Podcast 053: The Apothekers

This week our episode is an interview with Shari & Russ Apotheker of Apotheker’s Kitchen, makers of fine honey-sweetened confections and longtime friends of ours. We visited them at their homestead in Way Up There, VT, to chat about their work and how it’s changed over the years. Along the way we talked about a lot of issues close to the herbal world as well as that of artisanal chocolatier-ing: ethical ingredient sourcing, navigating certifications, prioritizing pollinator protection, and life as intentionally-small, purposefully-scaled-down small businessowners. Give it a listen!

Herbs discussed include cacao, cashew, & vanilla.

Mentioned in this podcast:

~

If you like our podcast, you might like learning from us in a more intentional way – like with our Family Herbalist program! It’s a great way to start incorporating herbs into your daily life, to keep you and your loved ones healthy and resilient all year round!

~

Episode Transcript

Katja: 00:10 Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn: 00:12 And I’m Ryn.

Katja: 00:12 We’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn: 00:15 And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Recently, we were actually up in Vermont.

Katja: 00:22 We were taking some mandatory vacation, which is something that we’ll probably just keep talking about because our culture doesn’t really support vacation very well, but vacation is super important. I was writing about it a lot on social media this week, check it out.

Ryn: 00:44 This week’s episode is another interview. This time we’re talking with Shari and Russ Apotheker of Apotheker’s Kitchen, who are makers of fine honey sweetened confections and also longtime friends of ours. We visited them up at their homestead in Way-up-There, Vermont, to chat about their work and how it’s changed over the years. Along the way, we talked about a lot of issues that are really close to the herbal world as well as that of artisanal chocolatiering; things like ethical ingredient sourcing, navigating certifications, prioritizing pollinator protection, and life as intentionally small, purposefully scaled-down small business owners. There was a lot of resonance there for us to play on. But before we get to that, we’ve got some shout-outs.

Katja: 01:39 We have shout-outs and I’m very excited! We want to say hello to Brooke, who said that she recommended our podcast to a friend–thank you for doing that! We are so excited to make this podcast and we love it when you recommend it to friends. We also love it when you rate it and review it in your podcast app because that helps people find it. We also want to give a shout-out to Allie, who’s been with us for a whole year right from the very first episode, and that’s pretty exciting. This is the first episode of the New Year. Our new year, the New Year of our podcast, not necessarily the New Year of the calendar. [laughter]

Ryn: 02:22 You can have lots of new years in your year. Sometimes that’s pretty nice.

Katja: 02:26 We also want to give a shout-out to Debbie and her visiting nurses, and to Whitney, who is interested in ground ivy and also wants to hear about endometriosis, chronic pain, and menopause, which all sounds like really great topics, so stay tuned on those. If you have ideas that you want us to talk about, burning questions for you, or just stuff that you want to hear people chat about, let us know.

Ryn: 02:57 Well, those are our shout-outs, so here comes our chat with the Apothekers.

Katja: 03:06 We just want to make one quick note that the Apothekers have a working homestead. That means chickens, ducks, geese, neighbors, babies, a two-year-old stomping through the living room, a dog, cat, and all of those things make appearances in our recording. We invite you to just enjoy all of the auditory texture in this awesome interview.

Ryn: 03:41 Definitely baby sounds going on. Here we go.

Katja: 03:50 Alright, we are here in Sutton, Vermont with the amazing Apothekers, Shari and Russ. They are, I think, really our heroes because they make delicious treats. We’re also here with their brand new baby Oliver and their beautiful two-year-old Arlie. Why don’t you guys tell us about why you started making chocolate.

Russ: 04:28 We started because I was trying to make something healthy and indulgent for Shari. We were cleaning up our diet, cutting out dairy, soy, gluten, and specifically starting on the Whole30 diet, actually thanks to Katya and Ryn. We started seeing them as herbalists and we realized that although we thought we were being healthy, there were a lot of things in our diet that were not very healthy for us, so we started cutting out gluten, refined sugars, dairy, soy, and all that kind of gross, not-great-for-you stuff.

Shari: 05:12 I started researching alternative methods of taking care of acid reflux and I called and made an appointment. We sat and talked for awhile and I remember you saying to me, “Well, I’ll make you some teas, but you really shouldn’t have gluten, dairy, soy, refined sugar–at least refined sugar–for a year.” We talked about all these other things, and then we spent many years going over a lot of different things, but that it how it started.

Katja: 05:43 The funny thing is I remember at the time, Russ used to like to make you pastries and treats.

Shari: 05:52 I think the first thing you made me was chocolate-dipped bacon.

Russ: 05:56 Which is totally still legit to eat. [laughter]

Shari: 06:06 And you made me regular marshmallows for Valentine’s and New Year. You used to make ridiculous things to bring into work.

Russ: 06:09 I remember the day that you came back from Katja’s and you had to throw out your stale bag of Sour Patch Kids in your car and you were so sad. I actually remember that, specifically having to throw that out. Or we put it on the shelf and tucked it away.

