- Matthew Thorsen
- Randi Kay and Gerry Metivier
It’s not uncommon to smell deep, rich Dominican cacao wafting down Winooski’s upper Main Street. Residents are just as likely to catch a whiff of spicy habanero chiles or pungent, vinegared garlic. The odors don’t come from any of the city’s exotic eateries, but from a tiny, nondescript store called Vermont Food & Gifts.
To passersby, the cheerful spot filled with Vermont-made dolls and packaged foods may look like a touristy place to pick up mementos of a trip to the Green Mountains. “The public doesn’t need to know what’s going on here,” says Randi Kay Metivier, who owns the business with her husband, Gerry. “They can see it if they put on their hairnets.”
Those hairnets go on in the back, where the store becomes supplier. Randi Kay Metivier, who studied food science at the University of Vermont, enforces high hygiene standards at her New World Commercial Kitchen & Bakery. Neighbors may not need to know it exists, but for Chittenden County specialty-food producers, the rentable work space fills a gaping void.
That’s because last year the Vermont Food Venture Center left its farmhouse digs in Fairfax to begin construction of a new building in Hardwick. In anticipation of the move, the Metiviers opened their spotless stainless-steel kitchen to hourly renters last summer. The Winooski residents themselves needed a space to produce their popular New World Enterprises food brand.
Diners hip to the specialty-food scene have probably tried the Metiviers’ salsas, which are available at local Shaw’s and Price Chopper supermarkets, as well as at specialty stores. Michaela’s Gourmet Salsa and Mariah’s Specialty Salsa — the latter comes in quirky flavors such as strawberry-kiwi — are named for the couple’s two now-teenage daughters. A third line called Howling Coyote Salsa is Gerry Metivier’s baby, an ultra-hot variety unlike anything he was able to find in Vermont until he started the company in 2003.
Last April, the Metiviers began selling Bloody Mary mixes — which, like the salsas, they also recommend for use in marinades. Randi Kay says she likes them on grilled pork chops or even mixed in to spaghetti sauce.
The Metiviers used to make their salsas at the Vermont Food Venture Center, which hosted about 15 local producers at its Fairfax location. But, since the couple opened the commercial kitchen in Winooski — which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week — many of their friends from the venture center have relocated there.
They didn’t have much choice while the new Hardwick VFVC was still in the works. According to operations manager George Keener, the state-of-the-art, 15,000-square-foot food-processing and warehousing facility will finally open next week. The new plant has staggering capacities, with three kitchens; a bakery; and storage, freezing, dehydrating and packing facilities. For many food producers who live and work more than an hour from the Northeast Kingdom, however, a trip to Hardwick simply isn’t worth it.
Take Orange County schoolteacher and Hyde Park resident Ben Maniscalco, maker of Benito’s Hot Sauce, who used to prepare his Vermont-grown chile sauce in Fairfax. After making his final batch around Thanksgiving, he needed somewhere to chop, cook and package his annual 9600 bottles of garlic- and even carrot-based concoctions. Chris Greene, owner of Greene’s Gourmet of Vermont, recommended New World.
Greene, another hot-sauce maker, is no longer personally “of Vermont” — he lives in Kansas — but his product still is. He’s entrusted his recipe to Randi Kay, who bottles Greene’s Gourmet herself. “We let him know inventory levels, and he schedules orders of supplies to be shipped here. We take it from there,” explains Metivier, who had to sign a confidentiality agreement promising she wouldn’t share the recipes for Greene’s Dragon’s Fire or Hoppin’ Hopi sauces.
Metivier also “co-packs” for Green Mountain Mustard. For now, she produces the company’s four-ounce “shot” sizes. Since the full-size bottles are sold at Whole Foods, they require a specially certified kitchen to meet the megastore’s requirements. After an audit to qualify New World, scheduled for September, Metivier expects to be able to bottle all of the mustard’s company’s products.
