Michelle Guenard started Michelle's Spicy Kimchi in Craftsbury, Vermont, selling at local farmer's markets and has since grown her product to be included in retail markets and restaurants throughout the State.
Michelle's Spicy Kimchi
Michelle's Spicy Kimchi
In our interview, Michelle talks about the challenge of marketing an ethnic product, growing her business (which doesn't necessarily mean "bigger") and gives very yummy "gotta try it" recipes. Hint: Grilled Kimcheese and a very special Bloody Mary.
- Elena Gustavson, Program Director
CAE: I grew up eating kimchi and although I can make it at home, it's labor intensive and sometimes I just need a fix. Unfortunately, the kimchi I found in Vermont was not like the homemade stuff - until I tried yours. Wow! I love it. Have you found that you needed to work hard to get people to try your product?
MSK: Thank you, that’s a huge compliment! I have to admit that I secretly hold my breath every time a potential Korean customer tastes my kimchi. It’s a huge responsibility to be tinkering with someone else’s national dish which as you know, not only dates back to ancient times, but is also such a source of passion and identity. I try to give it the same respect that other cultures expect towards their flag or other national symbols. The only concession I’ve made is the heat level – to make it ‘Vermont Spicy’, not ‘Korean Spicy’ which as you know is blisteringly hot!
I know all about getting that craving you were talking about! That’s why I started making authentic kimchi at my home in Craftsbury. Yes, it is a lot of work – but worth it! I never expected to make it on a larger scale or to find anyone around here, other than my husband and I, who would want it. The students at Sterling College gave me the first inkling that there was a demand for it. And, when I started selling at the Craftsbury and Hardwick Farmers Markets I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception. I had no idea there was such a strong connection to Korea here. At every single market I met someone who had served there or in other parts of the Pacific Rim, who had volunteered there, taught there, married a Korean or had even adopted Korean children. There’s a growing and dynamic community of Americans of Korean descent here in the Northeast.
It’s definitely challenging to get people to try it who've never tasted it before. At tasting events I try to get a booth beside a cheese maker, since kimchi and cheese go SO well together, especially for the uninitiated.
When I see people trying to make a wide arc around my booth I try to engage them… I ask if they like sauerkraut. If they say yes, I ask if they like salsa. If they say yes I tell them that kimchi is fermented like a sauerkraut and spicy like a medium salsa. I try to appeal to their sense of adventure. It’s always interesting to watch people’s faces as the flavors start to register. For some people it’s just too intense. For others, it’s a ‘take it or leave it’ experience. What makes it all worthwhile is when you get that ‘kapow’ moment – when you watch their faces light up and they’re excited – really, REALLY excited to have found something new that they love! These are the people who run around and find their friends and drag them back and make them taste it. Whoohooo! I don’t know of any job in the world that can make you feel as good as that!
CAE: There are a million ways to eat kimchi. What are your favorite recipes and ideas to share?
MSK: That’s a tough one because you’re right – there are a million ways to eat kimchi!
One of my favorite meals ever is bulgogi (Korean bbq’d shortribs) with kimchi and rice! It brings back so many memories for me. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up but our ‘treat night out’ was the ‘Bulgogi House’ in Edmonton, Alberta. The kimchi was so spicy it would make us cry. The bulgogi was sticky, smoky and unctuous. So that combo is always at the top of my list.
Another favorite is Cream Cheese and Kimchi Dip. Half and half of cream cheese and kimchi, whipped up with a stick blender. Great with chips or as a topping for steak sandwiches or burgers - when the cream cheese melts – it’s decadent!
Some of my new favorites have come to me through new kimchi fans. They’re definitely an east-meets-west mashing of tastes. The Cellars at Jasper Hill folks introduced me to the ‘Grilled Kimcheese’ – thank you to sales and marketing guru Vince Razionale for that one! He uses their Landaff cheese, my kimchi and a robust bread and grills them up in a panini press. They often make them at events like the Hill Farmstead Brewery launches.