Shari: 06:29 I used to hoard candy and had really terrible candy habits. You know, the Sour Patch Kids had to be in the car in the winter, so they’d taste as stale as possible. It’s really disgusting. Within a month of drinking your gut heal tea and nettle and things, I was able to get off acid reflux meds and had no idea how much gluten impacted me. But I also really realized how much sugar I was consuming and I just couldn’t quit sugar. Emotionally it’s just so sad, the not being able to indulge. That’s when I started tinkering around and making these sweet things. We pretty much stuck to the Whole30, but we did bring in some refined sugars. We had a little bit of raw honey or maple. That’s when Russ started making chocolate. Do you remember the first batch? Do you remember why it was chocolate as opposed to anything else?

Russ: 07:43 Because with the Whole30, it was the easiest to do. It was cocoa powder, raw honey, and coconut oil melted in a pan to whatever temperature, cooled down, and put it into a mold that we popped in the refrigerator. It was edible, it was okay. [laughter]

Katja: 08:01 Did you look up on the internet how to make chocolate or did you just guess?

Russ: 08:05 I looked it up roughly. There wasn’t a ton of information on how to make it on a stove top. I sort of knew the ingredients that needed to go in it and maybe did very minimal research, but I just wung it and made it. From there, that really sparked a curiosity. There wasn’t anything else out there like that. At the time, the chocolates out there all had sugar, soy lecithin, or dairy in them and there wasn’t really a great alternatively sweetened chocolate out there. There was one (I don’t remember the brand) that had stevia in it, which is not for us. It has that sort of bitter, astringent aftertaste sometimes.

Shari: 08:57 A big part of our business was not just having something that would pass as a sweet. You give up sugar and you feel like you’re dieting, it’s kind of a miserable time. You can have really healthy options, but I was sad at only having healthy options and not being able to have a bad day or have a cozy Sunday with something indulgent. I think that was the big push for how we wanted to structure the business, so that it didn’t feel like an alternative.

Katja: 09:39 It felt like your first choice.

Russ: 09:48 Yeah. Anytime we release a new product or we’re tinkering, it has to feel like an indulgence, not like a chia and flax seed bar that you’re eating because you know it’s healthy for you and you have to. But you have a crappy day at work and you come home and it’s something satisfying that you want to eat to make you feel better about that crappy day.

Shari: 10:10 Regardless of what the reasons are that I’m super addicted to sugar still, they’re there and that’s who I am now, so it’s hard to cut that out. The truth is that I pretty much didn’t have refined sugars for four years, up until the point when I was pregnant with Arlie, which was a whole other visit to you. [laughter] And you said “Please just go to whole foods and get something sweet.”

Katja: 10:38 There are times when you have to say right now is not the Whole30 time.

Shari: 10:42 Right. I was very strict about it for a number of years and I think that it just never went away. No matter how many years I had no refined sugar, I always wanted refined sugar.

Russ: 11:03 That’s the nice thing about our products, too, is when you’re on this path of having to avoid certain things, it can be exhausting to have to grill ingredient lists every single time. In the grocery store anytime you want to pick up something, you always have that pit in your stomach about what you’re going to find in that list that you can’t have and are going to have to put it back on the shelf. We also try to make sure that we, whenever possible, use the most basic, clean, and simple ingredients so that people can trust when they pick up our product, it’s something that they don’t have to question. Not that they shouldn’t look at the ingredients, but they’re not going to find anything in there that’s going to make them have to put it back on the shelf hopefully. Everybody has that experience and it’s so disappointing, especially when it’s an indulgence or a sweet that you pick up and you really want it and then you have to put it back.

Katja: 12:03 I really like how you guys have managed to take something indulgent and make it beyond harm reduction. Yes, there’s honey, but you’re using medicinal-grade cocoa or cacao, which is the right term there?

Russ: 12:28 They’re sort of interchangeable. Cocoa is what usually is referred to in the powder and cacao is more of the raw form. It’s pretty much interchangeable, though.

Katja: 12:40 I know that you guys are really fussy about exactly where you source that and exactly the quality of it that goes in, so the only thing that you could really say about it that’s like “bad” in air quotes is that there’s honey in it, but honey is great. I feel like it’s not just harm-reduced indulgence, it’s indulgence that you can go ahead and go bananas, have it again tomorrow.

Russ: 13:08 If you eat an entire chocolate bar, so what? There’s 12 grams of sugar, it’s healthy fats, and there’s nothing terrible in it.

Katja: 13:16 You could stay Keto and still have an entire bar. [laughter]

Russ: 13:20 You could, yeah. What is it–20 grams of sugar for fuel?

Ryn: 13:24 Depends on the person, some people it’s a lot higher. Maybe we can talk about that a bit, though. On the podcast in the past we’ve mentioned issues with things like vanilla or coffee (might have even spoken about cacao once or twice before), but I’d love to hear your perspectives on it as people who have been looking for the best source that you can find of these things that meets all of those criteria.

