional set of eyes, sometimes that you buttheads with, but like you can communicate with really well. And that can help you and feels the same sense of ownership that you do is absolutely invaluable. Nothing else really kind of compares and doesn't really matter. You know how good the advice or assistance or help you get outside of it, if somebody feels like they can just get up and walk away, and they don't have the sense of detachment ownership that you do, it's really hard to get the kind of advice that you're going to need that really sort of takes your position into account. We've talked about that on the show a number of times, like whether it be having, you know, a co founder or whatever, you know, someone to kind of go go with you, because I've worked with people before. It's just kind of like, Hey, this is a person working with me. And when they've kind of had enough, they just kind of like, you know, something came up in my life. And it's time for me to like walk on, you're like, Oh, great. I was in the process of building this thing. But you know, it's not conducive, because like it's not as conducive, I think to the kind of the typical conversation that people in the startup space want to have, which is I think a lot more sanitized. And it's a lot of you know, like, oh, hustle, right? It's not overtime, you start to synonymous your identity with your work. And it's an inevitability because you're working seven days a week you're on call 24/7 You don't know, like $1 I under I only remember there are holidays, because I know that we're supposed to market for them. Like and like, which is the truly sad thing I think for most people to hear, right? But like, there is no escaping that aspect of it. And if somebody else can kind of walk away from an idea without it like profoundly affecting their being and I want to make it really clear here. I think that if you're in a if you're if you have that level of attachment to something and you want to sever that that's a totally reasonable thing to want. Don't Don't misunderstand. It's just that when you're in the driver's seat, and once you put yourself in the driver's seat, it's really easy to lose perspective. When you're getting advice from somebody or getting input from from from someone else. Whether that's customers or, you know, advisors, friends, family colleagues. because the level of risk somebody can tolerate, when they don't bear any of the responsibility is astronomical, right? It becomes the equivalent of like, if you've ever had a hot streak at, you know, roulette, Craps, Blackjack, whatever, and then somebody behind you is a yelling like double down like it's like, it's like, hey, how much did you bet on this? Nothing? Oh, interesting. So this doesn't this is why it doesn't really cost you much does it? Hmm. Whereas you're betting with everything, right? 100% of the time, right? Well, not not 100% of time, but like, it feels like in a lot of cases. And so, you know, if somebody doesn't have that level of buy in, you really do need to be willing to kind of compartmentalize, like, you might be getting good advice from them, you might not, but you got to remember that they don't lose anything if they're wrong, and you lose very much so and that is impossible to replicate. So it's not just a question of buy in, in terms of like, sort of tenacity, but it's also that like, people will not do the level of diligence that you're doing. And they're not going to do the level of diligence that a partner well, it also teaches you I think, the importance of kind of being open and where you're looking. Because the person who's actually kind of become the, the closest thing I have to a partner is my actual partner. And, you know, he now works with me is it kind of worked just for for sort of life events, because he's, he's sort of switched professions. And, you know, he's building a portfolio. So he does all of our website management, and he does all of our, you know, photographic assets, everything that you see on Instagram, that's him taking the photo, it's, he puts a ton of work into the edits, he does, you know, all of our product and label design now. So it's him whenever you see like a new product with a new label that's given me but like, he's, he's a huge creative force in it. And when the idea and the opportunity came to work with my romantic partner, the objective advice that every intelligent person in my world said was, Are you out of your fucking mind? And it's the only good partner I've ever had. And this is not universal advice, right? This is not something that like you should like, you know, what you really should be working with your wife, that's what you want to be like, I don't know, right? It's very idiosyncratic. It varies from from relationship relationship to person to person, you might be your best friend that you work with, or working with your best friend might be the worst fucking idea you ever have, the point that I would make more is be open about where it's going to come from. Because, you know, I've had people who were like, who came on board where, you know, their resume was as a former CEO of a startup. And while they were, they did not work out. And I'm sure they have complaints about me, too, I have people that you know, became, you know, foragers or any number of other any other jobs coming from working with me where it seemed like the trajectory was going to be more towards partnership, and they branch off and they do their own thing, but their resumes and their interest and everything at the time that they came on, suggested that you know, the gal was going to be more than the route that things went. And it's weird how that's worked out. And now we work with a couple of different firms for things that we used to try and hire for. And that works out much, much better. And a lot of that advice came frankly, from from my partner saying, like, actually, why don't we try working with a, you know, a different company, rather than hiring ourselves. And it just sort of gets to the point more that you're better off working with somebody that you can, that you can kind of trust and to develop that trust takes time. And it takes effort. And mine was idiosyncratic and personal and weird by a lot of other people's standards. But then like, by the same token, you know, the things that should have traditionally worked for me, or that should have traditionally worked in a business didn't didn't work for what we were trying to do. And you got to be open to where those people are going to come from. And I think the other thing to bear in mind, if that sounds odd, is if you're going to start your own business, you are inherently doing something that is abnormal. Most people don't do that anymore. Most people find secure jobs. And so you kind of have to be open to the idea that there's going to be some quirkiness in the way you started a company when you take a look at how most big companies or even medium scale one start. You know, those are odd stories. You can see a lot of similarities and businesses but every business is a complete, independent, weird thing on its own. So you can't necessarily look and say like, that worked for this company. That's what I'm gonna do. Sure you can try it but might not work out. I guess the one thing the big question I have before we finish up today is kind of going back to the beginning of the story. How did you get your product out there? Like where did you start? You decided you want to make