Michele Carson of Vermont Pickle doesn’t have the luxury of paying someone else to make her healthy treats. Her grown stepson puts in 18-hour shifts of prep, and Carson finds enough time away from her full-time job at Fletcher Allen Health Care to spend 10 hours a week curing carrots, snap peas and garlic in a brand-new evaporator.
When Carson arrives at New World’s kitchen on a recent blistering Wednesday, the machine, which she uses for water-bath curing, is surrounded by a sticky slick of maple syrup. The hot kitchen air is thick with eye-burning habanero fumes that make Carson and Vermont Food & Gifts clerk Robyn Little cough as they clean the evaporator. Maniscalco has just finished preparing a batch of his habanero-infused maple syrups, which Island Homemade Ice Cream began using in a spicy-sweet scoop at the Vermont Brewers Festival this summer.
As the kitchen’s business grows, Little’s gift-shop job has expanded to include assisting there. She says that, despite the inconveniences of dividing space and equipment among nine regular producers (and more on the way), New World’s kitchen is becoming a community. “People are always courteous and willing to share food and ideas — but not recipes,” she says.
“In the food industry, everyone knows someone else,” adds Metivier. “We have a chain of more and more people coming in.”
Surprisingly, Metivier claims these close quarters don’t breed competition. In fact, she says that she and her husband have become close with Tom and Linda Fountain-Provost of Vergennes, who make their Profoun Salsa at New World.
As the kitchen’s clients gain stability as a group, they also find more opportunities for cooperation. “We all order glasses together and get a better rate for shipping as well as [for] ingredients. We’ll all try to buy [ingredients] in bulk to save money,” says Metivier.
Areef Areef, who owns Nadia International Halal Market next door to New World’s kitchen, helps out, too; he buys produce and specialty supplies for the food makers on his weekly runs to Boston. In season, Metivier prefers to purchase local produce from Sam Mazza’s Farm Market in Colchester. Maniscalco grows many of his own chiles and gets others from Half Pint Farm in Burlington, Foote Brook Farm in Johnson and Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield.
The local focus is a given for vendors specializing in Vermont products. But one brand-new client of New World, Charles Kerchner, has started a partnership with a far broader reach. While his Kerchner Artisan Chocolate is new on the scene — Kerchner says he expects to launch the products this November at the Burlington Farmers Market, at Vermont Food & Gifts and online — it’s been in the making for close to a decade.
Kerchner, a forest carbon specialist, joined the Peace Corps in 2001 and spent two years working with cacao farmers in the Dominican Republic to help them gain organic certification and market their product. Since returning to the United States, he has continued to partner with his farmer friends, who provide the beans on which he has practiced his bean-to-bar chocolate-making skills. As he approaches the release date of his chocolate chunks and bars, Kerchner and his business partner, Ted Blood, spend much of their time in New World’s kitchen, roasting beans and grinding them for up to 35 hours in the industrial mélanger at the front of the space.
Just as local products offer a taste of Vermont’s terroir, Kerchner’s single- eco-region chocolates have distinctive flavors of cherry and citrus — a far cry from the homogenous taste of multiple-origin chocolates. Kerchner says the business not only helps the farmers support their families, but gives him an opportunity to work with them to develop carbon offsets. Having conceived the venture as a “climate-change mitigation strategy” and delicious proposition in one, he notes that his goal “is to eventually have this be a full-time gig.”
Most of the producers who use New World echo the last sentiment. Carson launched Rattlesnake Ridge Country Gourmet — now called Vermont Pickle — in 1994, when she was unemployed. Though the business has been a success — her award-winning pickles are available at specialty stores, farmers markets, Shaw’s and Price Chopper — Carson still needs the income from her day job. Ditto Randi Kay Metivier, who works part time at Sally’s Flower Shop, just a few doors away from her Winooski store.
But, as the demand for healthy, organic Vermont products grows, chances are that at least one big success story will spring from New World Commercial Kitchen & Bakery.