The shiny new grocery store beckoned. At night, its enormous glass windows were a siren of light and activity that called out to anyone driving by. And once inside, you’re hit with aisles of colorful packaged goods that practically jump out at you as you push a virgin chrome cart across those glossy new linoleum tiles.
Generations of marketing guarantee that consumers not only know the brands, but even the jingles behind the packages on the shelves. (The brands at eye level, in particular, are familiar, but the ones above and below are attractive challengers with fresh new names that imply sustainability and a green outlook.) This is the Pantheon not of food, but Madison Avenue.
Friends told me it was worth a visit, so I happily stopped at our newest Pantheon one night on my way home after a long day in the kitchen. It was everything they said and more. More choices, more square feet, and even more hours open for convenience. You just knew it was state-of-the-art in every sense, starting with the production of the inventory itself.
I left soon after finding what I needed, but the entire experience made me scratch my head. What was it that bothered me so much? I found exactly what I wanted and was out the door in just 10 minutes. I purchased exactly what I needed, so why did I feel so empty?
As I unpacked my shopping bag in the kitchen, it dawned on me that I hadn’t interacted with a single person at the store. Not even one. I saw plenty of other people, but the entire experience right down to the self-service checkout was devoid of human contact. I wasn’t looking to make new friends, but I wasn’t looking to avoid humanity either.
So this is what it means to be a modern food retailer today. From beginning to end, it’s the height of efficiency, but also impersonality. Fast food is no longer just a category for drive-thru hamburger chains. Today, the mentality pervades our entire food cycle right down to the grocery store. To this consumer (and, others, I suspect), the experience feels hollow and unsatisfying. It has all the charm of eating from a vending machine.
And now the expression “farm to table” seems inadequate. We assumed humanity would always be part of that equation, but now even that ingredient is being minimized. As the world eagerly awaits the advent of drone delivery and the wider adoption of app-driven instant pick-up, I count myself among the contrarians. I still want to know the people who are feeding my family, including all the ones who help my food make its way to my kitchen. The earnest employees I see each week at farmers markets have earned my trust in ways that no advertisement or FDA seal can.
Long live real food and the real people dedicated to it every step of the way.
There can be no doubt it’s a small world, but there are times when it’s so small you just have to stop in amazement. The global supply chain that helped make the device you’re reading right now touches most everything in our lives. And it doesn’t just extend to things either. Earlier this month, in fact, we were happy to see friends from Ireland who had flown into New York on a direct flight not to Newark or JFK, but to Newburgh, New York, of all places. Who knew?
It’s safe to say some bean counter did the math and figured out you could turn a decent profit moving people to places that are out of the way (i.e., inexpensive), but not so remote for folks in major densely-populated areas who would still be willing to make the trip (i.e., Uber).
It’s a small world, and the walls are closing in every day. To us in the local food movement, however, it was already small. I’m not even sure it could get smaller. Bean counters be damned. We know what we want, and we don’t reverse-engineer our work product from the starting point of profit. That’s not to say what we make is illogical or doomed to be unprofitable. (Let’s hope not, at least.) Today, our global perspective makes local counter-intuitive. Nonetheless, it is a timeless concept that would be hard to perfect at this point. What few ways there are to fine-tune the concept will surely be the subject of future postings in this blog, so stay tuned.
We love local, but should also point out that we also love to travel and experience food, art and culture abroad. It was Mark Twain who said: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views … cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.”We couldn’t agree more. In fact, this summer was a fantastic opportunity to expand our worldview and palate by visiting family in Geneva, where dairy production borders on art.
We ate our way across a swathe of Switzerland for a good part of June, living on malakoff, raclette, and other indigenous fare, but the food we remain most connected to is what we came home to. Like most Europeans, the Swiss tend to favor their own local cuisine, so I’m sure my Swiss family would understand my personal bias towards the bounty of the Hudson Valley. I'm referring to New York heavy cream and butter, as well as the grass the cows live on, the soil, and even the rain. Call it “candy terroir.” Like a vineyard with its own distinct soil shaped by centuries of environmental factors, both known and unknown, our farm-based caramels have a special “je ne sais quoi” that makes them unique.
With all humility, as well as gratitude to the purveyors of every ingredient we use, we believe in the singularity of local. In other words, we believe there is nothing like our caramels in the entire world. That’s a bold claim, but that’s the essence of all things local.
You are what you eat. Indeed, you are where you eat as well.
We do it because we want to show we care. We do it because we’ve always done it. We do it because everyone does it. If you’re like most people, you don’t think about Valentine’s Day beyond the task of doing what’s expected of us. There are people we love in our lives, and we’re happy to show it.