Russ: 13:49 That’s a great question. The cacao world is really challenging because there are a couple of really large producers; it’s almost like a cartel, they control the market. Callebaut is the big one and like 80 percent of the world’s cacao or something crazy like that comes from Callebaut. They’re the dominating force in it.

Ryn: 14:14 Are they spread across the world or is that West Africa?

Russ: 14:18 A lot of it is African, but they are spread across the world. I think they source from different places.

Shari: 14:25 They also work with small growers.

Russ: 14:27 They do, they’re not an entirely evil company. They just have a domination of the industry. But then there’s like Valrhona and some other smaller producers that are big but small. It’s like how Sam Adams is a craft producer, but they also only have one percent of the market. Even though they’re big within the market, they’re still a tiny fraction.

Shari: 14:49 The problem is that it wasn’t really hard to find small farmers growing good cacao, it was just cost-prohibitive sometimes for a small business to be able to afford. Russ knows the locations a little bit better than I do, but I think there are small farmers in many different parts of the world who are responsibly growing cacao. It took us a while because there’s many different factors: Can we afford it? Can we buy into this? How much can we get at once? What are their growing practices? What are their labor practices? How sustainable are their practices? How does it taste? Honey was the same thing, too, where at the end of the day, beyond us being comfortable using the ingredient in our product, we had to like it. We settled pretty early on the flavor of Dominican cacao.

Russ: 16:01 It’s a more mild and fruity cacao, so it tends to like compliment the honey really well. Pretty early on we were able to find a small cooperative in the Dominican Republic, we got some small sample blocks of their chocolate, were able to melt it down and test it out, and fell in love with the flavor profile of it. It just worked great. We still work with the two daughters of the main owner of the farm down there who’s in his late seventies/early eighties and he’s still out on the farms every day. We have a direct relationship with them, they know about our family, and it’s nice to even call and chat with them. They’re almost an extended family in a way now, we’ve been able to grow with them and they’ve been able to grow with us.

Katja: 16:55 This family, you were saying that they’re growing with you and you’re growing with them. That’s really cool.

Russ: 17:03 It’s been a great relationship and all of their cacao is certified organic, certified Kosher, biodynamically grown, so they check off all the boxes that we were looking for.

Shari: 17:16 We learned a lot about how to actually grow cacao through them.

Ryn: 17:20 One of the things I was going to ask was if you could maybe walk us through there being a tree in a field somewhere and then eventually a cup of hot chocolate. I imagine there are some steps in between.

Russ: 17:33 Cacao is actually an understory tree. Like coffee, it doesn’t grow great in direct sun, so it tends to grow under the canopy of other trees, which actually lends itself nicely to some biodynamic practices of growing with other crops. It’s a really cool looking plant. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the pods, but they’re football-looking pods and when you cut them open, there’s a whole bunch of seeds and white pulp inside. The white pulp is actually a super healthy food source, it’s just very perishable. So, unless you live in an area that’s actually growing cacao, most people have never tried the pulp. I can’t say I have because Vermont isn’t very conducive to growing cacao. [laughter]

Shari: 18:21 We did try!

Russ: 18:22 But it’s a really cool looking tree. The pods grow out of the trunk, they don’t really grow hanging off the branches, they grow close to the trunk. Then those are taken and processed. The beans are generally fermented in a pile outside (like solar dried and lightly fermented) and then they’re roasted. Once the beans have been dry-processed, fermented, and roasted, they’re ground into a paste, which is called cacao liquor. It’s not actually alcoholic, it’s called cocoa mass, sometimes cacao mass, a lot of different names for it; that’s the base for making chocolate. From there, that mass can be separated into cocoa butter (which is not dairy either, it’s literally the fat of the bean) and the byproduct of that–the solids–is the cacao powder, which is what people make hot cocoa out of.

Ryn: 19:31 Okay, so all of the pieces come out of the beans (the seeds). I had the impression at one point that it was the beans get made into the cocoa powder, but it was the white stuff that became the butter. So I was mistaken about that.

Russ: 19:45 That is the crux of it; the liquor is the base and then that’s further refined into the butter and the powder. Different varieties of cocoa powder can have different amount of fats, but that’s why generally when you get cocoa powder there’s almost no fat in it. It’s pretty low in fat, like one or two grams, and it’s because it’s been basically separated from the butter.

Ryn: 20:24 From your perspective, you order from that one farm, you get the cacao liquor, and that has all the pieces you need?

Russ: 20:38 We get the liquor, and we also get butter and powder from them because we make our own hot cocoa blends with that powder.

Ryn: 20:48 And are they all separating those on that farm too?

Russ: 20:51 It’s getting processed in the United States. The cacao gets shipped from the Dominican to California and that’s where they have a base of operations. Dorcas and Fiore, who are the two daughters that we work with, run the operation there, do all the processing (grinding and whatnot), and turn it into the products here in the U.S. They’re kind of a one-stop operation; you can also buy the beans directly from them and a lot of producers like bean-to-bar chocolate. So, if you were doing your own roasting, grinding, and making your own cacao liquor, you could actually buy the raw ingredients from them and grind it up and do all that work yourself.

