They began with their grandmothers’ recipes, or by searching for a healthier way to eat — or they fell into the business accidentally. But one ingredient shared by all of the creators of these local food products is passion.
The food business is a precarious one and success is by no means assured. Most producers worked full-time jobs to support themselves while the business got going — and some still do. But through the lean days, close calls and the unexpected problems that even success can create, each of them persisted.
From the Richmond entrepreneurs selling at farmers markets to those who have graduated to the big leagues, here’s a taste of the people filling shelves with products that are firmly entrenched in the local market and beyond.
Alex Brito, Alexander Burlingame
If someone offered you chocolate, you probably wouldn’t turn it down. And when Alexander Burlingame handed a piece to Alex Brito, it didn’t end there. Brito noticed that the chocolate was more than, well, chocolaty.
“All of the sources of cocoa beans have their own unique flavors to them,” he says. “With the right roast profiles and the right combination of sugars, you can pull out those flavors.”
Burlingame was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. The two walked into the “Shark Tank”-like pitch meeting of the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Go for It program. They won $5,000 and three months of mentoring for their new chocolate business.
Another accelerator program — by Lighthouse Labs — and the two had the funding and support to buy larger equipment and move into a commercial kitchen.
Brito and Burlingame select their beans carefully, paying three to five times more than the industry standard to make sure the growers are treated fairly. After the beans are roasted and the hulls removed, the nibs go into a machine that grinds 65 pounds at a time. The friction turns the beans into a liquid that ultimately becomes chocolate bars that they’ve named things such as the Hype Bar and the Party Bar.
Upchurch Chocolate can be found in 39 stores, including For the Love of Chocolate and J.M. Stock Provisions, among other specialty spots in Richmond. upchurchchocolate.com.
Austin Green, Rob Wooten, Greg White
Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix
Bartender Austin Green wanted a Bloody Mary mix that didn’t need to be tweaked or made from scratch.
Greg White, whom you can find behind the bar at Belle & James, challenged Green to a Bloody Mary competition along with other friends at a New Year’s Eve party, and Green ended up beating the rest. The two started talking about going into business together.
“It’s a bartender’s Bloody Mary mix,” he says. “You can just pour it.”
Rob Wooten joined them as partner to handle marketing, Brad Douglas illustrated the label, and the business got underway about two years ago with the help of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The folks there helped Green and White find a bottling company.
Texas Beach, named after a part of the James River Park System, now uses two bottlers. Weather events such as Hurricane Hermine can disrupt the supply, and an additional source gives the company a little more security.
The mix is sold at Once Upon a Vine, Olio and Lombardy Market, along with other local stores.
Green still works a few shifts at Pasture but runs the business mostly full-time now. The company intends to be in the black by Jan. 1, he says, “which is kind of incredible for a company 2 years old. texasbeachbloodymary.com.
Daddy G.’s Rockin’ Salsa
To a certain generation of Richmonders, the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café is a touchstone. It was a place to hang out, dip a chip into a Fort Worth Star Telegram and cool off with a Lone Star beer.
One of the things that Border fans most fervently loved — in addition to the chili — was the restaurant’s salsa.
“It was sort of hard right from marinara,” Chris Galiffa says. The salsa was smooth, with a nice but not overpowering burn, and Galiffa discovered that it was chock full of parsley when a friend and former Border server gave him the recipe.
“I tinkered with the recipe over 13 years as a hobby,” he says, “and when I shared it with the owner of a local craft brewery, he finally coerced me to offer it to his patrons.”
Three years after Daddy G.’s Rockin’ Salsa launched, the line includes smoked, verde and grilled varieties, plus a chilled queso blanco. It can be found in more than 30 breweries and specialty shops across Virginia, including Libbie Market and Little House Green Grocery. Plans for big grocery chains and more restaurants are in the works.
“I no longer feel I’m living in the shadow of the Border Café,” Galiffa says. “I’ve definitely succeeded with my own recipes and have worked extremely hard to expand the Daddy G. brand.” facebook.com/DaddyGsRockinSalsa.
