It's not simple pleasures anymore," laughs Martha Thilbourg Chaplin about her 3-year-old gourmet vinegars enterprise called Life's Simple Pleasures. The Bristol producer is still small potatoes compared to other Vermont specialty foods entrepreneurs distributing nationwide. She is, after all, also a full-time social worker. But the vinegar business hasn't gone sour for Chaplin despite the long, labor-intensive — and smelly — hours spent in her small kitchen. She likes to call her products "hand-produced from start to finish," and indeed, Chaplin does everything herself, from growing some of the herbs and edible flowers in her vinegars to sealing the corks with wax and tying on the neat raffia twist that secures her labels.
Life's Simple Pleasures is one of an enormous, and rapidly growing, number of "boutique" food businesses, many of which turn into national and international moneymakers. The Vermont specialty food industry has gone off the charts in recent years — reports that the tiny state takes up nearly as much room as Italy at international food trade shows are not exaggerated. It almost seems that family farms are moooving aside to make room for a new breed of independent, homebased entrepreneurs who are more likely to milk their fortunes from herbs, jams, sauces, brews, breads — or emus — than from the fabled Holstein. If that docile black-and-white icon still symbolizes a certain Elysian way of life in Vermont, it's more likely to be found in the freezer on a carton of the state's most famous dairy product than in the pasture out back.
Nobody has demonstrated more successfully than Ben & Jerry's that, if you want to be in the specialty food business, you have a head start being in Vermont. The near-magical cachet of the Green Mountain State confers upon its foodstuffs an aura of purity and reliability as solid as the granite poking out of Vermont's landscape. It's a birthright other food-producing states and nations would die for.
While simply living in Vermont does not, in fact, guarantee either success or purity, the actual quality of most specialty foods produced in the state is remarkably high — and that Seal of Quality does mean something. Established in 1979 to identify and promote Vermont food products, the Seal holds applicants to standards equal to or surpassing those of the USDA. And with institutions like the Vermont State Department of Agriculture, the New England Culinary Institute, a food science lab at the University of Vermont and a food development center in Fairfax all conniving to help producers get a leg up, the industry has been off and running — to the tune of about $500 million annually, according to Ag department officials.
Competition being a universal human trait, even Vermonters find themselves flattered by a proliferation of imitators. Chaplin notes that she's already lost an account because a producer making highly similar — down to the packaging — vinegars got there first. Still, her products, distributed statewide and in Manhattan, are far from the vinegars grandma used to make: Turkish apricot and peppercorn; citrus, including orange, lemon, lime and organic dill; organic mint with fresh garlic and lemon peel; organic raspberry; hot pepper and garlic; Cape Cod cranberries and rosemary. With these concoctions preserved in tall, elegant bottles imported from Europe, Chaplin's products are so aesthetically pleasing that many buyers, she says, prefer looking at them to using them.
In her first year of business, Chaplin produced around 300 bottles — sold in cases of six to specialty, natural food and gift shops — and has managed to double that this year.
Life's Simple Pleasures has a long way to go to match Annie's — one of Vermont's most successful specialty foods sold nationwide. Owned by culinary-school-trained Annie Christopher and her husband Peter Backman, the Calais-based operation produces — they're not sure of the exact number — something over 100,000 12-bottle cases of salad dressing a year. The product line includes 10 regular vinaigrettes, five organic wild herbal dressings, three barbecue sauces and three mustards. Christopher launched her business from home 11 years ago and, though her savory products have gone far, she hasn't: Echoing a common Vermont barn and farmhouse arrangement, the Annie's office is just across the road from her house. Every day when her son gets off the schoolbus, Christopher says, she's there, making him popcorn.
Annie's doesn't seem to have suffered from her many competitors in the salad-dressing business. Duplication is the way of capitalism, but it remains to be seen just how many Vermont companies can thrive in any food category. A friendly rivalry heating up between two locally made pasta sauces is the latest to test the waters: Dell'Amore's and Bove's. It's odd enough to think of an Italian food product originating in Vermont, says Brooklyn-born Frank Dell'Amore from his cluttered but great-smelling Colchester warehouse-office-kitchen. Perhaps for that reason, he doesn't emphasize the Vermont cachet thing, but, he says, "it's nice to be a part of it."
In it's tenth year of bottling, Dell'Amore's now makes seven distinctive sauces – 2000 bottles a day – from the obligatory "original" to the more exotic porcini mushroom. The same photo of his grandmother, Filomena, that once adorned his pizza shop on Riverside Avenue in Burlington now lends matrilineal authority to his jars. Dell'Amore is selling in supermarkets and natural food stores as far as Phoenix – he's landing in Hannaford's this week.
But while Dell'Amore is earning ink in national magazines – like the write-up in Fancy Food last month – a new sauce on the block is banking on half a century of family history. Mark Bove is the latest generation to serve up heaping plates of spaghetti at the Pearl Street institution. Now the trademark marinara — also a grandmom's recipe referred to as "authentic '40s-style" — is jarred, with an appropriately retro label. The only thing missing in the picture of the restaurant is its typically long lines.
Bove's is already in better stores around Vermont and ships upon request "to sauce lovers in other states." The classy graphics, venerable family tradition and "Green Mountain magic" bode well for the marketing of Boves's nationally. Besides, given that the Italian landmark's frequent patrons include Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressman Bernie Sanders, it's surely just a matter of time before Vermont specialty foods become a capitol idea.
Maybe the secret of Vermont specialty foods is not just where they come from; it's that the producers themselves are having a better time. One of the best things about her life, says Annie Christopher, is "doing what I want to do, living where I want to live. It doesn't get any better than this."