Ryn: 21:46 I’ve seen some people talking about raw cacao lately and I wondered if it was a gimmick or if it was even a good idea. How perishable is a raw cacao bean, compared to some other nut?

Russ: 22:00 I don’t know exactly how perishable it is, but there is a lot of controversy and debate. There are a couple of producers that are pretty well certified, but the problem is that you have to ferment cacao, so you have to process the beans and put them into those piles that get rid of some of the harsher flavors, chemicals, and whatnot. Anytime you put something in a big pile like that where it’s fermenting and it’s in the sun, it’s going to heat up to a pretty high temperature, so how do you control that and how do you keep it below that raw threshold? That’s a very big challenge. There’s a lot of debate that even if the beans aren’t being roasted to a high temperature, they’re still getting heated up in that process, so that could negate the legitimacy of it actually being a raw ingredient.

Ryn: 23:00 Sometimes that whole concept of ‘raw’ is fraught with a sort of atavistic idea that has to be pure and perfect. Maybe that is not entirely necessary.

Russ: 23:20 I think for us, one of the big things was that we honestly didn’t love the flavor of raw chocolate. It tends to have harsher notes to it and it doesn’t have that nice roasty flavor that people associate with chocolate. It didn’t work for us, for our palates, or really for our product.

Ryn: 23:44 Y’all started with a basic honey-sweetened chocolate bar. Was that your first product? I remember fondly (I don’t know if you still make it) that you had a triple pepper one that was really good.

Russ: 24:00 Yes, we still make that.

Ryn: 24:01 You have that smoky one I like a lot.

Russ: 24:03 The hot cocoa, the Smoke and Spice hot cocoa, yeah. We started with four different flavors of chocolate bars. We started with the classic dark, the triple pepper (that you mentioned), and then we had a cherry almond one.

Shari: 24:28 We quietly nixed to that one. It was a bee-related thing for us.

Russ: 24:35 An ethical thing with the almonds. It was a very popular flavor, I think second to the cashew and sea salt, so a lot of people were sad to see it go, but it was a big conflict.

Shari: 24:48 With a lot of our ingredients beyond just the cocoa and honey, it’s sourcing all the inclusions. We started really focusing on making sure we were sourcing good nuts. We started looking at trying to find healthier cashews and where to then get cashews where cashews are grown. It turns out that Indonesia is a big grower of cashews. It’s not the biggest supplier in the world, but they grow really great cashews. The government planted a ton of cashew trees to rehab the land after a big volcanic explosion in the seventies, so a lot of people have cashews growing in their properties. They just grow incredibly well out there. We were able to find a two sister operated business; one sister is based in Brooklyn, one is in Indonesia. She ships the cashews over and then as they’re ordered she roasts on demand. They’re a super small operation, they don’t put anything on their cashews. I don’t know if Russ mentioned, it’s a really small operation and a lot of times people will ask if it’s fair trade certified. It’s another really fancy term. Not really fancy, but it’s a good marketing term. A lot of times when you work with small suppliers and small growers, they don’t actually have enough employees to meet fair trade certification. And the cost.

Ryn: 26:40 It’s a whole circus to get through. And it’s valuable where it is. If it’s a company that has that much business, product, people, or whatever, I want them to have that so they can show that they’re working right. But you can talk to everybody involved.

Shari: 26:54 Right. I forget how many employees it is to hit the fair trade certification, but the cooperative in Dominican Republic is a cooperative family farm. Let’s just say there’s a couple of dozen employees. They don’t need that. So we talked to them about their practices and if they exceeded fair trade certification and their standards. The other thing about the cashews is they’re not certified organic, so it started to become a thing where people always wanted to know why we weren’t certified organic, which is a whole other conversation. For the cashew business that we were working with, they did not have their own land that they were working on. At some point in last couple of years, they bought one or two acres and were starting to grow their own cashew trees so that they could get certified organic. What they were doing was they were literally going around their neighborhood and collecting cashews from neighbors that were all working together, but because it was many different properties, they couldn’t be certified organic. So there were all of these problems that Russ and I started noticing and didn’t know what to deal with when sourcing ingredients because it felt like we had to hit these very specific standards, like being certified organic and needing to prove these very specific things because they’re very easy talking points for customers. When people come up to talk to us at markets or they look at our bar on the shelf and it doesn’t have the icons for those things, they kind of wonder. But there’s a whole huge story behind that and Russ and I have been pulling our hair out, trying to figure out how to source all of these things without having a crazy amount of copy on our packaging. We can’t tell the story of where we’re getting our cashews in more than like a quick little blurb, but we love that we’re working with a woman-owned sister operation out of Indonesia. You can taste the difference in these cashews. And to circle back with the almonds, we just couldn’t find that level of clarity and there are not a lot of small operations. If there are small operations, it’s nothing that we could afford to sell in trying to make our product more accessible–it’s not accessible for everyone, unfortunately, because we do source good ingredients, but it just makes it harder. We didn’t necessarily want to be a chocolate business, but if you make a chocolate bar then all of a sudden everyone’s calling us Apotheker’s Chocolate. We were making all different kinds of confections from the beginning and we didn’t necessarily want to be a chocolate-focused business. We were more of a confection company, but we’re also more bee-focused and honey-focused. It was hard for us knowing that, let’s say, 90 percent of the world’s almonds are grown on the west coast and even organically grown, there’s a heavy amount of treatments to get them to the world, and so it felt like a losing battle to try to source that ingredient to a standard that we didn’t feel like we were working against bees. Not many customers know that bees are shipped all over the world to pollinate blueberries, almonds, and pretty much any large operation that needs more pollinators. It’s not necessarily the healthiest for the bees. Those are bees that are never used for honey usually because they’re just fed crap like sugar water. It’s like any other sort of factory farm operation where you don’t totally want to eat the cow that is like almost dead at 12 to 18 months because they fattened it up to try to serve a purpose that it’s not really supposed to serve. It’s the same thing with the bees, they’re getting shipped everywhere to serve a purpose and consuming all the pesticides. Organic is great and all, but there are technically organic pesticides and those are still chemicals and they’re not being processed right. It was like this spinning thing that was getting more and more complicated. We just want to make something great, but it involves so much more thought and we found ourselves constantly spinning, researching, and trying to figure out how to do it better and sometimes it was just easier to just pull something.

Ryn: 31:42 It’s something that we’ve been thinking about for awhile and try to talk about with our students regularly. Sometimes things are out of season, sometimes you can’t have that item anymore because it doesn’t meet your standard, or because you’re really not supposed to have strawberries in the middle of January when you live in the northeast. If you have them, you appreciate them, but you can also learn to appreciate being out of stock of that herb you want right now, or folks not making that particular thing because they decided that they couldn’t do it to their own standards anymore. That’s a good sign, and I feel if you can tell that story to people then I would hope they would level up their respect for you and know that you guys are really serious about it. It’s not just a gimmick to sell more things to somebody. If you’re saying that this was really popular but it doesn’t meet our standard, that says a lot about your ethics and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Shari: 32:46 And meanwhile we just pulled it off the shelf and literally said nothing about it. We never made a big deal about it. I think how our business works best is face to face. We’re not always very consistent with social media, we don’t always sell ourselves incredibly well, and it feels like we don’t need to be ridiculous here and explain, “Oh look at us–we don’t have almonds anymore”. Well, we’re still shipping chocolate over, you know what I mean?

Ryn: 33:18 It is hard to make those kinds of choices.

Katja: 33:25 At the end of the day, you pick the things that are most important to you, trade off the things that you can live with, and you just try to do a good job in the world.

Shari: 33:36 Honestly, in the back of our heads is that this might have to stop next year because we might not have access to any of these ingredients. You brought up vanilla, I don’t know what we’re going to do when we can’t get vanilla anymore or when we can’t get chocolate anymore.

Katja: 33:53 You’ll make marshmallows!

Russ: 33:53 There’s vanilla extract in those marshmallows.

Ryn: 33:54 When you say that, are you thinking about problems within the world production of these ingredients?

Russ: 34:01 Yeah, and also vanilla is insane right now.

Shari: 34:04 Even if they can produce it, the other side of it is the cost just keeps going up.

Russ: 34:09 A couple years ago, the price was doubling in a week when there were shortages of vanilla. Now, even the cost of the vanilla extract that we use in the marshmallows is definitely prohibitive.

Ryn: 34:27 We’ve talked about vanilla on this podcast before, about how a lot of vanilla flavoring anymore is synthetically produced vanillin made out of wood pulp or something like that. But you were working with actual vanilla extract, which is like a tincture basically.

Russ: 34:48 We’ve never used vanillin or artificial/synthetic flavorings.

Ryn: 34:53 On the other hand, that means that it’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be hard to get sometimes.

Russ: 34:58 Premium price for sure, but it’s a trade off.

Shari: 35:02 When you’re a small business like Russ and I, it’s not like we then go back to the drawing board. This is just like a side note about our business, but like if cost goes up on ingredients, we don’t change the price of the bar.

Katja: 35:14 I think all small businesses have to live with that.

Shari: 35:17 Some people pay more attention to the fluctuation of cost and then making sure that you can still make ends meet.

Russ: 35:34 When we first started, we had the large chocolate bar and we thought that was great–people want a giant chocolate bar. Who doesn’t want to eat a giant bar of chocolate? It was great, but the cost on our end for the box and the packaging, the size of the chocolate bar made the bar actually cost more in the stores and the price was a little prohibitive. So, we moved from a 3.5 ounce to a 2.5 ounce bar and we simplified our packaging. We took a look at how we were actually doing it. We switched from a printed box to a really nice wrapper, we simplified, and we were able to bring our cost down so the bar was more accessible to a lot of people.

