Throughout the year, Ark Republic’s arkitects and contributors took note of their favorite and budding specialty foods, spices and condiments that we think you should stockpile.
Locally sourced, small batches of eatables make-great-gifts throughout the year, and even better personal treats.
Whether finding a snack to help you get through your second wind or locating a savory sauce to douse your favorite meat or veggie, dining is even better when you know that someone who cares about your experience prepared it. Our top specialty items from small businesses and sole-entrepreneurs keep the artisanal food industry percolating.
HILLARI MOON | Atlanta
For years, Gwen Narcisse, MBA, engineered complex formulas to season the array of dishes she prepared for clients as a part-time, personal chef in Atlanta. Because Atlanta and its metro area hosts a range of ethnic and cultural communities, Chef Gwen prepared piquant dishes dipped in everything from curry to Cajun rubs.
Though the job as a personal chef with clients of different palates was exciting, it could get quite expensive. Rather than purchase premade spice blends, Chef Gwen began to experiment in making her own. Soon, satisfied customers and culinary colleagues began to inquire about her hand-crafted, flavorful medleys of herbs and spices.
During this time, Chef Gwen lost her corporate job and had to make a serious decision about the direction of her career. In that critical moment, she found support in her partner to dive into the culinary world full time. “The real catalyst was my husband and the push out of corporate,” Chef Gwen recalled in a previous interview. “My husband supported me when I decided to pursue entrepreneurship after being laid off. We lost a significant amount of income, but we were both willing to make the sacrifice to pursue business.”
With her ride-or-die hubby, Chef Gwen fused her business savvy with gastronomic expertise to launch, Hillari Moon, a gourmet spice company. Named after her mother and sister, Chef Gwen transferred the blends she made as a personal chef into an impressive and quite extensive spice blend line.
From no salt to Himalyan salt combinations that travel to Italy and back to the Dirty South, Hillari Moon is an excellent starter kit for newbies in food preparation, as well as experienced cooks.
Another added health benefit is that blends are GMO free and absent of sugar, MSG, fillers, additives, wheat and gluten. With the growing reports of food allergies and headaches and a load of other illnesses after eating, eliminating the noxious substances that many commercially-produced spices use should send relief to food-sensitive folk and families with children.
Often, commercial spices use toxic chemicals to preserve freshness or synthetically enhance flavor, taste, appearance, texture. So, the commitment by Chef Gwen to ensure that the spices enhance the food experience rather than worsen asthma or send you to the hospital in an anaphylactic shock is quite comforting.
PEPPER CHOWCHOW | San Francisco
Anytime you see a skillet as a chef’s icon, you know someone is about to throw down. And that is just what Wanda Blake does when she walks into a kitchen or any place with a hot plate and knife. She conjures culinary genius for the culture.
After years of the San Francisco native putting on pop up restaurants to circumnavigate the exorbitant costs of residing and owning a business in the Bay Area, Chef Blake started a condiment line selling Pepper Chowchow, a gourmet, southern-styled relish dish consisting of spiced, cooked then pickled vegetables and herbs.
Proficient in the language of southern cuisine, Chef Blake can break down seven different types of gumbo and the evolution of red beans and rice while sipping chicory coffee and lighting a candle on her ancestral altar. Easily, she could slang bricks of premade gumbo blocks or one of her succulent desserts, but she chose chowchow, or rather, it chose her.
Chef Blake said that the idea to make chowchow was a spiritual intervention for a long overdue seat at the table of Bay Area restaurateurs. “Ancestors,” she stated simply. “They gave me this to do while waiting for my own kitchen.”
So, as she waits for the iron to strike hot, Chef Blake stays armed with heirloom skillets, recipes from her foremothers and a blue and white gingham apron. Indeed, her Pepper chowchow is an ode to her southern lineage, but she is showing creative ways that the delicious condiment can top hipster avocado toast to spicing up a breakfast burrito. For some, the vinegary goodness is best eaten alone.
In the meantime, the accountant-turned-southern-food-chef refuses to simply cook in the kitchen she puts in root work, often fusing her traditional African spirituality with to-die-for menus and weekly takeouts. Get this chowchow while it is well-priced and in stock because like her gumbo, it will run out.
SOCU KITCHEN | Atlanta
When money is funny, and change is strange, you create a profitable business. Or at least, that is what Erica Barrett did. In 2010, the Alabama native now living in Atlanta turned a grocery run for breakfast into, Southern Culture Artisan Foods, a company whipping up small-batch handmade, pre-mixed recipes.