As a country, we don’t disappoint either: Sales of this year’s chocolates, cards and related “romantica” are projected to amount to over $20 billion in the US alone. Exactly why we all do this year after year is a question that surprisingly few can answer. So we spend tens of billions on a single day, year after year, for reasons almost no one can explain. Sounds like all the hallmarks (pun intended) of a blog to me.
Valentine’s Day has its origins in courtly love, of course. There is a St. Valentine of Rome. In fact, there were at least three saints named Valentine or Valentinus who were once recognized by the Catholic Church. Nobody knows if they’re the same person, so today there’s just one Roman priest from the 3rd century who gets the nod.
There are several accounts of his requisite martyrdom, most of which have love figuring prominently. One account is based on Emperor Claudius Gothicus (aka Claudius II) outlawing marriage so that the empire could have more eligible, unattached, young warriors. A maverick and Roman priest, Valentine refused to stop joining couples in matrimony, which led him to pay the ultimate price outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14th, most likely in the year 269.
Claudius II had a real problem with St. Valentine’s faith, so another account has him imprisoning Valentine after refusing to renounce his religion. Legend has it that while in prison, he healed the jailor’s blind daughter. On the day of his execution, he wrote the young girl a card signed with the now-familiar words: “Your Valentine.”
Many believe the struggle between Christianity and competing practices may also account for the selection of mid-February for the day of lovers. This was when Rome traditionally celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility ritual lasting several days where men would sacrifice a goat and dog over three days of men and women engaged in drunken debauchery. Pope Gelasius I, who reigned at the very end of the 5th century, gets the credit for scheduling Valentine’s Day in February to overshadow and, ultimately, replace Lupercalia.
Lupercalia may be long gone, but it can feel like some of the madness of that pagan ritual lives on at flower stands, malls, convenience stores, and anywhere fatigued, dutiful shoppers converge on the evening of February 14th. The fear of showing up empty-handed is palpable. We’ve all been there. The good news is that gestures come in all sizes, including reading a blog and learning a bit about this special day, then sharing that knowledge with someone you care about over dinner.
Happy Valentine’s Day to our friends, our family, and our fans. We love you more than you know.
“These are just like the caramels I remember having as a kid.”
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard these same words anywhere we offer tiny morsels of our caramels to sample. It’s always a surprise to these people. A very nice, very sentimental surprise. People don’t go to farmers markets looking for caramel, but when they do, they’re often touched in a special nostalgic way.
It’s obvious people from all over the world love caramel. Sweden, France, Germany, Japan, Israel, New Jersey—these are just some of the places we’ve heard that come to mind. Caramels aren’t just universally loved; it’s clear they’re a lifelong touchstone for our palette.
What a pleasure it’s been to connect with people from all over the world on a level this personal and unique. Yes, it generally results in a sale, but even more important to us is how this interaction reaffirms the concept behind our product. It’s good to know there’s still a place in this world dominated by mass production for a handmade, hand-cut, hand-wrapped confection made from pure, local ingredients. It’s how candy (and everything else) used to be made. Have we made progress since then? I know what our taste buds would say.
It’s also interesting to see how people seem to have a pathway in their brain that this flavor touches. It’s like a road that was paved years ago that’s been dormant, but re-awakened by a familiar taste. Activity in the brain creates its own pathways and memories, often forever. Think of a well-worn path in a meadow. This ability to learn and retain is known as plasticity or neuroplasticity. Others would call this involuntary memory the “Proust Effect.”
Regardless of what you call it, these memories are powerful and real. And unlike a post-traumatic memory, these are beautiful, positive, and something people love holding on to for as long as they can. They may even share the experience with their children or friends along with a vivid story of their personal connection to caramel. Our interactions tell us that caramels are a multi-generational experience that’s grounded in goodness.
No, caramels are not just for kids. They are, however, for that kid we all carry around inside us.
When you're passionate about what you do, your product and the pleasure it brings people is its own reward. But truth be told, it can also be nice to be recognized by people aside from appreciative customers. Let's be honest. It's an ego boost to be told you're a standout product in your category. (Call it good, old-fashioned "Excellence Bias.")
At the end of July, we were fortunate enough to be named Westchester Magazine's Editors' Pick for 2017 Best Caramel. Imagine our surprise considering we hadn't even entered the competition. Mind you, we knew we were on their radar since Westchester Magazine had featured us in a recent article, but it was still a very pleasant surprise. It was an honor, actually.
So what does this accolade earn us? Well, bragging rights for one thing. But the first order of business was to be feted along with all the other 2017 winners in a victory lap at the Glen Island Harbour Club in New Rochelle, New York on a perfect July evening.
