Small batch sustainability: Local makers think macro while staying micro

Nathan West co-founded Mad Hatter hot sauce “right on the cusp of the 
local food movement.” Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Nathan West co-founded Mad Hatter hot sauce “right on the cusp of the local food movement.” Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Producers of handmade or uniquely sourced goods often start with an idea, a shoestring budget, and word-of-mouth buzz to launch their dream. Whether scaling up or staying small, here are three who have made it work.

Stephanie Williams started La Vache Microcreamery, her gourmet caramel enterprise, after the ‘08 downturn temporarily dried up her architecture business. Amping up a family favorite recipe with high-end ingredients like brown rice syrup and grass-fed cream, plus flavor varieties like citrus, lavender, and salt, Williams first offered her candies at City Market. “They went like hotcakes,” she says, and her patrons spread the word.

Williams can make a batch of 208 caramels, including hand-wrapping, in about 90 minutes in her certified home kitchen, and distribution is all by mail. Marketing is not her strong suit, she says, but the confection sells itself. One order of wedding-favor caramels (graced with custom-printed labels) generates dozens of new customers, and her product is now in gift shops and gourmet stores across six states. With a strong word-of-mouth network, “I’m as busy as I want to be,” she says.

Mad Hatter hot sauce’s inventors made the original concoction of spicy peppers and extra-virgin olive oil in a Vitamix and gave away the chunky “supercondiment” to friends in 8-ounce Mason jars. After securing FDA approval, their first buyer was Market Street Market in 2013. It was “right on the cusp of the local food movement,” says co-founder Nathan West. “We call it farm to bottle.” With help from UVA’s iLab incubator, which gave the fledgling company space to work, grant money, and marketing strategies, Mad Hatter vaulted into Whole Foods Market as part of its local products promotion.

In the early, lean years, the company produced batches of sauce at local restaurants during off-hours, and still barters around town for cold storage for hundreds of pounds of Red Savina peppers, grown locally at Bellair Farm. “Now we have a ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing facility in Free Union to produce orders as they come in,” says West. Next up, Mad Hatter is ready to bring its brand, which “represents a healthy lifestyle with an edge,” nationwide.

NorthShea co-founder Charity Malia Dinko moved to the U.S. from Ghana nine years ago, and recalls that even her McDonald’s job wages gave her a leg up. “I was better off than the people I left behind,” she says, “so I started the business to help the mothers and children.” Dinko began importing the shea butter that Ghanaian women painstakingly extract from the kernel of the shea nut, and created scented varieties to sell as body butter in the U.S., providing better wages to the workers back home.

Now selling its products online and in local boutiques, NorthShea’s next challenge is to provide equipment to ease the labor-intensive processing in Ghana, and to market the raw shea butter to artisans in the U.S., making a small but powerful difference in Dinko’s native land.

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