By SHELAGH BRALEY
BOSTON—There’s nothing like summer to bring out the cravings for local food, to gather good friends and family and revel in the warmth.
Four local food entrepreneurs brought their homemade labors of love to FoundersWire’s table to create a diverse, locally sourced, deliciously fresh, sustainable vegetarian and allergen-free feast.
That’s a mouth full.
Be on the lookout for these delicious bites before you plan any picnic or get-together this summer. Buy local!
Summer just isn’t summer without a hot, juicy burger on the grill. Just ask Mark Mingrone, founder of Farmhouse Burger Co. and competitive barbecue champ.
“I was helping out my uncle doing competitive barbecue all over the country, at least a competition a month. In between, I’m testing out recipes, eating a ton, and all the sauces have a lot of sugar,” he says. “I was just eating way too much beef.”
By fall, he says he really wanted to eat healthier. But he tried all the vegetarian burgers on the market, and he found them small and flavorless.
It was then that he started making his own, applying those same award-winning barbecue techniques to make his vegetable burgers taste like heaven. The full quarter-pound patties are nearly twice the size of what’s on the market, made from all-natural ingredients, without additives or GMOs.
“The population just eats too much meat now, and with all the pesticides and GMOs, that can’t be good,” he says. “And even if there’s a veggie burger with 100 calories, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The companies hide additives in their labels and use caramel coloring.”
He says everything Farmhouse uses is organic, and the company will be organic-certified within the year. “Even though we aren’t certified yet, we are already in line with their qualifications and up to those standards,” Mingrone says.
Farmhouse, which offers a fresh garden burger as well as a Southwest black bean version, is based at CommonWealth Kitchen, a shared maker space in Dorchester that supports food-based businesses. “They have been really great, they do amazing work there. Being there has really gotten the ball rolling.”
Mingrone says he considers himself a “flexitarian,” which he defines as weekday vegetarian with a steak or beef burger on the weekend. “So I made this (Farmhouse) a Monday-through-Friday burger. It also makes veggie burgers cool. You’re with a bunch of friends and one says, ‘I’ll have a veggie burger.’ (With Farmhouse), you can make your carnivore friends want one.
“It’s not really like an option B. It’s option A for us—even if you’re not vegetarian,” he says. “We’re reinventing the vegetable burger. There’s a lot of flavor in there.”
The fix is in on this Mojo mama—the caffeine fix, that is. Cold-brewed coffee is a New Orleans staple, but when founder Annie Brainard arrived in New England 20 years ago, no one yet knew its creamy, caffeine-rich charms.
This brew is nothing to trifle with, considering its caffeine clocks in at 170 mg per 8 ounces. By way of comparison, Starbucks latte double that size (16 oz.) contains only 150 mg.
“The way I make it is very potent, highly caffeinated, and it tastes like melted coffee ice cream,” Brainard says with a laugh. “Imagine melted coffee ice cream that gives you a buzz.”
She says she loves to share this Southern treat, as different as it is from the competition. “When I did the research, I learned that Starbucks controlled 98 percent of the ready-to-drink coffee market. I felt like there should be more options out there, especially ones for palates that preferred strong, authentic coffee flavors.”
Brainard grew up in the Big Easy, with family in the restaurant business, so she had a head start on what it would take to launch and grow her own coffee line. “I learned the value of good, simple food, creating dishes using local ingredients and spending time to craft the best meals and drinks to share.”
Mojo, brewed and bottled on the North Shore, has been available in quart size for years, but the company this month is expanding into the single-serve market. Mojo now has its own kitchen space, with the capacity to churn out 10,000 bottles a week. “Over the last two years, our business has really grown,” Brainard says. “Creating and sharing good food and drink is part of my DNA; to me, it’s what life is all about.”
It was at a Center for Women & Enterprise bootcamp three years ago that Brainard met another New Orleans foodie who had migrated North: Sherie Grillon, founder of NOLA’s Fresh Foods.
