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Chefs with Issues: Artisanal angst

Chefs with Issues: Artisanal angst
Weird News
Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 11:59am

(CNN) -- I hate the word "artisan." Its use is so prolific that it means little anymore. Now, it is often used to judge the authenticity of food and, admittedly, I spoke this word quite frequently in the early days of Emily G's. I felt like an "artisan" as I struggled to produce, market, deliver and manage our budding jam company. I was true to my craft as I picked the berries I canned, labeled jars late into the night and, consequently, missed entire soccer seasons. It was brutal but fulfilling at the same time.

This was unsustainable. It became apparent that I could either make the products or manage the company, but not both. However, I was convinced that the authenticity of our food depended on my hands making the jams. Isn't that what makes me an "artisan" and our jams "authentic"? The reality was that we could not produce enough fast enough to keep up with sales. We were working hard enough to kill ourselves, but making little money. We weren't returning phone calls. We hadn't seen our children. We were a company on the edge of implosion.

At that point, we had two choices. We could build a facility and hire people to make the jams - or, we could find a co-packer. A co-packer is a facility you contract with to make your products using your recipes to your specifications. "Co-packer" is considered a dirty word by many people in the local food scene. If you co-pack, you have sold out. Your products are no longer authentic, and you are too big to be "artisan" anymore.

I wanted desperately to build a kitchen that would support our growing business. However, recession and unemployment intervened and made that option impossible. We either needed to shut Emily G's down or co-pack. At this point, Emily G's was my job. I was working to put food on our table and there was no way I would quit. We chose to co-pack, and it was a difficult and liberating decision. Letting someone else make our products rattled every control-freak bone in my body, but it allowed me to focus on running the company and growing it, which was critical for our survival and for my family. In the end, it was the right decision.

Do I wish I had my own facility to make our jams? Of course. And maybe one day we will. Do I regret our decision to co-pack? Absolutely not. I won't apologize for it either. I have gotten plenty of grief for it. Our products are made with the highest quality ingredients, they are all-natural and I stand behind each jar whether it was my hands stirring the pot or not. My jams are no less authentic because my hands aren't in each jar. In fact, even if we built a facility, I would have hired people to make the jams. In the end, it wouldn't and couldn't have been all me. Not if I wanted this company to grow. Not if my goal was to take care of my family.

Similarly, I have eaten at a number of fantastic restaurants when the chef was not there. I did not feel short-changed because she/he didn't make the dish. I could feel their presence in the food I ate. I didn't call them a sellout for leaving the kitchen because I understand the impossibility of doing it all, and the importance of finding a way to deliver your foods and grow your business.

I don't know how big we will become. I certainly hope that we will be big enough to support my family and the families of those that work for me. I believe that my jams, sauces and relish speak for themselves through my commitment to quality. Every jar we sell has a direct impact on my family's life - it has paid for my daughter's piano lessons, our grocery bill, my son's school clothes and more. In my world that is authentic, that is real. Screw "artisan." I have a company to run.

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