The Clark Atlanta University graduate who studied business, came up with the idea after her grocery bill for ingredients to make strawberry pancakes for her husband upticked to over $30. Without any formal culinary training, she used her passion for cooking to set into motion, a business that prepares modest-yet-tasty mixes for one or maybe two meals.
Informed by her southern roots, Barrett and her mom, have created an impressive list of mixes for pancakes and waffles, cornbread, grits and fried chicken. She’s also has bacon rubs on the menu and recently launched a cookbook, Shuga to Seoul.
WUT-A-PICKLE | Los Angeles
After watching too many gentrified versions of African American dishes and delicacies, it brings relief that Los Angeles-based, Wut-A-Pickle are cashing in on inner city gastronomy creations.
Pickles marinated in the flavors of childhood sweets mix ,the salty-tangy taste of a pickle with sugary confections of corner store candy and batches of syrupy Kool-Aid
Maybe it’s just a Cali thing, or a South Los Angeles back-in-day neighborhood indulgence, but growing up, we’d put Now and Later candy and Jolly Ranchers inside a pickle for sweet-and-salty flavor. If we could, we’d buy a packet of sweetened Kool-Aid then sprinkle it onto the fermented cucumber to make a snack that sent a sugar rush and puckered your mouth simultaneously.
From mango to treasured tropical punch, and of course, grape flavor, (name) has been gaining a local name with her small, medium and large batches of sliced, flavored pickles.
HENNY & REMY POPCORN | Atlanta
Flooding my timeline around Christmas is what can only be described as a culinary disrupter in the form of a specialty food genius. C. Gray of Atlanta-based, The Cupcake Genie, launched a line of cognac, whiskey and rum infused caramel popcorn. Hands down brilliant.
You cannot come through for the culture any harder than this Hennessy flavored, Remy-tinged, Crown Royal-infused or Cruzan Rum-imbued caramel popcorn. Mixed and remixed for a snack and gift packet that goes well as a munchie for a man, but packaged so cute, a woman who cherishes her brown liquor and other spirits, would love the treats too.
CHARLESTON GOURMET BURGER COMPANY | Charleston
When Monique and Chevalo Wilsondebriano received rave reviews for the taste of their burgers at a family barbecue, they thought that the marinade they dashed in their ground beef mix would just remain a favorite at house functions.
As the marinade grew, the family of six saw greater potential. Monique, a New Jersey entrepreneur and Chevalo, an EMS profession who worked at the New York City Fire Department and was a first responder at the September 11 tragedy, began to develop a sauce and marinade.
The Charleston Gourmet burger sauce and burger marinade is herbs and goodness in a bottle. Birthed after the couple relocated to the Southern city known for strong foodway roots, they wanted to honor the city they embraced as their new home. Today, their barbecue must-haves have been seen on QVC and populate shelves from Walmart to Costco.
BUSHA BROWNE’S | Kingston
After tasting a wicked Trini jerk sauce in Florida, for over a decade I searched for the perfect brand. Some years ago, I plucked Busha Browne’s jerk marinade from a New Jersey Whole Foods. It comes in an unassuming, small jar. You might think that it is a puny little thing, but when you put it on fish, meats and in your veggies, the taste slaps you back to a Western Jamaican estate circa late 1800s.
Formerly co-owned by Winston Stona who built the brand for the past 27 years, Busha Browne is the only gourmet condiment company throughout the Caribbean. The factory, located in Kingston, employs 80 to 100 people and the ingredients are locally sourced by small farmers and each product made in small batches to maintain its integrity.
Busha Browne’s recipes derive from the personal archives of the Siglo family, former Jamaican slave-holding planters who were known for hosting events with delicious foods. Though the Silgo name is engraved on the methods of cooking, it was enslaved Africans the plantation who created masterful recipes of Jamaican sauces, jams, pickles and condiments.
Those recipes today are found in over a dozen products shipped throughout the world.
TRUE MADE | Alexandria
Who ever thought that ketchup and barbecue sauce could be a superfood? Abraham Kamarck, a father of four knew that some American table classics could get a boost of nutrients and still be yummy without corn syrup and food additives.
In 2015, as a challenge to get his own children on board to having better options for sauces and condiments with their burgers and fries, he launched True Made. Veteran owned, True Made carries a line of barbecue sauce, vegetable sriracha and ketchup.
To replace excessive sugar often found in major food condiments, True Made substitutes sugar with spinach, carrots and butternut squash. Named DC startup on the year, Kamarck continues to work on America’s sugar count.