Imagine an idyllic, manicured yacht club set on the water with huge floor-to-ceiling windows everywhere you look. Now add 500 hungry adults and 3 floors of tables of the award-winning food & drink as far as the eye can see. It was nothing shy of a bacchanal, lubricated by winners like Slovenia Vodka, Farmer & the Fish, Turcos, Digg Inn, Emmas's Ale House, City Limits Diner, Walter's Hot Dogs, Dough Nation and many, many others. In all, there were over 120 winners represented. Each was excellent in its own way. (And it must be said each was extremely generous with attendees.)
This was not the farmers market crowd, so this prize meant something quite special to us: a micro-confectioner with a farmers market product had broken into the main stream. We were there sharing a pedestal with established brands, including multi-generational businesses and even publicly-traded behemoths like Shake Shack. Imagine that.
It was an honor. An exhausting honor. Nonetheless, we were thrilled to be there, and to meet so many new fans. Thank you all for your support, including the support of Editor John Bruno Turiano and his staff. We appreciate each of you making this journey with us from farm to candy.
Participate in enough farmers markets and you start to gain an appreciation for the entire consumer experience. From our point of view, it’s an experience grounded mainly in the process of discovery. Keep in mind these are not people who have seen advertising or other partisan messaging intended to convert them into customers. No marketing here. This is real. People see what you’re offering, give it a taste, then purchase the product, pleased with the knowledge that they have found a treat that they can call their own.
This is their personal discovery. Nobody told them to buy it. It’s a small-batch local product not available at the mall—and that’s just the way they like it. They can’t wait to tell people about this well-kept secret. And we all know that people who love being in the know also love sharing their knowledge with friends and family.
Let’s take discovery further.
The joy of discovery is by no means limited to farmers markets. We’re seeing sample stations at many major grocery store chains these days. To their credit, the grocery chains have learned and adapted based on the farmers market model.
Grocery stores have adapted, so why can't farmers market vendors? We wondered what would happen if we placed our caramels in unexpected places—shops that don't even sell food or candy or anything remotely connected to the local food movement.
That’s real discovery. We want our caramels to be a pleasant surprise in places where you least expect them. For example, right now you'll find our product in a charming upscale consignment shop for kids’ clothing in Bedford Hills, New York. The Preppy Turtle is a staple for parents in Northern Westchester who enjoy a bit of serendipity while outfitting their family. It’s kid’s clothing (and some stylish women’s clothing) from the likes of J. Crew, Vineyard Vines, Lilly Pulitzer and Ralph Lauren, but it also offers its own twist on what you’ll find in a retail consignment shop: a jar of local hand-made caramels prominently displayed by the cash register. This is where moms indulge their kids (or themselves) with a local sweet treat that is fast becoming part of the shopping ritual at this boutique. (We’re told the employees enjoy them, too.)
Something like this takes time to work its way into the experience at a store, but owner Ann Hardy tells us it’s gaining popularity. Over time, customers and their kids will come to expect this trademark treat each time they visit. It’s a tiny indulgence, but something that helps to set The Preppy Turtle apart. Once again, the joy of discovery at work. It’s one of those many little details that makes shopping at a boutique special.
Next time you’re in Bedford Hills, stop in and say hi to Ann at the Preppy Turtle right next to the train station. It’s a unique and very pleasant experience.
Mid-May means we are now officially in farmers market season. It's now time to spend Saturday mornings in those bustling parking lots and open fields surrounded by people wheeling their burlap bags overflowing with local produce and prepared foods, along with that little spring in their step that could only come from the rhythms of lively local musicians. (There's a lot more to local than food.) The old-fashioned way to shop is back in a big way in the 21st century. It's about the food, but it's food mixed in with tasty samplings, mingling with neighbors, and generally relaxing at this new ritual weekend destination.
With the inevitable back and forth between customer and small business owner, it all takes a bit longer, but nobody seems to mind. No one is in a hurry because this is the antithesis of one-stop shopping. It's nice getting to know the people who feed your family. That's how Manhattan chef and restaurateur Robert Arbor described the marché ritual in his native France. When you think of it that way, a farmers market is a very personal experience, fueled by invisible ingredients like goodwill, trust, and a healthy dose of culinary curiosity. People want to feel good about what they're eating and where they're shopping.
Why do we, as a micro-confectioner, participate in farmers markets? First and foremost, La Petite Occasion is a farmers market product. The ingredients that go into our caramels and toffees are found in farmers markets in the Hudson Valley. Our butter comes from Kriemhild Dairy. Our heavy cream is from Hudson Valley Fresh. The whey we use as a stabilizer comes from Sohha Yogurt. Farmers markets are a natural fit for us, but they are rewarding to small businesses like ours for many reasons: