Exploring Austin through a dozen new (and not-so-new) local food products
When I walk into any store, I could spend all afternoon looking at the packages and new products. It's even better when I get to try new products at a booth that some business owner has set up in the store.
Until recently, because of the pandemic, in-store tastings have been off the table, but some stores are adding them back slowly and with COVID-19 precautions.
It's amazing to see just how many new food companies have launched during the pandemic, even without the ability to offer samples to bring in new customers. This is a sign that grocery buyers are snatching up new products to sell because people like buying from companies they feel like they have a connection with.
Which is what caught my eye about an in-store marketing campaign they have going on at Whole Foods that features photos of these food business owners next to their products. On a stroll through Whole Foods at the Domain recently, I spied Greenbelt Kombucha founders Gavin Booth and Timothy Klatt by their kombucha, just around the corner from Tacodeli CEOs Roberto Espinosa and Eric Wilkerson, standing next to their salsa, and they were just a few aisles over from Aaron and Stacy Franklin, who were smiling next to their barbecue sauce.
This kind of in-store signage is so nice because it helps me put a name with a face, like Mary Claire and Eric Vanderschaaf, who own Tree Hive Breakfast. The couple started bottling this cinnamon-spiced, vanilla-laced mixture of maple syrup and honey way back in 2012, and in the past year, they've added a pancake and waffle mix to their line. I haven't tried the pancake mix yet, but I bought the syrup, and it's such a nice change of pace from the regular options on the shelf. (Maple syrup is fine, but it's not my favorite way to top pancakes. This product, however, taught me that maybe I don't really like maple syrup unless it's mixed with honey.)
Through this signage, I found the Austin-based Good Good Food Co., which sells vegan, gluten-free cookie dough bites that you can either eat raw — thanks to the almond flour and the lack of any eggs — or you can bake. Eggs are in the company's collagen cookies, which are made with cashew butter, almond flour and maple syrup and are also available at all six Austin-area Whole Foods stores. These are small cookies that cost about $3 each. If you've got a sweet tooth, keep an eye out for them.
I always love seeing products on shelves that I remember trying for the first time at a farmers market. SoCo Ginger Beer is one of those businesses. For six years, they've been selling freshly made ginger beer at local farmers markets and, more recently, a growing number of retail outlets in Austin and North Texas. The company sells seasonal, non-alcoholic flavors, including watermelon, blackberry, cucumber lime and beet carrot, at various times during the year, and right now, cranberry, hibiscus and plain ginger are on the shelf. You can try all the flavors at the tasting room at Moontower Cider Company, 1916 Tillery St., which is where SoCo Ginger Beer is produced.
Force of Nature isn't a new company either. Founders Robby Sansom, Taylor Collins, Katie Forrest, pictured near the display, started the company in 2019 to sell ground meat (beef, venison and elk, among them). (You'll remember that Collins and Forrest founded Epic Meat Provisions, which sold to General Mills in 2016.)
Their new venture specializes in selling meat from animals that are raised using regenerative agricultural practices throughout a network of ranches. The product line also includes wild boar, chicken and an "ancestral blend" (both bison and beef) that also includes the liver and heart.
I really got excited when I saw that Buddha's Brew Kombucha, famous for its ever-changing lineup of kombucha flavors, has added a new canned product for the first time.
Rather than making canned kombucha, the company is selling water kefir, a lighter (less sweet and not-at-all sour or tart) sparkling probiotic drink made with kefir grains. The initial lineup of sparkling kefir water is Calamansi lime, guava and raspberry. Each flavor is sold in a 16-ounce can that has 7 added grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving and costs about $4. The water kefir isn't nearly as punchy as Buddha's Brew kombucha, which I have long been a fan of, but I liked the lightly flavored lime drink so much that I went back to Whole Foods a few days later to get the raspberry, which I also loved.