THE COOKIE KAHUNA | Waikiki
Wallace “Wally” Amos self-titles as “The Caretaker of the Taste,” but also can be deemed, “The Comeback King.” A veteran in specialty foods, Amos is behind, The Cookie Kahuna, a snack food company out of Hawaii.
With three options—chocolate chip, chocolate chip pecan and butterscotch macadamia—Amos takes his recipes and baking techniques back to New York City when his aunt rolled out batches of the sweet doughy drops as child.
Before his Hawaiian venture, Amos emerged in the food world in the mid-70s with his aunt’s cookie recipes. He worked at a well-known, advertisement agency, but decided to dive into desserts. Smart decision. His cookies caught like quick-fire, so by the early 80s, his company, Famous Amos, grossed $12 million. However, the fast ascent experienced a faster downfall.
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When the company began to leak money, Amos sold most of his shares to a bigger company who then flipped his bootstrapped business to other corporations. Amos, who just became a figurehead. As a result, his recipes and the integrity of the company was lost in the corporate takeovers.
Leaving in the 80s, he discovered through a lawsuit that he sold the rights to the name he built. By the 90s, debt and a series of failed marriages along with personal clashes churned out a complete financial bottoming out. If he could not turn to cookies, the former Harlem-world kid used the word as his weapon. Over the years, Amos wrote books reflecting and chronicling an epic rise that many snack food ventures modeled years after.
With his new company, The Cookie Kahuna, Amos works to restore the name and recipes that brought him fame and fortune.
MANGO MANGO | Richmond
“Spread it, mix it, shake it, stir it!” That jingle rang in the ears of Shark Tank junkies for weeks after Mango Mango creators, Tanecia Willis, Lakesha Brown-Renfro and Nzinga Teule-Hekima appeared on the show to pitch for money to back their passion for all things mango.
Years back, the trio—an IT consultant, a military spouse and a family medicine physician—transformed a fruit favorite into a preserve. They showed how the mango jam could go on and in a host of dishes and beverages. After hawking the preserves at artisan shows and in farmer’s market, their growing popularity afforded them a space on Shark Tank.
Although they did not receive an offer, they sister-friends continued to sell their delicious jarred gem until it became housed at the restaurant, Mango Mangeaux, an eatery serving creole and neo-soul food.
BLACK COFFEE COMPANY | Los Angeles
For Ark Republic, the term, “Stay Woke,” is used on many levels. For the founders of Black Coffee Company, their business model is financial awareness and entrepreneurship. To emphasize their goal, the longtime friends of five decided to take their love of coffee and turn it into a business.
“Coffee came into it because we like to have coffee with our cause,” told Leonard Lightfoot, one of the owners. “Coffee was always there when we were talking and people often drink it when they are meeting. So, we decided to start a company that focuses on two things: coffee and empowerment.”
Their site operates as a hybrid. One half sells coffee and merchandise, while the other side provides tips and links to financial literacy.
Once deciding that they would launch Black Coffee Company, they conducted research on the highest quality beans. Looking to Africa, the deep-rooted friends selected fair trade, single-sourced, organic coffee plants from Ethiopia. They have expanded their selection of beans, and now source coffee from Honduras and Peru, but Arabica Ethiopian coffee reigns as the customer favorite.
Since being introduced to the Black Coffee Company, we keep our mugs filled with their selections.
| Read: Stay woke |
LEONARDE FIRENZE | Florence, Italy
There is a confectionary in Italy that is worth traveling to, and we’re not ashamed to say that we have sought this nugget of deliciousness out. In the San’t Ambrogio section of Florence, a small bakery, Leonardo’s, bakes on the spot, a delectable interpretation of a Tuscany treat that goes back hundreds of years.
The cantucci, or biscuit is rolled then hand cut by master bakers. From the American eye, it looks like a biscotti. You know those hard pieces of sweet strips of bread that can take a tooth out if you do not dip it in some hot chocolate. However, Leonardo’s cantucci recipes make them soft. The surprise is inside—fruit or chocolate filling that has a great balance of sugar and spices.
Marco, the owner of Leonardo’s took the helm after his father passed on. The second-generation baker moved the family bakery from the outskirts of Florence to the city’s center at a bakery that opened in 1900. Every morning you find a line for his cantucci and other baked goods such as Tuscany flat bread, apple cake, and cornetto, a sweeter version of the French croissant.
Since they bake on the spot, it’s best to get pastries and breads, fresh out of the oven.
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