Marcia Adkins, Lynda Gilbertson
Do the Jerk-ey
Sometimes you know that you can do it better. Lynda Gilbertson and Marcia Adkins were eating store-bought beef jerky and decided to try to make something more flavorful than what was available. They soon came up with something they liked — as did their friends and co-workers, who began encouraging them to make a business of it.
First, Gilbertson and Adkins had to get their kitchen certified by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Then they had to find sources for the meat that they use. They discovered Colorado farms that raise deer, buffalo and elk, which inspired their exotic varieties.
It’s a time-consuming product to make: “It’s like watching paint dry,” Gilbertson says.
The meat goes into the refrigerator for a day or two and then is placed in the dehydrator. It can take anywhere from 18 to 24 hours until it’s ready — which means the whole process takes two to four days. They even dry grapes that become the raisins in their trail mix.
Gilbertson and Adkins sell the jerky and trail mix at the South of the James Farmers Market, the Carytown Farmers Market and festivals throughout the year — for now.
“We’re trying to grow a little bit,” Gilbertson says. “We’re trying to see how we do as a wholesaler.” dothejerk-ey.com.
Lauren Elmakis, Rupa Tak, Vineeta Shah
There’s an allergy epidemic in this country and no one’s quite sure why. But the explanation becomes unimportant when your child or spouse can go into anaphylactic shock from a trace of peanuts.
Staying away from danger can be hard when you want to grab a quick snack. Lauren Elmakis, Vineeta Shah and Rupa Tak all knew how difficult it could be. Most health bars contain nuts — and lots of sugar.
So the three decided to come up with a recipe for a snack bar that was allergen-free, healthy and appealing to kids.
“It was our goal to create a product that was something that a parent or caregiver would make in their kitchen if they had the time,” Tak says.
Each partner has a different strength. Shah is a dietician and helped to come up with the high-protein, high-fiber and low-sugar snack — a substantial bar, Tak says. Elmakis and her husband, Avrum, own Best Bully Sticks, a dog treat company, and along with Tak, who is a former investment banker, provided the entrepreneurial savvy to get the business off the ground.
The Children’s Museum of Richmond, the Science Museum of Virginia, Libbie Market and Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market are a few of the locations where GoFar Snacks are sold.
“It’s been a complete career change,” Tak says. “And I love it.” gofarsnacks.com.
Ann Colby, Helen Lohmar, Scottie Phillips
Willie Byrd Chocolate Sauce
Ann Colby was allowed to have her grandfather’s chocolate sauce only on special occasions. After he died, Colby asked her mother to find the recipe.
Colby and her two daughters, Helen Lohmar and Scottie Phillips, began making the sauce to give away. She says the three realized that they had something special when they started to receive thank-you notes immediately, effusively praising the gift.
“We knew we loved his chocolate sauce, but we had no idea!” Colby says. “We just thought it’d make a great Christmas present and was something fun for the three of us to do together.”
Inspired by KimKim Sauce’s Steve Kim, they contacted Ashman Manufacturing and Distributing Co., and Willard Ashman shepherded Willie Byrd — their grandfather’s nickname — onto grocery shelves.
The four flavors — caramel, espresso, peppermint and the original dark — can be found in Libbie Market, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market and elsewhere. And although they swapped out Baker’s chocolate for Belgian, they haven’t made any changes to the original recipe.
“This year is our first year at Bizarre Bazaar,” she says. “I think if it doesn’t kill me, we’ll keep going.” williebyrdsauce.com.
Anya and John Mills
Crunch Dynasty is an exotic, spicy topping that works well with lots of food — think of it as a crunchy hot sauce. Anya Mills had eaten the spice mixture with meals for most of her life. Her mother, a Chinese chef, came up with it and it’s been a staple on the family table.
Once friends of Mills and her husband, John, got a taste, they started asking for some to take home. His mother-in-law started making big batches, he says: “We would bring it back and cut it up into little bags like a drug.”