“We were the only two working on food and beverage companies, so we became fast friends,” Brainard says. “We’re so lucky to have each other on this journey. I learn so much from her. It’s really become a sisterhood and a great partnership.”
Grillon makes no bones about her work: “I’m passionate about what I do and what I give my customers. When I meet new people, we joke: Just be forewarned, you are going up a pants size,” she laughs.
“When I started with CWE, they were amazing to me. That’s where I met Annie (Brainard), who also happened to be from New Orleans, doing food and she was the same kind of crazy people. It was kismet that brought us together. I’ll know her the rest of my life now,” she says.
Grillon, now a speaker at events aimed at empowering women entrepreneurs, takes her role in the community just as seriously as her food. “I’m a huge believer, you help everyone. If I don’t share my knowledge—and learn what others know—what is the point? You get back what you put out there,” she says. “Being an entrepreneur is already a very lonely kind of experience, so there’s no point in isolating yourself even more. Anyone who has a question that won’t harm my business in any way, I will answer.”
This karma-creating soul sister makes Salsa Fresca, using the same fresh ingredients and recipe from when she was 19, in addition to the newer Fire-Roasted Corn and Black Bean Salsa.
“When you can associate food with home, it’s an extremely powerful thing. That’s what I want to evoke. When I can find something that is authentic to New Orleans, it brings back all those memories and there’s nothing that can replace that.”
Grillon, a 2015 Martha Stewart food finalist with a retail background, ran a tight operation after launching in 2011. “I knew that if I could build my clientele and withstand a loss for a few years, I’d be able to scale and make my money when I could pre-print 100,000 containers—which is where we are now.”
She wants her products to be fun, because for her, it’s more than just salsa.
“Don’t be afraid to play with food,” she advises. “Throw some (salsa) on grilled veggies, cook with it. We have a ton of recipes on the website. A picnic is the perfect time to do that. Of course, it’s always great for chips but people need to learn to play and have fun with it because that’s what food is.”
But keeping it fun without cutting corners has been a huge challenge, she says, albeit one she wouldn’t trade.
“I try to keep the price fair. There are definitely people who tell me I should raise my prices, but I want people to be able to afford it. People who say, ‘Sherie, I buy four of these a week’—I want to be that person, not just reserved for when you’re having a party or a special occasion.
“There should be access to good food for everybody—not just the few.”
You can’t have a picnic without dessert. But these days, there are pitfalls to watch out for, like guests with gluten, dairy and nut allergies. Jennifer Lee’s Gourmet Bakery founder Jennifer LaSala takes great care creating vegan treats that will delight everyone. A permanent fixture at Boston Public Market, this young entrepreneur has her sights set on this evolving and still-underserved customer base.
“I decided to help the over-15 million people in the U.S. who currently suffer from allergies or restricted diets due to health issues,” LaSala says. “Just because you can’t eat certain foods does not mean you should have to settle for subpar knockoffs, or never being able to eat a doughnut with everyone else.”
And the doughnuts are worth their weight in vegan frosting. Jennifer Lee’s offers a variety of seasonal flavors, including blueberry, apple cider and bourbon maple bacon (tempeh bacon, of course). And don’t forget the bread and lots of chocolate.
At an early age, under the trying circumstances of losing her parents’ home to foreclosure, moving and subsequent bullying, LaSala took those lemons and made lemon cake—winning her school’s business plan competition and coming in third out of 1,100 in regionals in the NFTE Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. Enrolling in Johnson & Wales, LaSala worked two jobs and sold her wares at the Revere Farmers’ Market, and at age 20 was named Goldman Sachs New England Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Going from an almost high school dropout to having a store in Boston, with all of my achievements and mistakes in between—it has been such a rollercoaster ride,” she says. “Success doesn’t just come to you, you fall down multiple times and have to keep getting up. But that’s how you achieve your dream, you never give up.”
For these food founders, that victory is sweet. And worth savoring.