vinegar? You're making vinegar? How did you turn it into a now successful and sustainable business? Like you had to get it in front of people? And what was that? I you know, it's funny, I think, the very first sale yeah, pretty sure the very first cell we made was to minibar by Jose Andres. And it was because my friend Johnny Sparrow was the Chef de Cuisine there at the time. And he was super enthusiastic and he brought him in I'm in turn eternally grateful to him for giving me the opportunity really because you know, when you're working as a you know, craftsperson, and you're trying to target you know, restaurants. So much of the industry is built on who Unless you're selling to, right, there is a ton of you know, credential, frankly, that comes with kind of working with that. And so, you know, there's this line that Kevin Plank had, which is commercial sales drive retail success. And I think that's probably true. But I think the way I tend to think about it more is, you know, your, your, what you're looking for, when you're getting started as credential, right, you're looking for serious people that take you seriously. And, you know, that's kind of that was our very first kind of weigh in. And I would sort of advise something similar for almost anybody, especially in the food world, because you know, especially when it's hard to capitalize on it really often is for small food businesses, which is a whole nother conversation, but that that was how we got started. And I always kind of tell people, like, find some people who you take seriously, who will take you seriously with your product, or when it comes to your product. Because that one, if everybody laughs you out, there's a good chance that there's something there, I There are certainly those stories of like, everyone laughed at me, but I showed them and like, you know, like, that's, that's like Dyson, right? Like a great example of a guy who like, you know, tried to make a vacuum cleaner for basically the sum total of the UK and one person took them up on it. And that's what what ultimately helps them break through. By the same token, that is the exception and not the rule. And so especially when it comes to food, you know, if you find a set of chef's that like really like what you're making, you might have something that a lot of other people are going to take to because their job, you know, one thing that I think is really unique about the spaces that are your job as a chef is to have a palette that is going to suit the sum total of your guests, right. And so you're not, you're going to be successful, if you have a palette that only hits you know, that only does well with 80% of them, you've got to be closer to the you know, 95th percentile. And so if you have a product that they try, and that they really dig, chances are, they're climbing taller, where they're going to dig it, which means that the broader market is probably going to take what you're making. So yeah, that was my freeway was was through high end restaurants and through shops. And that's kind of that also helps, too, because, you know, it's hard to figure out quality. And if somebody had the three Michelin level, you know, we have, we're incredibly blessed to have you know, we've had Thomas Keller restaurants and Jose Andres and you know, David Kenshin, and John shields, and Sean Brock, and all these people who've really dug our products over the years and, you know, if I can, if I can get those guys happy, even briefly, right, I can probably make something that like, you know, the average home cook is going to enjoy. That's not to, you know, to belittle anybody at home cooked. But when you're that discerning of a pallet, it tends to work well down. Whereas, you know, I think if I was making something that like worked, Donald's I think it's pretty safe to say that like on the higher end, I don't think kids would account for that. Well, you did pretty good. Hitting it kind of at the top. Well, before we get out of here today, I want people to be able to find your products, where can they pick up your products? Besides, I know, I know, online, all of your products are available online, correct? Yeah, so So ecommerce is really, you know, since the pandemic become pretty much our chief mode of getting products across. And actually, we're planning on doing kind of a revamp, you know, one of the one of the ideas that we've been trying to figure out, and I think that we're probably going to have it, you know, when we did farmers markets or when we did these little retail things, one of the things that was kind of cool that I always really enjoyed, and I lost it with a pandemic was the ability to do super, super, super small batch experimental products, right, like where we could like print our own label, and you know, play around with doing our own barbecue sauces, or doing our own, you know, do your own research or doing any number of things. And so, you know, we always tell people to kind of take a look at the website and now what we're going to actually have is sort of different tiers, and one area is going to be doing it entirely just sort of like super small, you know, like no more than like five gallon or so batches of, you know, products that we've been testing or playing around with and stuff like that. So we definitely tell people take a look at the website because that's really where now where we do the most experimentation in terms of you know, our channels and kind of what we can get to people.Daniel Liberson:
Anything you have coming out so you'd like seasonally, anything special coming out that you want to plugChris Spear:
we've been playing around with a miso vinegary meter on visa last year, we let it age for the better part of a year and then that that ferments into of Earth ferments alongside a rice wine vinegar, or in the rice wine vinegar, excuse me that we've made. So we're just finishing that up and we're hoping to have that on the site relatively soon. That's a super small batch one so that'll be kind of the one of the first sort of experimental varieties that we make. But yeah, I've got a ton of stuff that we're doing I guess the biggest thing is we've been you know, we've always made these kind of these these foraged and you know, kind of esoteric products like ramp vinegar or Pol Pot etc. This is our first year we started this in the fall but we started working around the idea of a red wine vinegar and we wanted to stick entirely with native grapes. So we did not we have a it's a blend of Norton's musketeers Conchords and we're finishing actually on slightly charred grape vines. So that we're we're pretty excited about and that one along with our apple cider vinegar, and it can be our first kind of like, red wine, apple cider vinegars that are that are more I'd say. kind of broad market, I guess for lack of a better term.Daniel Liberson:
Well, thanks so much for coming on the show. It was great having you and hopefully we can catch up again sometime in the future.Chris Spear:
Thanks so much, Chris. I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to work together again. And to all of our listeners. As always, this has been Chris with the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. Go to chefs without restaurants.org. To find our Facebook group, mailing list and check database. The community is free to join. You'll get gig opportunities, advice on building and growing your business and you'll never miss an episode of our podcast. Have a great week.