While I was at the downtown Whole Foods Market, I found rosemary transplants to replace the once-hearty beast of a shrub in my backyard that died in the freeze. (Side note: Did anyone's rosemary survive? My loquat and fig trees are showing life; peach and plum are fully leafed out. The Meyer lemon tree that's been with me for 15 years froze all the way back, but there's some signs of life at the base of the trunk.)
Then I started looking for those red "Local" signs again. I saw a photo of John Seibold, Heidi Wachter and Jason Ellis, who are behind Lost Pines Yaupon, which got its start in 2015 at the local farmers markets and now sells its tea via concentrate and in tea bags.
In the refrigerated section, I "met" Sonia Margarita Vasquez-Grizzle of Margarita's Tortilla Factory, who has been making tortillas out of the Austin area for nearly 25 years, and Jamie and Elvira Picos with their Fiesta Tortillas, another Austin-based company that dates back more than two decades. (They started their first tortilla factory in 1984, and now the second and third generation of the family are involved. I'm hoping to tell that story soon.)
I caught a glimpse of Olive Ponce and Erin Shotwell of Good Seed, whose plant-based frozen patties first debuted in a food truck in 2014. They were pictured beside their new ground beef-inspired hempseed crumbles. One is called "beefly" and it's made with sprouted lentils mixed with seeds and spices. The second is chorizo, and it is made with cauliflower, pepitas, cumin and oregano. (I haven't had a chance to try these, but I'm on a vegan seafood kick at the moment. Do you have a favorite plant-based seafood product or cooking tip? I'm working on a story about another new Austin company that I'll tell you about in a few weeks.)
And then I ran into Peter Rushford, the creator of Shār Snacks — "Say it like care, fair, dare. Oh, and bear," the package says — a high-end trail mix sold in a tube made with environmentally friendly materials, right down to the label, he explained.
With biodegradable packaging and high-quality ingredients, the trail mix isn't cheap, but it's the only one that has pistachios, Rushford points out. Rushford was giving away little packages of trail mix to customers who were passing by to keep things safe, everyone still masked and staying socially distanced.
He sells only one flavor in a 3.7 ounce tube for about $8.50, but he's right: It is the best trail mix I've ever had. The nuts are very lightly salted and roasted. The dried fruit-to-chocolate ratio is spot on. The dried coconut is fresh.
Through just a quick chat, I found out that he started perfecting the trail mix way back in 2013 and launched the company a few years ago with decent distribution at REI and other outdoor stores across the country. Now that he's added Whole Foods, Central Market and the California grocery chain Erewhon Market, sales are ramping up.
It's sweet and salty and satisfying, and I wouldn't have bought it if I didn't have the chance to try it.
These in-store product demos, tastings and conversations with business owners went away during the pandemic, and this is one of the first I've seen in more than a year.
It was both a familiar scene and a new one: A local food business owner trying to get a food company off the ground as the world tries to shift back into one we would have recognized last March.
Rushford's company isn't really new, but how do you stand out in an increasingly crowded grocery field after a year when supermarkets were often the only place people went to outside their homes? Shoppers like me are eager to try new products, and being able to sample them — or learn about them through an in-store marketing campaign, like that one Whole Foods has going now — is one of the most reliable ways to gain new customers.
On the way out, I grabbed a $4 Monster Cookie from Henbit, one of the restaurants inside Fareground food hall downtown that have been closed for the pandemic. I'd had this dessert at Fareground, but this was the first time I'd picked one up at the store. Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph's famous sky-high cookies, which have found a steady stream of customers at Whole Foods since debuting there in 2019, did not disappoint.
It's not dinner at Emmer & Rye, but it's nice to treat myself with Austin-made treats when I'm at the store. Maybe it's a pandemic pick-me-up strategy.
Or maybe it's a love of knowing that there's a community of consumer packaged good business owners out there hustling to expand, launch or keep their businesses alive. If you see them at a grocery store again soon, maybe giving out samples for the first time in a year, you might stop to say hello. You could hear a good story or find a product that will brighten your day and boost their business. What a treat.