Katja: 36:17 Well, we were just saying if you run out of chocolate (and I was joking), you’ll just make marshmallows, which I know has all of its own sourcing issues, too. It does lead me to want to do a quick tour of your products because now there’s a lot; you were saying you’re a confection company, not just a chocolate bar company. One of my favorites is the marshmallow that has toasted coconut on the outside, and I know sometimes they’re around and sometimes they’re not.

Shari: 36:48 That sums up our business: sometimes things are around, sometimes they’re not. [laughter]

Russ: 36:53 We brought those back and, for the foreseeable future, those are back in the rotation.

Katja: 36:57 That’s so exciting. I actually think the idea of seasonal stuff is really good. It’s fine that sometimes I can’t get my favorite marshmallow. That’s totally fine.

Russ: 37:09 It makes you look forward to that time of year when they’re back.

Shari: 37:11 Part of the excitement of moving up here and having more land was being able to grow things specifically for our confections. We lucked into a property that already had a pretty established garden and orchard, so we were able to use some of the herbs and flowers that we had here in our confections. It was the first time that sometimes we literally had a dozen of something for sale; we had to say, “Okay, that’s it. That’s all we have.” Also, it was based on how much time we had. I was pregnant and we had to travel a bit in the spring, right around the time that the lilacs started to bloom. We didn’t know how long the lilacs would last up here and how the spring would be, so we tried to take what we could and get it into honey, then we had to get on a plane and travel for five days, then come back. We had just the very end of lilac season, and so whatever we could get before we left on our trip was what we had and that was that. We had a little bit of lilac cocoa, a little bit of lilac marshmallows, the rest went to the pollinators, and that was great. This year we have a 30-year-old sage plant from previous owners of our house and we were able to infuse that into some honey. We don’t always know what products are going to come out of it and so we just infuse what we have. If it’s going to be a marshmallow, it might be a few bags of marshmallows, if it’s going to be caramel, we can get a little bit more out of that. This was really the first summer where it was exactly how we wanted our business to be, which is playing around, having fun, coming up with ideas that maybe we’ve been thinking about for years now, and actually being able to implement them on a small scale. The way our business was run before was so heavily focused on wholesale and packaging issues, because when you’re thinking about supplying stores, you have to think about how things sit on a shelf, and then things take four times as long because, all of a sudden, aesthetics and art have to come into play. Then we have to actually have someone make the packaging for us and everything takes longer. So, we’re trying to find ways to simplify all the business-y stuff so that we can just throw something up on social media and say, “Hey, this is available now”. Our product line is now constantly changing and I think we’re really excited about that because we get bored really easily. But we do have a steady line of chocolate. For the chocolate bars, we have the cashew sea salt, mint, a coffee bar. We’re actually using coffee sourced from No. Six Depot in western Massachusets. Russ can tell you more about this Kenyan coffee. Our cashew sea salt uses the Indonesian cashews that we talked about and Red Alaea sea salt that we like a lot and get from Mountain Rose. We have a crunchy quinoa, that’s one of my favorites because all I wanted was a Nestle Crunch bar; we use an organic toasted quinoa on that one and cocoa nibs, too, from the same family farm to make it extra crunchy. I’m missing one. The triple pepper–the one I never eat. [laughter]

Russ: 41:10 That was my job, I love anything spicy. It was one of the first flavors that I knew when we were going to start the business that we needed a spicy chocolate bar. I didn’t know how it would manifest and after a lot of tinkering around with different peppers, we arrived at the three that we use in that; it’s cayenne, ancho, and habanero. They all compliment each other and work with the chocolate to produce a really nice heat thats in the finish of the chocolate, so you get a lot of the flavor of the chocolate and heat sneaks up at the end so you don’t lose the flavor profile of eating a chocolate bar.

Katja: 41:51 That’s pretty cool. There’s got to be a lot of work that goes in.

Russ: 41:55 Yeah, it’s really difficult tasting chocolate all the time. [laughter]

Shari: 42:00 That used to be my original title, but now I have a two-year-old helper who likes to eat ‘dada’ chocolate. Then we have our marshmallows as well. We have a classic vanilla.

Katja: 42:17 Sometimes you have a rose-flavored marshmallow.

Shari: 42:19 We’re going to stop that one for the winter and bring it back probably in the spring. We have the almond and toasted coconut and then the chocolate-topped. So, our classic vanilla is actually a blend of organic honey and organic maple, and then our classic chocolate is a honey-based vanilla marshmallow with our classic chocolate poured on top. We were doing a triple chocolate marshmallow; it was a chocolate marshmallow with chocolate chips inside and chocolate on top, and that was inspired by Arlie’s pregnancy, when I needed more chocolate. [laughter} Which is funny, because this pregnancy I didn’t have any weird cravings. Now, we’re just doing a plain chocolate marshmallow–since we’ve moved through the phase of needing the triple chocolate–which is really good on coffee or any sort of tea.

Ryn: 43:27 And you guys put some marshmallow powder into the marshmallows? We were really excited about that.

