Editor's note: Please welcome our newest addition to the Ethicurean "team," Stephanie Pierce, who's written for us quite a lot as a guest contributor. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie will soon be moving from Grand Rapids, MI, to begin a yearlong kitchen/garden internship at the Yestermorrow Design/Build school in Vermont. Read more about her food obsessions on her Ethicurean bio.
Statistics-heavy research confirms that money spent on a local business stays in the local area. Here's a real-world example of that commonsense idea in action: Making Thyme Kitchen, a prep kitchen business in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a customer who is also a small vegetable producer. He brings a big batch of basil to Making Thyme for their use. Making Thyme buys the basil and makes pesto pasta with it, which they sell to Green Life Market, a small grocer a couple streets over. A woman buys the pasta, later learning that it's made from the basil her own children grew. What's not to love?!
This kind of interconnection and local patronage forms the backbone of Making Thyme Kitchen. One of its two guiding principals is to source as much food locally as possible. The second is that the owners never make anything that they wouldn't eat themselves.
Making Thyme in some ways resembles the "make-n-takes" that began popping up across the country a few years ago, giving time-crunched people a place to assemble several meals using pre-chopped ingredients, with recipes ready to follow and staff to help in the cooking. Making Thyme's model is different in that they create a menu package that changes monthly, make all the food, and either deliver it to customer's homes or have it ready in their retail store for pick-up. It's more of a "Community Supported Kitchen" model like the one pioneered by Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley. And while many of the make-n-takes that have popped up in this region have started disappearing, Making Thyme is growing.
Owners Ken and Karen Bryan began looking into the idea of opening up a make-n-take franchise in 2002 as an alternative career to Karen's high-stress job as a creative director in a large corporation. The first problem that they encountered as they began researching this option was that they didn't like the food. "It was a lot of processed food, a lot of bland, family-style casserole food that didn't stand out to us as special. We started looking for a way to make it special," Karen says.
After much experimentation and taste-testing, they opened in June 2005, cooking one day a week out of the historical Fountain Street Church — the only kitchen they could find to rent. As they have built their business, relocating to their own building this past January, they have worked diligently to source more and more of their food locally and if it's available, organically. All of their meat comes from a shop in nearby Walker that buys directly from family-owned farms in the area (and some in neighboring states) that do not use hormones or antibiotics. They get their flour from a mill in Lowell, and beans from Howard City. Most of their food is fresh, which is why, as I looked around their kitchen, I didn't see any large spaces for storing food; they shop once or twice a week, so don't need much storage. And even as they mention the hard work they have put into finding local sources for their food, the Bryans observed that their business is still a work in progress, that they are refining their sourcing and their systems continually.
Now that the Bryans have their own kitchen and retail store, customers can stop in and pick up side dishes or an entree. The bulk of their business, however, still centers around their weekly hand delivery of fresh entrees to a customer's home. Each month, Making Thyme offers 10 to 14 new entrees that reflect the changing seasons. When placing a delivery order, customers choose eight entrees and a serving size that works for them, also specifying any modifications they would like in the entree (gluten free, vegetarian, no tomatoes, etc.). The flexibility offered makes the Kitchen ideal for large families as well as for singles, a customer base that the Bryans feel is often overlooked in our bulk-buy world. To place an order, customers can go online, pick up the phone, or stroll into the store. Families that resort to dining out a few times a week could see significant savings if they switched from restaurants to Making Thyme. For example, a family of four would spend $220 to receive two entrees a week for a month; the leftovers make handy lunches or dinners the following day. Extra-happy note: when the food is just a memory, customers can either recycle or reuse the aluminum containers in which their meals arrived.
The cuisine is eclectic. For December, the 12 entrees balance the traditional comfort-food cravings of a cold season with some more adventuresome and spicy concoctions. They include beef satay with peanut-pepper sauce, tilapia fillets with pecan-rosemary-lemon crust, spice rubbed pork with pear apple chutney, and beef pot pie with sweet potatoes. The snow is coming down today, and a comforting traditional soup like their classic chicken noodle sounds like a good choice — although, the vegetarian mushroom nut loaf would also be a good warmer. Treats are not overlooked at Making Thyme, either; the moist carrot-cake cupcake is a delicious morsel, if I do say so myself.
Both Karen and Ken remarked on what an education they've had not just in the food business, but in food itself. "The more we learned about the food industry as we did our research in the beginning, the more we wanted to run away from it," Ken said. "The ingredient lists are scary...when we walked through a store and saw all the packages on the shelves, we just started wondering — where's the food?"
As these questions surfaced, Ken and Karen began to understand more about what they wanted to provide for people. "It's time-consuming to wade through the stores and figure out what to make yourself that's actually healthy, not to mention trying to decipher where it's from. We know it from experience, so we're trying to provide a service that is a timesaver. 'Time saving' when it comes to food is generally a bad thing, but we think it can be done well, and we're trying to do that with our business," said Karen. "We know that a lot of people would love to support their local economy, so we want to be an option for them to do that and get their dinner. We want to be part of the answer for quality food that's convenient."
Photos by Brian Kelly Photography, used with permission.