Agriculture has always been an important component of the commerce of the Upper Valley. Dairy farms, cornfields, and orchards have long dotted the area’s landscape. Though these well-known farm landmarks still are common, there is a new and thriving area of agricultural commerce now found in our area – the small, local, independent food producer.
Shopping local for food products, as well as other types of goods, continues to grow in popularity. With the concern about additives in food products, both nationally and internationally, knowing the source and maker of the foods one buys is of greater concern than ever. Nothing seems to put one’s mind at ease more than buying what you eat from your neighbor.
In the town of Norwich alone, there are numerous small farms and specialty food producers. Susan Zak, owner of Bakewell, is one such producer of unique, local foods. Though not a lifelong producer of food products, Zak says, “I was always interested in cooking and baking.”
While living in New York, Zak took many cooking classes. After moving to Vermont, Zak attended cooking school at the New England Culinary Institute. Upon completing classwork there, in 2008 Zak opened her business, Bakewell, from her home in Norwich.
Though the name Bakewell might give one the impression she only produces baked goods, Zak creates many types of food products through her business. “I do a wide range of sweet and savory products,” she says. Quiches, almond cakes, whole grain salads, and pastries featuring vegetables and goat cheese, are just some of her creations.
Another transplant to the Upper Valley who has created a local food business is Paula Alexandrescu, owner of My Brigadeiro, a specialty chocolate shop in Hanover. Alexandrescu, who lives in Norwich, started the business in her home in 2012. In late 2014, she opened her store on Main Street in Hanover, though she continues to do some of her chocolate production out of her Norwich home. “I would have loved to have opened a shop in Norwich,” says Alexandrescu, though she felt to be successful, she needed the greater foot traffic found in downtown Hanover. Still, with her home, her business start, and some of her production in Norwich, Alexandrescu feels a kinship with the Norwich business community. “I’m so proud to be a Norwich business,” she says.
Alexandrescu’s chocolate creations have a tie to traditional Brazilian treats, and are customized with her own recipes and creativity. Having made her special chocolates for occasions such as her son’s birthday, Alexandrescu was encouraged by friends to turn her skill into a business.
When she began her business, Alexandrescu sold her chocolates at several local retailers. She found, however, that with the short shelf life of her chocolates, she really needed to sell her candies herself, from her own storefront. She still does sell the chocolates from a few area stores, including Dan & Whit’s.
Susan Zak also sells most of the food she producers herself, though not from a storefront. Zak works regularly with one of the departments at Dartmouth College, providing food for their events, meetings and seminars. Occasionally, she will cater a private event, or offer her goods at area events, such as the Norwich Historical Society’s annual antique show. Some of her products, primarily frozen dough, can be found at Dan & Whit’s. Killdeer Farm retails some products, including a granola Zak makes. “The granola is super popular,” she says.
Norah Lake, who owns and operates Sweetland Farm in Norwich, sells all of the products her farm produces directly from the farm. At some point, Lake says, she would like to offer her food products through local retailers. For now, however, her customers buy through the popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.
As is true with other area farms such as Killdeer and Cedar Circle, Sweetland Farm offers their clients traditional and specialty vegetable products through the CSA shares. Sweetland also raises their own lambs, pigs, and chickens, with most of the meat they produce sold to the shareholders. One does not go to Sweetland to pick up an individual ham or leg of lamb, however. “We sell whole sides, cut up into the various cuts,” says Lake.
Right now, Sweetland Farm raises about 30 lambs, 15 pigs, and 500 meat chickens a year for processing and sale. “As we get up and running, we’d like to add beef to the mix,” says Lake.
When ready for the market, the lamb and pigs are sent to an area butcher for processing. The meat is available to customers later in the fall, and is USDA certified. The chickens are processed right on the farm, and sold as whole roasters, says Lake. Sometimes there are more roasting chickens available for sale then there are shareholders to buy them, but that is not a problem. In that case, “we often post on the local list serves to let people know chickens are available,” says Lake.
All of these food producers find that being in the Upper Valley, and the Norwich area in particular, is key to their success. “I don’t think that if I started (the business) anywhere else, I would have done as well,” says Brigadeiro’s Paula Alexandrescu. “The support is great,” she says, adding that support from other area businesses has been critical. To succeed, “you have to rely on other businesses,” says Alexandrescu.
Norah Lake says people choose farm CSAs based on geography, and with so many people in Norwich and surrounding towns devoted to quality, locally produced foods, she is thrilled to have her farm in Norwich.
Susan Zak also finds the Norwich area a great location for her business. “People appreciate great food,” she says of area residents.
Working out of her Norwich home, and not a commercial space, is another great advantage, says Zak. “Its been great,” says Zak of working at home, adding, “It allows a lot of flexibility.” That flexibility allows her to constantly try new recipes and new products, Zak says. In order to work out of her home, her kitchen is certified by the Vermont Department of Health, says Zak.
For small, local food producers, farmer’s markets are a natural way to market their products. The Norwich Farmer’s Market is, of course, the “granddaddy” of area farmer’s markets. In the spring, and again later in the fall, Zak is a regular exhibitor at the Norwich Farmer’s Market. She purposely does not do the market during the warm summer months, as she remarks that pastry does not hold up particularly well outside on a hot day.
When she wasn’t running her retail store, Alexandrescu offered her candies at area food events, but with the store, she does fewer of those events. Chefs of the Valley is one event she does participate in, she says.
All of these local food producers find that adding diversity to their mix of products is essential to maintaining a successful business. Norah Lake mentions that growing a mix of specialty vegetables along with the staples is important, and Susan Zak enjoys experimenting with new recipes and flavors.
New, different flavors are very important in the candy making business, says Paula Alexandrescu. When she began her business, Alexandrescu offered 10 different flavors of her chocolates; today, she has 45 different flavors. “I create flavors for the different seasons,” she says.
Alexandrescu depends on her customers at My Brigadeiro to give her input on her different candies and flavors. “We love opinions from customers,” she says. “Our customers tell us what they like and dislike.”
After opening the shop in Hanover, Alexandrescu decided to expand her offerings beyond candies. “We needed to diversify because of all the space,” she says. As a result, My Brigadeiro now offers coffee, cookies, cupcakes, and cake, made with their own chocolate. Alexandrescu makes these baked goods, just as she does her candies.
Adding diversity to the mix at Sweetland Farm included planting a 200-tree fruit orchard, says Norah Lake. The orchard includes pear trees, plum trees, and 40 varieties of apple trees. As this is the fifth year for the orchard, Lake says, “We are hoping to get our first little crop this year.”
A great advantage small, local food producers in our area have is using locally grown products in their recipes. Alexandrescu mentions she uses local farm cream in her candies. Susan Zak grows and produces many of the ingredients she uses in her creations at Bakewell. Some of the vegetables she uses come from her own garden, she raises chickens for her eggs, and even produces her own maple syrup.
One of the true pleasures of owning and operating any small business is that it allows the owner to take part in all aspects of the production. Whether it is Susan Zak experimenting with new recipes in her kitchen, Paula Alexandrescu interacting with her customers about what they like, or dislike in her latest creations, or Norah Lake moving her chickens or sheep from barn to pasture on the farm, the ability to be ”hands on” in all aspects of their businesses give these entrepreneurs a great level of satisfaction.