Shari: 43:36 Yeah. Marshmallow root has been used for millennia and we wanted to incorporate it into our marshmallows. Only using marshmallow root in a marshmallow is challenging texturally and it’s not as shelf stable. It’s not quite a marshmallow as people expect, so we do use kosher, grass-fed gelatin. We use Great Lakes Gelatin, which a number of people are pretty familiar with. We do get asked a lot if we would do a vegan version, which we had a number of answers for, and the quickest answer is no. It’s not an easy product to make and the kinds of gelling agents that you would use wouldn’t really produce a product we would like. We’re also not a vegan company; though we would like to make people happy, it’s not something that we focus on.

Ryn: 44:44 Many vegans are going to have trouble with the honey anyway.

Shari: 44:46 That’s the other thing, too, is pretty much everything we make (except the cocoa) has honey in it, so I’ve always been a little bit confused. Unless people are just having honey and then I feel like that’s a personal choice.

Ryn: 45:03 Then you guys started making drinking chocolates. I guess kind of back to the original chocolate-confection pattern.

Shari: 45:17 That was what we used to do for events. At Herbstalk, we always brought iced chocolate or hot chocolate at Wintergreen. People would always ask if we could bottle it, and we looked into how to bottle it but didn’t really have the bandwidth to do it.

Ryn: 45:35 Like already made, to just like open and drink?

Shari: 45:39 Yeah, and it’s really fun because the way we were making it was water-based, so it was really easy to make a tea and then melt our chocolate right into it. We actually used to put little recipe cards on our chocolate boxes of how to make it and we have recipes on our website. We realized we needed a more shelf-stable product, we were able to get great cocoa from the same family farm, and so we started playing around. We had a few different ones; we had a mint one, which we never released, it was a combination of spearmint and peppermint. That might come out one day. We have a few different cocoas.

Russ: 46:24 Recently, we launched the peanut butter one, which is awesome. We’ll send you home with one. It’s like a liquid Reese’s peanut butter cup. We’re using organic powdered peanut butter mixed in with the cacao from the farm, the maple sugar, and a little pinch of sea salt.

Katja: 46:45 That’s awesome. Speaking of peanut butter, you also have perfected peanut butter and chocolate in multiple ways.

Russ: 46:53 We’re kind of a peanut butter obsessed household, and when we can make it work, we do. For a little while, we were selling to stores peanut butter and fluff cups. We made our own version of fluff with honey and we pipe that in with peanut butter. It was a very labor-intensive process, so we ended up probably losing money on making it when we were doing it for wholesale. We’ve switched that up and we do for farmer’s markets. For the Wintergreen festival coming up, we’ll have peanut butter cups and we’ll probably be doing our crunchy peanut butter cups. It’s peanut butter with a little bit of honey, sea salt, and the same organic toasted quinoa that we use in our chocolate bar; it’s like a crunchy peanut butter that we pipe that into the cups.

Shari: 47:48 It’s really fun. There’s a lot that goes into the business and it’s hard to juggle, but at its basic, Russ and I sit around and talk like, “We should make this!”, “We should make rose honey fluff and put it in chocolate!” We caramel, we did a whole Mother’s Day sampler.

Katja: 48:25 That was so good. Basically everything that you’ve made has been a great idea.

Russ: 48:31 That Mother’s Day gift pack was all of our evil genius ideas combined into one box, so everyone got a little sample of everything.

Shari: 48:42 Going forward, we’ll have our staples and we’re picking up with more wholesale again, but I think that our business will look a little bit different. We’ll probably slow down a little bit more in the summers than we usually do and try not to battle the weather. That’s an important thing for us is not using more energy than we need to, so we’re not going to cool the kitchen space and we’re going to keep production lower in the summer. But that’s also a time for us to be able to do the fun stuff of prepping, which is growing the things that we want to put in the confections and starting to infuse things in honey. We were really excited about launching them and over the summer I think we’re just going to really focus next year on being able to prep what we can and release things in the fall and the winter.

Katja: 49:44 That’s really good. I love your small scale, face-to-face, and “when we’re out we’re out”. I think that’s really awesome.

Shari: 49:56 We started our food business and we were sheep, just walked in line with the rest of the sheep. Following the pack was the only way we knew how to do it at first because we had no idea what we were doing. We did a lot of research, stressed out a lot, and got way less sleep than we did with two little children. We definitely got less sleep in our first couple of years of our business. It was very stressful for us, and when you have a food business and you’re not taught any of this stuff (and there isn’t really a book to read on it), we didn’t know exactly what to do. We tried to figure it out, we looked to other businesses for inspiration and we’d sit down with other food business owners and talked to them. It seemed like the path to go down was to make as much product as possible, try to wholesale as much as possible, go to big grocery stores if you can, make sure that you’re full-time in this business, and these are the things that are the path forward. What we found is that none of it felt good to us and it became a business that was not a business we really wanted to have anymore. Instead of quitting our business, we decided to kind of make it the version that we wanted, which means that we’re not full-time in the business. Russ is doing work on the side and that’s how we’re able to also have our life. We don’t do it full time, we don’t nearly do as much wholesale as we were doing initially; I’d say we’re more inline with where we were our first year of business. We work really closely with small businesses and that was really important to us. We did try to go to bigger wholesalers and we always appreciated the opportunities, but it became something more business-y than creative. Really Russ has wanted a food business for awhile; he loves to cook and it’s really hard to have that while you’re also worrying about every little thing.

