How a 125-year- old recipe, fond childhood memories, and an odd-ball vegetable inspired a new food business

by Amy Armbruster, CFSA’s Communications Coordinator

Editor’s Note: When we started writing this story, we intended it to be about an upstart new specialty foods company saving summer’s flavors in a jar of salsa. But, this story about Jerusalem Artichoke Relish is too good to keep a secret. Yes, we know that Jerusalem artichokes aren’t harvested in the summer. And, we promise, read to the end and you’ll understand why this story is indeed about saving summer. Sometimes, the story is just so good, you have to follow it where it leads.

 

Angie and Marc Olear, Crouch's Gourmet Specialties

Angie and Marc Olear of Crouch’s Gourmet Specialties
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

What is the flavor of childhood? Those foods that are preserved in our memories so vividly that when we eat them again, we are right back there in our Grandma’s kitchen, 12 years old, helping her make her famous relish. We can almost summon those loved ones back to us with just one bite. For Angie Olear, one particular memory from her Nanny’s kitchen led her and her husband on a peculiar journey: from home canner to farmer to the owner of Concord, NC specialty food company, Crouch’s Gourmet Specialties.

But, it all started with a memory.  Angie told me about her Nanny Crouch, who grew up in the country with a sprawling garden and “eyes in the back of her head.” Her Nanny grew Jerusalem artichokes wild. They were tucked away in hidden places all around her yard and Angie clearly remembers going out with her sister to dig them up. The edible parts of these plants – also called sunchokes – are their knobby roots, which have a crisp texture like that of water chestnuts. “One summer, we were out under Nanny’s kitchen window trying to get some artichokes when we heard Nanny’s voice, loud and clear: “Get out of my artichokes! They’re not ready yet!”

In 2012, Marc and Angie Olear’s supply of Angie’s grandmother’s uniquely delicious Jerusalem Artichoke Relish had run out and they were longing for it. “When I was a child, we would eat it on anything and everything: hamburgers, hot dogs, pinto beans and greens. Marc started adding it to chicken salad, tuna, and egg salad, too.” After Angie’s grandmother, Nanny Crouch, died, the 125-year-old recipe was tucked away and nearly forgotten. So, Marc purchased some of the artichoke tubers and gave them to his mother-in-law for Mother’s Day. They planted seven of the tubers in their own backyard and harvested six full five-gallon buckets that fall.

“That’s when we knew we really had something,” says Angie, still almost shocked at this stroke of good luck.

“What next?” Marc asked Angie.  She responded, “RELISH!!!!” So, after a quick brush up on the canning process, the relish was revived. They had so much relish that they gave jars to friends, family, and co-workers. It was a hit! Over and over, they kept hearing, “You should sell this.”  With more relish than could be consumed for a long time, Angie didn’t know what to do with it until a friend of hers offered have a go at selling it in his specialty store on Barefoot Beach.  Angie and Marc packed his car full of 3 cases. Their friend offered samples that weekend and called them Sunday night with the news: ‘I’ve sold out!’ “That’s when we knew we really had something,” says Angie, still almost shocked at this stroke of good luck. That was the beginning of what would become Crouch’s Gourmet Specialties and not the last time in our tale that a friend would step in to help the Olears on their journey.


 
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Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

After that success, Angie and her sister went on a road trip to several small specialty stores and produce operations all around North Carolina. “Many people turn their noses up immediately when they hear the word artichoke,” Angie says. Curiously, this unusual root is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke. It is a tuber; and, it is a member of the Sunflower Family.  Some say that its name comes from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, which means, poetically, turn to the sun. The tuber has a sweet and nutty flavor with the texture of a water chestnut. Sunchokes have a great supply of vitamins, minerals, and are also packed with inulin, not starch, which makes it a good choice for diabetics. One of Angie’s early challenges was convincing the store owners and customers that their product was not made with globe artichokes, those green, hard-leaf veggies that look like a pine cone. “Don’t knock it, ‘til you try it!” Angie quotes Nanny Crouch.

Once they tried it, the store owners loved this local, old-timey crunchy, sweet relish and wanted to carry it in on their store shelves, but there was a problem. Angie and Marc needed to pass a rigorous class on proper canning safety, get their kitchen space certified by the NCDA and go through “lots of other legal rigmarole” to get their product in stores. The story of Nanny Crouch’s relish might have ended right there, but Angie and Marc forged ahead, “on a wing and a prayer,” jokes Marc.  Angie has a full-time job as a massage therapist and Marc is a general contractor. Neither had any experience in the food business. “We had no idea what it took.” It took them almost a year, but they were finally ready to share Nanny’s secret recipe with the world.

 

In the Fields

While they were working on getting the business up and running, the Olears had two stokes of luck. When they went to Peachtree Market in Concord to pitch their product, Aaron Newton happened to be in the store (his wife, Jennifer, is the manager). Aaron was still working for the county at the time (he is now CFSA’s Lomax Farm Coordinator) and Marc mentioned to him that they were looking for more land to grow their ‘chokes. “We just can’t keep growing them at our house in our little garden,” Marc remembers telling him.

“Aaron and David at the farm were so helpful. Everyone has given us a hand, helped us figure this out, and connected us to others who can help us. We believed in CFSA. They’re just not going to let us fail,” says Marc.

Aaron invited them to come visit the Lomax Incubator Farm, where they could rent land and learn how to grow their ‘chokes organically.  Marc and Angie had grown up gardening at their parents’ homes, but “nothing too serious,” admits Marc.  Angie remembered that her Nanny’s artichokes grew wild so they figured, how hard can this be? Marc remembers an early conversation with David Goforth, extension agent with Cabarrus County: “You want to grow Jerusalem artichokes! On purpose?” Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are so prolific they can become invasive. Because even a small piece of tuber will grow if left in the ground, the plant can ruin fields and can take over huge areas. But Aaron said, “Let’s give it a try.” And so another hurdle on their unusual journey was overcome.

The Olears at Lomax Farm with their Jerusalem artichoke relish Photo submitted by Angie Olear

The Olears at Lomax Farm with their Jerusalem artichoke relish
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Growing the sunchokes themselves at Lomax made sense because few farmers would agree to grow them on the Olears’ behalf – especially before they knew they had a winning product that would mean years of sales from their ‘choke fields – and they needed a good supply of them to continue making relish, which was by this time becoming a “hot commodity.” By farming at Lomax, they’d also have access to the equipment they needed to clear and prepare the land for their sunchokes and experts to help them figure out how to plant, grow and harvest the tubers. Secondly, farming the sunchokes themselves allowed lower product cost. Lastly, and file this one under, “almost too much of a good thing:” this obscure root veggie is highly productive. As the Olears soon found out, a little land can grow a LOT of sunchokes. Each root can make an additional 75 to as many as 200 tubers during a year!

Harvesting sunchokes from Lomax Incubator Farm

Harvesting sunchokes from Lomax Incubator Farm
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Their first crop was ready to harvest just as the news came that the farm was to be closed by the county. Fortunately for the Olears and other farmers, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) assumed management of the farm and the crisis was averted.

With expanded land secured to farm, the Olears decided to divvy up the labor: Marc became the main grower in the partnership, leaving Angie to focus on distribution and marketing. At Lomax, the Olears experienced a bumper crop and relish production exploded. That first year, they harvested 4,000 lbs. of artichokes on their ½ acre plot. Each and every tuber was harvested by hand with a pitchfork. It’s difficult, slow work. It took them more than 3 months – and a lot of volunteer help – to bring in that crop.

Marc uses an antique potato digger to harvest his sunchokes at Lomax Farm Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Marc uses an antique potato digger to harvest his sunchokes at Lomax Farm
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

In their second season on the farm, Marc built a vegetable washer, which cut the cleaning process in half. He also bought an antique horse-drawn (now converted to tractor-drawn) potato digger to assist in the laborious job of collecting the tubers. He leaves this equipment at the Lomax farm, allowing other farmers to profit from this time-saving tool.

“Aaron and David at the farm were so helpful. Everyone has given us a hand, helped us figure this out, and connected us to others who can help us. We believed in CFSA. They’re just not going to let us fail,” says Marc.

 


 
CFSA’s Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm is growing the next generation of sustainable farmers.  Lend a hand.

 


 
 
In the Kitchen

Making the relish is hard work. The Olears wanted to stay true to Nanny Crouch’s recipe, which meant making the relish in small batches, by hand. Angie remembers as a little girl how her sister, mother and Nanny would spend long, sweaty fall days in her Nanny’s kitchen using a stiff brush to clean the artichokes, boiling them, and grinding them and the other vegetables into relish using a hand grinder attached to the kitchen table. “I’d turn the crank about 10 times and get tired, so I wasn’t much help.”

Again, almost as if a guardian angel was at work helping Angie and Marc’s dreams along, a friend appeared with an unexpected solution just when they were getting stuck. A friend of Angie’s who had a catering business was willing to get her kitchen upgraded so that they could use it to make their relish. After making sure, “we crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’”, the kitchen was certified by the NCDA. Around this time, another friend of the Olears shared an old family recipe for salsa with them. “We figured, since we already had the kitchen certified and we were going around to stores to sell the relish, we might as well try the salsa to see if that would sell, too,” says Angie. They perfected a recipe for Peach Salsa (“It’s insane how much people love it,” laughs Angie) and a Southern Salsa with corn, black beans and okra. They also toyed with Nanny’s relish recipe and made a hot and spicy version, too.

Making relish in the new kettle. Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Making relish in the new steam jacket kettle.
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

That first year, they made everything the same way Nanny did, with a hand grinder. Sometimes Angie’s family or Marc’s sister would lend a hand, but it was mostly Marc and Angie working as a team to make their products whenever they could get the time off from their full-time jobs – on weekend, nights, whenever the certified catering kitchen was available. They have since gotten a 50-gallon steam jacket kettle for cooking and stirring the relish, which helps, but it is still made by hand in small batches by these two.

 

In the Stores

Angie proudly shows off their display at Lowes Foods Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Angie proudly shows off their display at Lowes Foods
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

Now, they needed more distribution. It was a mistake that led to their next bit of good fortune. In the early days, the name of their company was Crouch Distributors. A food broker called them and inquired whether they would be interested in distributing his brand of pasta. Angie, who had no prior experience in the food business, was curious and Marc and Angie met with him. He liked their business ideas and loved the relish, so he pulled some stings and got them a coveted meeting with the local foods manager at Lowes Foods. The meeting was a success and Marc and Angie thought they were on their way, but then they didn’t hear back from the food broker or Lowes for several months. Undaunted, Marc decided to call Lowes Foods one more time. They had another meeting. Another tasting. And, Lowes agreed to let the Olears sell their products in one Lowes Foods store in Clemmons. The relish and salsa flew off the shelves and Lowes quickly added three more stores. Three weeks ago, they added seven more.

“It’s just crazy. People don’t know how we do it and some days I don’t either.”

The Olears found distributors but they still had more sunchokes than could be utilized at the time. Marc discovered they could be dehydrated, resulting in an unexpectedly flavorful chip.  They have since added this treat, as well as a Cranberry Pecan Spread, to their list of products. He also went to Michigan to meet with a farmer to learn how to store the artichokes so that they won’t spoil. They lost almost 3,000 lbs. of product that first year to rot. Marc cobbled together a system that seems to be working. Nine months after this year’s fall harvest, the sunchokes are still “good and crisp,” sitting in wax-coated boxes in the walk-in cooler at Lomax Farm.

Angie heard about a local food fair in Huntersville held by Whole Foods Market. They pitched their relish and salsa and Whole Foods agreed to give them a try in one of their stores. Again, they sold like hotcakes. Whole Foods Market gave them the opportunity to add more stores, but about this time, the travel and time it took to grow and harvest the ‘chokes, make and bottle the relish and salsa, and personally deliver their products to each store that carried it was taking a toll on Angie and Marc. “It’s just crazy. People don’t know how we do it and some days I don’t either.”

 

In the Future

Angie and Marc with their sunchokes at Lomax Farm

Angie and Marc with their sunchokes at Lomax Farm
Photo submitted by Angie Olear

I asked Marc what his vision for the future of his fast-growing business is and he answered honestly, “We’ve been doing this so quickly that my vision is still a little out of focus, but I’d like to see us partnering with the growers at Lomax and other farms to source more of our ingredients. We want everything to be as natural as possible, but we need to find a balance. We can’t keep growing at this rate and still be the farmer, canner, distributor, and salesforce.” Marc has already partnered with Dylan Alexander of Alexander Acres, another Farmer-In-Training at Lomax, to start his peppers for their salsa. And, he’s been talking to other farmers who are GAP certified (a certification of safe food handling required by many wholesalers and grocery stores) to source the cabbage. His goal is to do 3,000 cases of relish next year.

He’s also been talking a lot with Thomas Moore, CFSA’s NC Local Food Coordinator, about the possibility of hiring a co-packer, or a kitchen that will make larger batches of their product – 400-500 cases at a time, or working with the proposed incubator kitchen at Gibson Mills (a project on which CFSA is consulting). “Tomatoes with soft spots or cabbage with cuts in it won’t sell at the farmers market, but we can cut out the bad parts and use them in our products if they are good quality. We can buy what farmers can’t sell when they have tons of product coming in during the summer and fall. Flash freeze everything, except for the sunchokes, which don’t freeze well, and use them to make our products in the winter,” muses Marc, getting excited.

And, so, as promised, this story is about saving summer. It’s also about saving family traditions – of home gardens, treasured recipes, and flavors that remind us of childhood. It’s a story about old-fashioned ingenuity and hard-work – with a little luck thrown in along the way.  I think Nanny Crouch would be proud.

 

Crouch’s Gourmet Specialties, Inc. continues to flourish, offering delicious family recipes “too good to keep secret.”  For more information about the Olears and Crouch’s Gourmet Specialties Inc. and for some great recipes that use their relish, visit www.crouchsgourmet.com.