The couple decided to see how it would do commercially three years ago and now whip it up in a commercial kitchen on very large, hot skillet. Everything is still done by hand, including packaging and labeling. You can find Crunch Dynasty at Whole Foods, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market and Libbie Market, among others.
“Right now it’s a hobby food business,” John says. “To be successful, it needs full-time dedication, but we’ve been kind of trying to learn the industry first.” crunchdynasty.com.
Sun Seasoned Raw Foods
It was the kind of blood work that you’d rather not get back. The numbers that Diana Gammon saw after a routine checkup made her doctor want to put her on medication. She wanted to try a different approach first.
“I changed how I ate,” she says — “not as a diet, but as a lifestyle.”
This meant radically cutting back on sugar. But Gammon still craved something sweet.
“My very favorite snack or dessert is banana-walnut bread,” she says. “I isolated the flavors and made a batch [of banana-walnut kale chips] at home. I loved them.” So did her co-workers, who started asking for more.
It occurred to her that others in her same predicament might like them, too. She started experimenting, buying crates of kale and boxes of bananas. The manager of her local Kroger was curious and asked to try Gammon’s chips.
Sun Seasoned, available in seven different flavors, is now in 73 Kroger stores and specialty groceries such as Libbie Market.
“It’s become more than full-time,” Gammon says. “It’s become full-time every minute of the day.” sunseasonedrawfoods.com.
Isabel Bates, Peggy Crowley, Alice Frankovitch
Three Sisters Cheese Straws
Peggy Crowley and her two sisters, Isabel Bates and Alice Frankovitch, ordered all the cheese straws on the market they could find to compare them with the ones that they’d made for 30 years. They discovered that their grandmother’s recipe produced a cheese straw that was flakier and more delicate than any of the others.
Originally, that seemed as if it might be a problem when it came to packaging. Fortunately, their uncle, a retired engineer, was happy to jump in and help. He suggested that they increase the straws’ girth slightly — about 1/16th of an inch.
He also came up with what Crowley describes as “a cookie press on steroids” — it has a long barrel and is powered by a drill battery. It significantly sped up the process.
The cheese straws are now in 40-plus stores, including Libbie Market and Little House Green Grocery.
“It’s real hard to figure out how a handmade business can grow,” Crowley says. The three don’t want to sacrifice any quality but the process to make their product limits scalability.
“Except for January when people go on a diet after Christmas, the sales are year-round,” she says. “Our cheese straws are just selling.” threesisters3.com.
Damn Yankee Chipotle Hot Sauce
Twenty-five-cent wings inspired Hugh Mosher’s hot sauce. He had a hankering for their smoky, spicy chipotle flavor since sports bar Out of Bounds closed and the wings were no more.
“I went through withdrawals,” he says.
He worked on his own version, but it wasn’t until he came upon simple syrup to add a touch of sweetness that he felt he got the sauce right. For the next two years, he gave it away.
“People kept offering me money,” Mosher says. His friends told him that he ought to sell the sauce commercially, he says.
When the weather turned nasty in February 2015, Mosher’s contracting business got busy, and he was able to take $1,500 to begin bottling his sauce. He started with four restaurants — O’Toole’s Restaurant & Pub, the Pig & Pearl, Poe’s Pub and River City Diner — with a run of 12 cases and four gallon-sized jugs.
Damn Yankee Chipotle Hot Sauce now can be found in 50 stores, including Union Market and Strawberry Street Market, in addition to the original four restaurants and others.
Why the name?
“I’m from northern New Jersey,” he says. “I got called a damn Yankee by my dear friends for the first three years I lived here.” newsouthdistributing.com.
Growing up as a Korean immigrant in New York, Steve Kim spent a lot of time in his mother’s kitchen, rolling dumplings, chopping vegetables and stirring sauces. One of those sauces, ssamjang, became the model for KimKim Sauce.
“It’s basically a mash-up of what I grew up on,” Kim says, “but made into an easily dispensable form.” The sauce gets its punch from the Korean fermented pepper paste, gochujang.