The guys over at Vermont Soy introduced me to ‘Marinated Grilled Tofu’. You submerge tofu cubes in kimchi juice, and they’ll start to ferment together. Then either stir fry with veggies or deep fry.
The Craftsbury General Store came up with the KPPK pizza. It’s Korean Pulled Pork and Kimchi pizza… it’s now their most popular pizza. My kimchi, pulled pork, cheese, garlic and extra kimchi juice for sauce.
Positive Pie in Hardwick makes a ‘House Bloody Mary’ – vodka, tomato juice and my kimchi juice… you can’t only have one! And the Healthy Living Market in Burlington made a ‘House Kimchi Sausage’ with my kimchi… it was selling out so fast I had to ask a friend to get some for me. They were awesome!
I could go on, but as you said, there are a million ways to eat kimchi.
CAE: You have an active Facebook page. We hear a lot about the importance of social networking and you have a great handle on that. What tidbits of advice would you give to those just delving into social networking for their business?
I much prefer the intimacy of Facebook. You can get instant feedback from customers. And, people find notices for upcoming events less ‘spammy’ than emails. I also like being able to have real time conversations with people and be able to answer questions.
If I could have a do-over, I would have definitely started a blog instead of a webpage. They’re more user-friendly and the technology has made it easier to add on pay-pal portals and other apps. Less expensive too. Another thing to work on! Since I still live in an area with no cell phone service I haven’t really embraced Twitter and other forms of smartphone social media. But, some of my fellow food producers say they've been really helpful in spreading awareness of their product.
CAE: Any thoughts about what the next steps you will take for Michelle's Spicy Kimchi?
MSK: One priority is to develop a vegan kimchi (without fish sauce) but it’s been challenging on so many levels. I’ve looked at ‘fake’ fish sauces but they’re either loaded with so many chemicals that I refuse to use them, or they contain some form of wheat – and I have a lot of customers with gluten allergies. So I’m still searching for an authentic tasting, fish free alternative. I know there are some forms of traditional kimchi in Korea that don’t use fish or shellfish but I haven’t yet been able to find anyone who can steer me in the right direction.
The second priority is to build the local growers network to encourage people to grow more of the ingredients I need. I’m hoping to work with High Mowing Organic Seeds on some trials for daikon radish and napa cabbage. The other challenge is getting people to grow bulk sized produce – in an area where petite, market sized produce can usually fetch a much higher price for the smaller grower.
On a personal note, I’d like to find the time to teach more fermentation and kimchi making classes. It struck me a few years ago that this form of food preservation is why we, as individuals, exist today. It was how countless generations of our ancestors survived through countless winters. And all of these skills were virtually lost in only two generations - between my generation and my grandmothers’.
I've managed to squeeze in teaching two summer classes at the Vermont’s Table Program at Sterling College, two kimchi classes through the awesome program at City Market in Burlington, and I've been invited to do a workshop with the chefs at the Culinary Institute at Essex. I've found it immensely gratifying to be able to share ‘the art’ of successfully preserving anything that can be grown in our gardens. So many of my students have said how much they wish they could have learned from their mothers or grandmothers. (For the art curing meat, ham or sausage, this was usually passed down from fathers or grandfathers… a tradition that has also suffered.)
For those of you reading this who don’t know me, you've probably gleaned that making ‘Michelle’s Spicy Kimchi’ into a kick-butt global enterprise is not in my goals, my ‘mission statement’ or my vision… and you’d be right. I’m going to give a little plug here to Heidi Krantz. She’s the ‘Vermont Small Business Development’ counselor at the Vermont Food Venture Center. She told me the most important advice that anyone thinking of starting a specialty food business needs to hear: “It’s okay to NOT go big!” I needed to hear that. I’ll keep plugging along and once I've got enough of a base market I’d like to expand the product line to introduce other fermented treats.
You can find Michelle's Spicy Kimchi at retail establishments throughout Vermont, including:
Buffalo Mountain Cooperative, Hardwick
Craftsbury General Store, Craftsbury
City Market, Burlington
Newport Natural Market and Cafe, Newport
...as well as these other locations.