“One of the most rewarding things for me thus far has been people trying my caramel sauces and really liking them, or being inspired to play around with flavors they are not used to.“ –Mackenzie Smith, Owner/Artisan, Herbin’ Spoonful
by Michelle Kiefer
I barely had time to sit down and settle in before Mackenzie Smith of Herbin’ Spoonful was unscrewing the jars of her scrumptious sauce and handing me a spoon. I dug right in, and each unique flavor – chai, lavender, and habanero- had me dreaming up new ways to integrate caramel into my life.
Mackenzie is a newcomer to the Brooklyn food scene, but after one taste of her homemade caramel sauce I’m sure she’s here to stay. The fledgling food company made its first public appearance a few weeks ago at the South Slope coffee shop Roots Café, and debuts at the Hester Street Fair this summer. We sat down at Roots to talk about the story behind the sauce and the challenges of starting a new food business.
Mackenzie, where are you from? How did you get into food?
I’m from Odessa, Texas. I’ve been in NYC for 5 years. I moved to New York with the intention to go to grad school. It’s what the folks in our generation do in their 20’s, right? I tried and tried to figure out what I should spend two years of my life doing (and paying for) and I have yet to find a direction that I want to go in academically. In the meantime, my love for food and its social, cultural and historical connections has landed me on a different path, and that path is going to make you all a little sweeter!
I grew up in a house where food was huge. My mom and dad are both great cooks. When I was in junior high, my dad and I started making truffles for the holidays. We would show up at parties with platters full of them, and they were very simple and delicious. I loved the response from everyone, and knowing that such a simple process could bring joy to others. When I moved here, I worked odd jobs (babysitting, waiting tables, promotional gigs) for about a year, and when the holidays rolled around, I started making truffles. My brother works for a large non-profit company, and he would basically push my truffles on his coworkers! I would work all night filling orders that he scored from his friends and coworkers.
So how did you get started making caramel sauce?
Around the same time I also started to make caramel sauce. I realized at some point that there’s nowhere to get good really good caramel sauce. When you buy it at a store, first of all the ingredients are gross – high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring. And it doesn’t taste very good. But when you get a really nice dessert in a restaurant and it’s topped with house-made caramel sauce, it makes the whole dessert sing. That’s what I wanted to share with people. People would always ask me, why don’t you sell your truffles? I knew that although I could sell truffles to my friends and brother’s coworkers and they were happy to support me, the market for really good chocolate is pretty saturated.
I just can’t compete with companies like Jacques Torres or Mast Brothers. But this seemed like something realistic. I started seriously planning this about a year ago, and since the initial idea I’ve been trying to arrange everything.
I have some really amazing and supportive friends and family. One of my oldest friends, Bryan Perryman who lives in Austin, Texas, designed my website, and another good friend designed my logos and labels. I’ve been going to small business seminars and classes to learn as much as I can about running a business, and I’m using all of my spare time to figure this out.
I took a food start-up class held by Julian and Kareem at Melt Bakery. They started last year at Hester Street and have already sold over 50,000 ice cream sandwiches. Melt has been really helpful and supportive, even beyond their classes.
Tell us a little about your caramel sauce.
Currently there are three flavors: Habanero, Chai, and Lavender. People really like the Chai because it’s comforting. It’s got everything a holiday does, but it doesn’t have to be a holiday to eat it.
This habanero is really spicy.
Yea, it’s got some pretty good heat to it.
So what is your technique?
(Laughs.) It’s a secret!
Ok, but what is the key to good caramel? I’ve attempted to make it a few times unsuccessfully.
You have to keep it on an even heat the entire time. Some people add water at the beginning, but I don’t. And then you just keep stirring until the sugar melts completely and there are no granules, then you add the butter and cream. It’s really easy to tell [when it’s at the appropriate stage] by the color and texture. When there are no sugar granules left and the color screams “caramel,” it’s done.
I don’t use any glucose or corn syrup, so sometimes you might find a few small pieces of crystallized sugar at the bottom of the jar. They would be less likely occur if I used these types of processed sugars, so if you see a few crystals take that as a good sign!
What are your favorite uses for the sauce?
Dipping pretzels or fruit in the sauces is really amazing. Pretzels are great because of the salty-sweet effect. A friend told me recently that she put it over banana waffles. I think caramel goes great with breakfast. But once you try it by the spoonful, you don’t really need suggestions- you can figure it out on your own because it’s that good.