He gave the sauce away to family and friends, and at a photo shoot for a story I wrote a few years back, the response was so enthusiastic that he started to seriously consider selling it. Ted Ashman at Ashman Manufacturing and Distributing Co., a specialty bottling company in Virginia Beach, clinched the deal.
In its first year, KimKim Sauce won a gold medal at a 2012 National Association for Specialty Food Trade’s 2012 food show, and the bottles soon found their way into Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and specialty stores along the East Coast, including Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, Belmont Butchery and Tan-A. Kim is planning a Korean barbecue sauce and a Vietnamese marinade to add to the line.
“Our goal is to break out of the mid-Atlantic area,” he says. facebook.com/kimkimsauce.
Mike Lampros was a private chef at Reynolds Metals. He was about to enter an orange- balsamic vinaigrette recipe into a contest when his brother, Nick, a lawyer, explained that he’d be giving away his rights to the recipe. Nick suggested that his brother bottle it instead.
It took about two years to get it to that point, Lampros says, because he still worked as a full-time chef. He was just experimenting on the side, for fun. Once he was ready, he had his vinaigrette in 13 stores by the end of the first day. That was in 2001.
Lampros went full-time with the company eight years ago. The line now contains 15 products, including marinades, vinaigrettes, salsa and a bean dip. The company’s products have won 180 awards through the years, and Lampros stopped entering competitions two years ago.
You can find Gunther’s Gourmet across the United States, in four other countries, and locally at Kroger, Relay Foods and Little House Green Grocery, among other stores.
“I try to layer the flavors so that it hits your palate differently than mine,” he says. “It’s nuanced flavor and that’s why I think we’ve won so many awards.” gunthersgourmet.com.
An old recipe in a 19th-century cookbook for raspberry drinking vinegar inspired Meredyth Archer. Shrub, another name for the drink brought over by 17th-century English colonists, is one of the trendiest ingredients in craft cocktails.
Archer found herself with an empty nest last year when her youngest son graduated from high school and thought this drink that she made might find a wider audience.
“I finally decided that if I didn’t try to make it and sell it commercially, I’d forever regret that,” Archer says. “I woke up and threw away my excuses.”
She began her business in 2015, about the same time the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was putting on its annual food and beverage show. Mother Shrub was selected as one of its best new products.
“I realized then that I really had a business,” she says.
There are four varieties of Mother Shrub: lime, grapefruit, black cherry and cranberry, and it can be found at J.M. Stock Provisions, Kohlmann’s Neighborhood Market and other specialty stores.
“I’ve settled on some pretty basic flavors so that it’s not intimidating for people to try,” she says. mothershrub.com.
Age inevitably catches up with you. Shane Emmett, Dan Gluck and Nick Morris all were college athletes, but they realized that they needed to change the way that they ate to maintain good health as they got older.
After reading “Born to Run,” a book by Christopher McDougall about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, the three were struck by something unusual that the tribe of long-distance runners ate: chia seeds, chock full of fiber, protein and Omega-3s.
Emmett, a lawyer, had a full-time gig in then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s counselor’s office. “I got into this totally by accident,” he says.
They decided to start a little business on the side making chia bars and selling the seeds online. They named the company Health Warrior as a nod to the Tarahumara who inspired them.
A Wall Street Journal reporter noticed the bars in the Baltimore Ravens locker room and published a story that called Health Warrior’s chia the top-secret seed of the NFL.
“We sold about $100,000 worth of product on Amazon in under a half an hour,” Emmett says.
Whole Foods decided to take a chance on them, and Health Warrior now sells millions of bars each month in large chains such as Kroger and small, independent stores such as Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. The company took the No. 205 spot on Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest-growing businesses this year.
“It’s really awesome being able to hire people,” Emmett says, “creating so many jobs and pumping money into the economy for [making] something that’s actually good for you.” healthwarrior.com.
CORRECTION: Austin Green and partner Rob Wooten are pictured in the cover photo, not Greg White. Wooten handles marketing for Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix and Brad Douglas illustrated the label. The owners of Willie Byrd Chocolate work with Willard Ashman, not Tim Ashman, as originally stated.