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Bay area trio whip up culinary winners by mixing flavors, determination

Michele Northrup wanted to do something different with the produce from her children's school garden at Lutz's Learning Gate Community School. What to do with a pile of just-plucked carrots? A lifelong hot sauce nut, she tinkered with recipes, coming up with a carrot-habanero blend so delicious her friends and family urged her to go pro.

She began the Intensity Academy (intensityacademy.com) two years ago and since then has taken top honors at the Scovie Awards held at the annual Fiery Food Show (fiery-foods.com).

Her strategy: have a passion, do research, develop a recipe and figure out how to bring it to market. Easier said than done, but Northrup says her revenue from selling 12 hot sauces and condiments continues to increase. Two other area women are following in her footsteps, with fledgling food businesses aimed at filling specific culinary niches.

The idea for Spoon Full of Comfort (spoonful­ofcomfort.com) was hatched when Bradenton resident Marti Bowes Wymer's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Wymer wanted to be there, to nurture her mother, to make her chicken soup. Wouldn't it be great if there were a mail-order business that sent homemade soup to your loved ones when they were sick or sad? Aha!

Meanwhile, Largo resident Jordan Engelhardt was frustrated that her girlfriends' favorite cocktails (the cosmo, the margarita, the puckery appletini) were so highly caloric. Skinny Mixes (skinnymixes.com) was born.

All three women admit the road to food-business success is a rocky one, with the initial challenge believing in a product enough to make it a reality.

Developing a product

From the idea in February 2007, through the finished product formulation in January 2008 and into the market this past June, Engel­hardt's Skinny Mixes took more than two years to develop. She knew how she wanted each mixer to taste (for the margarita, despite the zero calories, she wanted it to taste like a good margarita mix, not too sweet, not too sour), working with a food science lab in Louisville, Ky.

"They would send me little samples, about 20 of each flavor, and I'd have friends over. We'd do these tasting panels of mostly women."

For Wymer, logistics presented the biggest challenges: how to make a pure and simple soup, a perishable product with no preservatives. Then finding the perfect jar and the way to get it delivered safely (in a brown box with crinkle paper and bubble wrap and special gel packs that keep the soup cold for two to three days). She ties a ribbon around each one with a hand-lettered card. The notes themselves have been one of the greatest pleasures for Wymer in her new business.

"Lots of customers are parents with kids in college. My favorite was a mom sending to daughter with the note, 'I wish I could be there with you. I love you and tell your sinuses I love them, too.' And I sent soup to a girl who had lost her dog. She sent me the nicest note after she received it."

Diverse marketing efforts

Engelhardt has relied mostly on good old-fashioned shoe leather to get the word out about her product. She's walked into local bars and shops, explaining the products to the person behind the counter and asking them to try. And it has paid off: You'll find Skinny Mixes at restaurants like St. Petersburg's Table or Belleair Bluffs' Marlin Darlin, and at shops like D'Lites Emporium in Tampa or Surf & Turf Market in Palm Harbor.

Northrup's marketing efforts take a decidedly 21st-century twist. She says she's one of the top 20 Twitter users in the Tampa area.

"Using social networking is essential and it's a free service. I've tripled my e-commerce by using Twitter and Facebook. I put up recipes, do contests and offer specials."

Through the Web site mominventors.com, Wymer found a public relations firm to help market her soup — a move that has set her on a course to have the soup featured in Cooking with Paula Deen next month, Self magazine in January, Real Simple in February and several other national magazines.

Big hopes for the future

Engelhardt has some Skinny additions on the horizon. She's thinking about adding a mojito mix, daquiri and a pina colada to her lineup, all of them no-cal or low-cal.

"For the same reasons people are enthusiastic about rum and Diet Coke, I think consumers are ready for these products. I'd like to see this at every major grocery store in the country."

Right now, $1 of every Spoon Full of Comfort order goes to the American Cancer Society (Wymer lost her mother to lung cancer just six weeks after the diagnosis), and she's hoping to formulate a strategic partnership with a charity or foundation as her business grows. Even if she adds new products to her lineup (comforting items like pajamas or throw blankets), her primary aim is maintaining a personal connection with her customers.

Intensity Academy products are sold mostly at food shows, online and through nonprofit organizations' events. But recent good news may prompt stores to take notice — In October, the 2010 Scovie Awards gave the nation's top ketchup honor to Northrup's Chai Chipotle Chup, an all-natural sauce.

"Honestly," Northrup says, "it's felt like a rollercoaster ride. I'm just hanging on and seeing where it goes."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

Bay area trio whip up culinary winners by mixing flavors, determination 11/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 3:44pm]

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