Union Kitchen: Inside a food and beverage incubator

The Sweet Farm taps into the rise of fermentation and food waste reduction to expand it is portfolio

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fermentation

Source: The Sweet Farm
Source: The Sweet Farm
Fermented foods and beverages are growing in popularity as consumers learn more about their health benefits – in turn opening the door for entrepreneurs like The Sweet Farm, which sells fresh sauerkraut and is developing a line of cultured sodas and probiotic tonics. 

“Fermented foods like sauerkraut fell out of fashion for a while but in the last 10 years it has flourished again as people are finding probiotics are good for their guts and body systems, and as more research finds a healthy gut is key to a healthy life,”​ said Rachel Armistead, who along with her husband, Luke Flessner, started The Sweet Farm in 2011 to make sauerkraut.

“We are so lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” ​she added – especially because she was drawn to sauerkraut originally for a very different, but now equally trendy reason: to reduce food waste.

“I started making sauerkraut while working on a farm as a summer intern when I was stunned to learn how much food is wasted because it didn’t look a certain way,”​ Armistead said. “So, I started looking for ways to preserve that produce, I toyed with canning, jarring, freezing and pickling before I stumbled on sauerkraut.”

She and her husband made sauerkraut as a hobby before friends encouraged them to sell it at local farmers’ markets and stores. So, in 2012, they launched their four main flavors: Classic Kraut, Beet Kraut, Curry Kraut and Curtido.

Since the launch, Armistead says she has been thrilled to see sauerkraut go from being a “novelty for a few times a year as something you put on your hotdog at a ballgame, to one that is central to a healthy diet. So, from a condiment to a staple.”

What sets their kraut apart from competitors is that it is local to the mid-Atlantic area where the ingredients are grown (some on Armistead and Flessner’s family farm), the kraut is made and sold.

Unlike some CPG firms that strive to become as big as possible, Armistead wants to remain a regional business to preserve the sustainability and local aspects of The Sweet Farm brand.

Developing a broader portfolio

But that doesn’t mean that the company will shift into maintenance mode any time soon.  Rather, Armistead says the company is expanding its portfolio into beverages to better take advantage of the ongoing fermenting craze.

This includes many seasonal and limited editions of lightly fermented vegetables and relishes that keep consumers’ interested, as well as Kraut Tonics, which offer a “quick, probiotic pick-me-up”​ that can be used as a shot, dressing or flavor additive, Armistead said.

But the product line she is most excited about now is the firm’s upcoming launch of live-cultured sodas, which are more subtle than kombucha and come in a variety of flavors.

The sodas currently are available by the glass at farmer’s markets as a way to poll consumer interested, but Sweet Farm is exploring how to package the sodas in kegs for use at events and food service. The company hopes to launch the kegs in the spring when the weather warms and consumers are more receptive to refreshing beverages.

Depending on how consumers respond to the kegged soda, the farm could bottle it in single-serve containers in the future, Armistead said.

Finding balance

One of the biggest challenges the young company has faced is striking the right balance between offering branded kraut and producing it wholesale – a conundrum that directly impacts Armistead’s and her husband’s work-life balance.

Armistead explained that she and her husband initially primarily sold at retail, but when she was pregnant she didn’t want to go to farmer’s markets five days a week. So the team shifted their focus mostly to wholesale, which created a steady rhythm of production and income that the retail sales did not provide. However, the couple missed the creativity and human interaction of retail sale.

“In the end, we came to a balance of about 65%: 35% wholesale to retail and I think that works well for us. We go to farmers’ markets about two to three markets a week,”​ which allows consumers to meet the duo and then they are more likely to buy the kraut at the stores after that, she said.

Finding a distributor

With the right mix, Sweet Far needed the right distributor, which brought them to Union Kitchen, an incubator in Washington, DC​. 

Most incubators do not do their own distribution, but Union Kitchen recently dipped its toe in to distribution as a way to place local products in local stores and regional chains.

“Delivery was taking up too much of my time, but when we partnered with Union Kitchen for distribution, it was like a domino effect. … Everything fell into place quickly,”​ Armistead said.

Now, the biggest challenge Armistead faces is how to extract herself so that she is no longer the epicenter of the company.

“It is a challenge every day to give the business what it needs and still have a rounded personal life,”​ she said.

While she has tried many strategies with mixed success, perhaps she should take her own advice: “Try to keep perspective, step away and remember that it is all okay – even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned.”

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