Sarah Arrazola is not the first to ferment.
The St. Petersburg native, who studied public relations at the University of Florida, worked at public relations firms across Florida for years before coming back to St. Pete and starting her company, St. Pete Ferments, in 2016. According to Arrazola, 27, it is the first traditional and varietal wild fermentation company in the Tampa Bay area. She ferments her small-batch wares, from kombucha to pickles to kimchi, using the microbes found in the foods themselves.
Since October 2016, Arrazola has been selling ferments at farmers markets across the region, including the Tampa Indie Flea, the St. Pete Indie Market and the Corey Avenue Sunday Market in St. Pete Beach. She has taught fermenting classes on topics like brewing raw apple cider vinegar and making your own sauerkraut. We sat down to talk with her about the path to fermentation, her company and the hoops she had to jump through to bring her fermented foods to the table.
When did you start fermenting?
I had started fermenting when I was in Miami. I was coming back to St. Pete all the time, and that was when my mom got us both kombucha cultures … so I started doing that at my apartment in Miami. I basically discovered this art of fermentation while I was living in the opposite environment from sustainability, and I didn't even know it. When you're in an urban environment like that, you're buying a lot of food, and food's really expensive in Miami. Even though I had the money, it just felt good not to have to be going out. I'm a person of extremity; there's no gray area for me. It's always black and white. I was like: "What's the coolest thing you've done at this job, Sarah? Yeah, the people are nice, the money is really nice, but what's the most meaningful thing that you've done in the last almost year and a half?" And I couldn't think of anything. I couldn't think of one really meaningful [thing].
Did you come straight back to St. Pete to start St. Pete Ferments?
I traveled the country first, for like three months, and I worked on organic farms and I met really cool people and made friends. ... I was working on this farm in Atitlan, called Atitlan Organics ... and Shad [Qudsi, the owner] employs natives, so he has three or four natives that work for him full time, and he pays them well … so I felt really good working for his farm because I felt like it was the real deal when it came to permaculture and sustainability. They did a lot of fermenting. They had pigs, goats and chickens. They grew a lot of perennials and fruits and veggies that grow year-round and food that was native to that area. ... They made mead and ginger beer and yogurt and kefir [a fermented milk drink] and all kinds of fermented veggies. And that's when it really clicked: sustainable local agriculture, sustainable local fermenting. Everything just completely changed for me. I worked there for two months, [and] I was like, "Man, this is what I want to do." I wanted to stay the course, and pretty much within the first couple weeks of being there I knew what I wanted to do in the U.S. when I got back.
Was it difficult to get St. Pete Ferments off the ground?
I thought I was going to fall under Cottage Food Law (which allows a person to legally prepare certain foods in their home kitchens and sell small batches). Fermented foods do not fall under Cottage Food.
Why was it so hard to get licensed?
People just didn't know [how to get licensed]. People had no idea. Even microbiologists that I was talking to, even some of them didn't know. "Okay, so you want to ferment stuff, but you're not pickling it, you're not heating it?" Finally, I got to somebody who knew what to do. For fermented foods, you need a process authority letter and, basically, a commercial kitchen. That process authority letter was the main thing that I needed. So, I had to write a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan. I'm considered a potentially hazardous food category. You can fry up Twinkies all day and that's not potentially hazardous, but making sauerkraut? Potentially hazardous.
So your biggest issue was figuring out the critical control point, as part of that plan?
Basically, what are the critical control points that have to be met to make sure your food is safe? Brown beef, if you're making hamburgers, that hamburger has to be heated up to a certain degree. Whatever number that is, that would be the critical control parameter. Basically apply that to fermented stuff, but you're not cooking anything. I don't use microscopes, so what do we do? The critical control point for fermented food and beverages is pH. The State of Florida gave me a list of food-grade laboratories that were going to charge me more money than I had capital … some laboratories would not even take fermented food, they would not even consider a fermented food plan to review. And I mean, these were universities I was contacting. I was calling universities in Alaska. I was desperate.
But you finally found someone to review the plan? And it got approved?
After, like, four months, it got approved.
Is that why you have textbooks out on your stand at the markets? Because people don't know much about fermentation?
We know so much more in the last 10 years than we've ever known about microbes … It's just a lack of knowledge and education, but people are coming around. ... People are always like, "What is this? Tell me what fermentation is. What is all this?" I would say the majority of my time spent at the market stand is educating people.
At one of your workshops, you said you spent your last dollar putting this business together. How does that make you feel?
I feel like I leave a trail of cabbage shreds everywhere I go.
What's up next?
I want to do non-soy tempeh, black bean tempeh, lentil tempeh. And dehydrated kimchi. If I can dehydrate kimchi at a low enough temperature so it preserves the microbial life, then you have a dehydrated powdered form of kimchi that you can put on popcorn … or as a seasoning that people can use instead of salt.
Contact Carlynn Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org. Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at email@example.com.