The Interview That Sort of Never Was But Still May Be
Earlier this Spring I was asked to do an email interview about our products and company for an ecommerce site. I think I did rather well but I was later told there was a word count limitation and cuts would need to be made but it would go up soon. I still haven’t seen anything and I did put some effort into it (noting that I will never do this again without knowing exactly what the interviewer wants.) My clever solution is to post it here. Talk to us a little about how it all began...how you got the idea, how you decided to make a reality, what made it possible, etc. I was having a dinner party and went to the supermarket. This was in August in Napa and the only tomatoes they had were Dutch hothouse pink, hard rocks. How was it that I lived in this incredible agricultural region and the tomatoes were from Holland? If they at least tasted like something, it almost could be justified but they were nasty and I started gardening the next day. This led to an abundance and I sold the extras at the local farmers market. This was a blast and I loved it so I decided to try and make it a business. The problem was that tomatoes ripened late here and the markets opened in May, so I thought I'd try heirloom beans. The rest is history.... Rancho Gordo is doing so much to preserve local agriculture traditions and bring New World cuisine to the forefront in the U.S. What's next on both of these agendas, and why do you think both of these causes are important? When I started, the food revolution was just starting to really trickle down and affect consumers. I found a lot of the talk shrill and unpleasant, even if I agreed with most of the concepts. I decided to focus on chefs and get them excited about what I was doing and then work direct with consumers, first at the farmers markets and later via the website. When we control the story, we tend to do better. When you just have a bag of beans on a grocery store shelf, out of context, they tend to collect dust. I really thought taste has to come first. People are loud and they like to complain but in the end, they don't buy "moral food". They want food that tastes great. Happily, most tasty food requires responsible farming and sustainable practices, but I don't scream that from the rooftops. It's a happy side story that beans are one of the greenest crops you can grow. And then you add all the health benefits and what's not to like? But I think you have to start with flavor. I market the beans as a great ingredient that we've either forgotten or taken for granted. I think this is why Rancho Gordo is one of the first companies to get any real traction with heirloom beans, despite many people trying or showing interest. A customer recently said, "Oh, I get what you're doing. You're taking a serious subject and treating irreverently." I loved this. I think you can do a lot of good without getting preachy or overly moral. I know non-profits have their place but I can't work with them. They're too slow and I've got things to do and if you can make people laugh while they're supporting sustainable ag or fair trade, we all win! Here's more on the Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project if you’re interested:
You mention American cuisine as re-inventing itself. Do you notice or
foresee a more south-of-the-border-driven cuisine emerging?
I'm not a very good forecaster. I used to try and came up short. When I started Rancho Gordo, it was after many failed attempts at different businesses that almost made it. I thought, screw it. I'm going to do what pleases me. I like the lady on my logo. I like real food. I like vintage graphics. I like Mexico, etc. I really am trying to please me and for the first time, I'm having real success! So I hope more Latin America culture creeps in but I'm basing everything on what I like.
Seed sharing and heirloom agriculture culture aren’t necessarily that
well-known. Is it big in Napa? Could you tell us a little bit about it?
I have a lot of people wanting bean growing information. We started a little group in Napa called The Family Farm League and we would host potlucks and have a seed exchange. We also found five heirloom seeds that would do well in our climate: a bean, a tomato, a corn, a zucchini and a cucumber. We picked the seeds after a few seasons of trials. It was a lot of fun and was nice for people just getting into gardening to have five proven winners and we were happy to share heirlooms and the romance of passing on seeds. This all fell by the wayside as my business grew and I couldn't keep up. Now we have a Google group called Bean Buddies and we send out free seeds for people to trial. We just ask that they note the days for germination, first real leaves, first flower and maturation. They support each other and it's a very nice group. So often people ask something like which bean is best for my New England climate and of course I have no idea.
You travel a lot for Rancho Gordo. What is that like? Could you give an
idea of your schedule or a day-in-the-life?
I work very hard but no one should feel sorry for me. I am the luckiest guy on the planet. My job here is mostly a desk job, selling the product and working with our farmers. I like it but I like the trips to Mexico even more. My partners there are also two of my best friends. I'll say something like, "I hear there's a good black bean in Veracruz." Yunuen, who owns Xoxoc with Gabriel, will say yes, there is and did I know about this or that food and have I seen this or that archeological site and the next thing you know I'm on a roadtrip. I love Mexico and Mexicans and the music and the food. Gabriel recently calculated that we've traveled almost 18,000 miles throughout Mexico. Happily, we have the same threshold for food, music, old churches and ruins. It's a drag if you want to linger in a church and you're with someone who says they never want to see another one.
What's been the coolest thing that's happened for you since starting
I think it would be going on a roadtrip with Diana Kennedy, the actress Patricia Bernal (mother of Gael Garcia Bernal) and Sergio Yazbek (Gael's stepfather). We spent two weeks traveling through Oaxaca while filming a documentary that was later shelved. There were a few problems but mostly I remember singing, listening to Colombian salsa, eating with Diana's incredible network of friends and home cooks and laughing a lot. I remember at one point thinking, I can't believe this is what I am doing!
The other "a-ha" moment was a recent Bon Appetit magazine profile about a French chef and it described some of his acquisitions from a recent trip and they listed "10 bags of Rancho Gordo beans" without any further comment. They didn't have to explain who we were or why a chef would be interested in beans and I thought, we've made it!
What's the biggest challenge facing you in the marketplace?
Sadly, it's getting people to cook. They just can't believe they can turn these rocks into soft, creamy orbs. My job is to show them how easy it is and then remind them of how much better they are than commodity beans or canned beans.
A company approached us to make frozen dinners using our beans and it didn't feel right but I couldn't say exactly why. It dawned on me that we are an ingredient-driven company that focuses on helping consumers to cook. Once that was defined, it really helped future business decisions.
What is the process of making the sauces? If you’re willing to share,
it would be great if you could talk us through the process from start to
finish, i.e. where do you source your ingredients? What size batch do
you work in? What is the preparation process and the packaging process?
This was a nightmare and I'd rather keep this proprietary.
When you're not doing Rancho Gordo-related things, you're usually....
.....doing Rancho Gordo things. It's my pleasure. I love dinner parties at my house and I love traveling and in the end they're related to Rancho Gordo. It makes a better company and I'm happy.
What's your favorite way to eat your hot sauces?
In Mexico, they often serve a "sangrita" as a back for tequila or mezcal. You can even order something called a bandera (or flag). It's tequila, a shot of sangrita and a shot of lime juice and they represent the colors of the Mexican flag. Every bar makes its own sangrita but one easy trick is to take a bottle of tomato juice and mix it with a bottle of our hot sauce and serve it as a sangrita. You can also use it as a Bloody Mary mix.
Another fun trick is to mix it to taste with yogurt and ta-da, you have a sauce.