Ryn: 52:31 The story you’re telling is interesting to me. It sounds kind of similar to the experiences we’ve heard from students of ours who were starting an herbal business–whether it’s consulting, making herbal products, or something like that–and going through that period of “I should do it like they’re doing it”. We had a lot of students who thought they needed to make a program just like ours, and that’s not necessary, it’s probably not even a good idea honestly. You have to find your own way, what that looks like, and it’s going to be an adjustment. You’re going to try something for awhile, then realize what that actually looks like in practice, maybe you like it, maybe you stick with it, and maybe you change your mind, but it’s really hard to predict from the outset. Something I’ve heard you [Katja] say to your students a lot in the business classes is, “Don’t worry; you’re going to figure it out and you don’t have to get it right the first time. You just have to try it, see what happens, and then you’ll know where to go from there.”

Katja: 53:31 That, and your business doesn’t have to be the sole breadwinner for your family in order for it to be legitimate. Your chocolate is legitimate because it’s in my mouth, it’s real. It’s not the idea of chocolate, it is the delicious reality of chocolate. Just because you have multiple sources of income to pay your bills does not mean that your chocolate isn’t legitimate. It’s the same thing for herbalists–if you’re an herbalist three days a week and you’re something else to help fund your life the other days of the week, that doesn’t make you not a legitimate herbalist.

Shari: 54:11 Yeah, absolutely. I’ve really resonated with herbalists I’ve talked to who’ve had a very similar story. Who have felt like there was no path for them in trying to sell product, trying to make it on Instagram, or whatever it might be, and so they had to refocus. It always made more sense to go back to the small community they’re in and get back to the basics of how they wanted it to be, which was just community-based herbalism, focusing on your local area, in your home, and what people need around you. I think Russ and I feel a similar way. At first, it always felt like the competition of business kind of took over and we wanted to be known so that people know we did this first, or if people took our ideas and ran with it, it would feel awful, but it doesn’t feel awful anymore. But what we want is to be happy at the end of the day, we want to be happy family, and we want to be comfortable. We didn’t move to the middle of Vermont to follow a different path now and all of a sudden work crazily around the clock trying to grow a food business, which is notoriously one of the harder businesses to make work. Instead of going down that path and potentially failing (whatever that might look) like…

Katja: 55:50 Or succeeding, but being super stressed all the time.

Russ: 55:53 Which is the same as failure, in our opinion.

Shari: 55:56 We really felt like it was important to figure out what is it–if one person gets a chocolate bar, is that enough? That’s how we run our business now, if one person enjoyed it, that’s great.

Katja: 56:11 Community-based chocolate. [laughter]

Shari: 56:13 Now we’ve done all different kinds of farmers’ markets in Vermont this past summer, doing a little research and we found one we really liked. So, if anyone’s around the Waitsfield area, we’re going to be applying to that one again next year. We’ll do one summer market and focus more on the garden, growing our little homestead, and keeping our boys safe. We get to focus on the business in the winter and Russ is taking on side work, and as long as he’s happy with that and can make it work, we’re managing. Then we get to have different creative endeavors as well.

Ryn: 57:06 For folks who would like to keep up with you and reach you, what’s the best way?

Shari: 57:12 I would say our website, apothekerskitchen.com. We do have Instagram; I’m not always very consistent with it, say like when I have a baby. [laughter] That’s also ApothekersKitchen. I don’t use Facebook (that’s whole other topic), but we technically have a Facebook page. If you try to message us through that, we will likely never respond.

Russ: 57:43 Reaching out to us via Instagram or our website is probably the best way. Instagram does tend to be updated regularly, especially when we’re launching new crazy products, like peanut butter cups or caramel-filled chocolates or whatever, we always do a pretty good job of announcing that sort of stuff.

Katja: 58:04 Plus, you show cool pictures of ducks, geese, and all the other awesome things on the homestead.

Shari: 58:15 I’m not always great at sharing all the crazy things that happen here, but there’s a lot of fun stuff and I’ll try to share more.

Katja: 58:24 Alright you guys, I’m so excited to be here. So excited about you and thanks so much for telling everybody about the chocolate and confections, all of them (like the marshmallows!).

Ryn: 58:43 Okay folks, we hope you enjoyed that. We’ll be back next week with another episode of the Holistic Herbalism podcast, so we’ll talk to you then.

Katja: 58:52 Have a great week!

Ryn: 58:53 Bye.

herbalbusiness6

Join our newsletter for more herby goodness!

Get our newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.