With the habenero, I’m working on a way to use it as a glaze for meat by diluting it and brushing it on – I’m still figuring that out. I like to make brownies and pour half of the habanero caramel on the top before baking, then drizzle the other half on top when it’s done. The sauce that I poured on first bakes into the batter and becomes a crispy layer; then you get that gooey, spicy element as well from the drizzled sauce. It’s really good. I love the combination of hot and sweet flavors, but I’m often disappointed by things that claim to be both, and are only sweet. I wanted to make something legitimately spicy.
How do you source your ingredients?
I get the organic sugar from the supermarket. Sugar is never going to be really local unless you use honey, but what I use is organic and fair trade. I get spices and herbs from the farmers’ market. When I started experimenting I would get ingredients from the Park Slope Food Co-op, but one of their rules is that you only buy things for yourself, so I can’t use them for Herbin’ Spoonful.
Dairy is one thing I struggle with. I’m committed to using local and organic ingredients whenever possible. I use organic heavy cream, but organic butter is astronomically expensive, and there’s no way to make a profit if I use it. I’m looking forward to growing to a size that will allow me to purchase dairy products on a larger scale from local organic purveyors.
Using organic and local is not a marketing point for me. It’s more of what I want to support with what I’m doing.
What are the fun parts? What has been challenging?
It’s been fun making it, thinking of new flavors and giving it away. A lot of the past year has been giving it away and getting feedback. Dreaming it up and seeing it come to fruition has been really cool. The hard parts are balancing my time – committing to doing my day job to the best of my abilities, then leaving that at the door and doing this the rest of the time.
It seems like the Brooklyn food community is really supportive.
Yea. People will say things to you like, “Where do you get your supplies? Let me give you the number of my guy.”
Before I could start the business I needed a commercial kitchen, and the place where I wait tables two nights a week wasn’t willing to give me their kitchen to use. I didn’t know how to find a commercial kitchen, so I decided to just start on my block and knock on the door of every restaurant or food business until I found someone that would let me use their kitchen. It took me four blocks.
The first business that has retailed your product is Roots Café. How did you make that connection?
I come in here all the time. I wrote the business plan here. [The owners] Jamey and Randi would ask me, “When are you going to bring us samples?” I finally brought them samples a few months ago, and I told Jamey, if you ever have an event I can bring free samples. Jamey said to me, “I’m having an art opening this Thursday, can you do it?” So I said yes, and all of a sudden it was Herbin’ Spoonful’s first tasting. It was great because it was for a brand new crowd who had never heard of it. [A few days later] I was at [nearby bar] South, and people were coming up to me saying, “Are you the girl who makes the caramel?” This is just one place, and it’s a really good test market. It’s all so new, but I’ve been planning it for a year. So everything is finally coming together, and it’s really nice.
Roots Café is South Slope. I’ve seen two other cafes fail before they opened here. To have people close to you that like what you’re doing is really cool. To see the South Slope community developing is really cool, and I’m happy to be a part of that.
So what’s next? What are your future goals?
I’ll be at the Hester Street Fair all summer on Saturdays. I want to get through the summer and see how it goes at Hester, see what relationships I can build with other retailers and restaurants. Ultimately, I want this to be my full time gig, and to be in a position where I can completely support and buy all of my ingredients from people that I have good relationships with and who respect food the same way I do.
What inspires you about the Brooklyn food scene?
I love that anything goes. I love the diversity – not just of all the new restaurants, but I love the idea that you can get any type of food at any time. I love the local food movement too. But I hope that it spreads to all of the communities in Brooklyn. Right now it seems like a homogenous group, unfortunately. Brooklyn cultivates these ideas [of local and slow food], but I hope they spread beyond this small community of people. If not, then what are we really doing here?
What do you like to do outside of making caramel? Although, between your day job, your night job, and starting a new business, I imagine you don’t have much time for hobbies!
I think my favorite hobby is New York in the summertime – walking down the street in summer dresses, going to listen to outdoor music. I love New York, especially in spring and summertime. I feel like last summer was the best summer of my life because I was excited about an idea, but not really doing anything with it. I had vision and a focus, but I just talked a lot about it. I gotta say, this is going to be a different summer! I love this city, and I’m excited and a little nervous about seeing it through the eyes of an entrepreneur – someone who has to be somewhere early on a Saturday morning, to share my provisions with the public.