Jennifer Merryman – Small Batch Cookery

The Final Product: Small Batch

Like peanut butter is to jelly,
Like meatballs are to spaghetti,
Like French fries are to a cheeseburger,
I am to your kitchen.

Meet Jennifer (Jen) Merryman, writer of that poem, owner of Small Batch Cookery, holder of degrees in print making, French, and applied culinary science, and former intern to Thomas Keller the chef and restaurateur of Per Se and The French Laundry.

Picture a bubbly, charming woman who is so incredibly passionate about creating food – food that is art.  Picture mouth-watering, simply designed wedding cakes.  Or beautiful, bite-sized cupcakes.  How about just your mother’s cooking?

That gives you an idea about Small Batch, so named because Jen loves the aspect of tradition that separates Small Batch bourbon from every other bourbon.  That’s what Small Batch Cookery is to her – a continuation of the restaurant / baking tradition that started with her grandparents, continued to her parents, and now rests with her.

“I love something effortless. It tastes good, and you don’t necessarily put a lot of work into it, but it has a lot of heart.  That ambiance that is what Small Batch is about, creating something lovely.  I want people to remember what they taste and what they experience through Small Batch,” Jen told me.

The Ingredients for Small Batch

Jen’s background certainly primed her to open her own Cookery.  “All of my great memories have to do with food.  In fact one of my earliest memories is of my mother decorating a wedding cake at our kitchen table.”

The passion for food continued as Jen worked in restaurants to get herself through college.  When she graduated, she wanted to combine her love of art and food by becoming a food photographer.  But after considering it, she realized that she loves being in the kitchen and she loves creating things, so being behind the lens wouldn’t do it for her.

Culinary school was the answer.  “That’s how pastry came into the mix.  It’s like sculpture, but it’s edible.  I also have a minor in art history and so every painting I’ve ever loved, every sculpture I’ve loved has had to do with food.”

I had to grin at Jen’s enthusiasm when she told me, “That’s the amazing thing about a pastry… it looks beautiful, it smells beautiful… and then you can EAT it!”

Enrolling at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina was an easy decision.  But, as Jen put it, the cherry on the top would be landing an internship at the end of the program.  So on her first day of culinary school, Jen crafted a handwritten letter to her ten favorite chefs.

It may sound familiar:

“Like peanut butter is to jelly,
Like meatballs are to spaghetti,
Like French fries are to a cheeseburger,
I am to your kitchen…”

she wrote at the beginning of the letter.  Proof that handwritten letters still take the cake; she received call after call from her favorite chefs.

I asked her if she felt that writing this out-of-the-box letter was a risk.  She chuckled, and immediately had a food metaphor to explain her decision.  “That’s the amazing thing about the culinary industry – the people who run it are so unique and they have such amazing backgrounds.  They are so well-traveled, and very well read, why give them a Vanilla resume, a Vanilla cover letter, when you can give them a Rocky Road or Basil Strawberry?  Something that’s so unique!  I mean that’s the first impression that you make.  And so I thought, I’m going to go out on a limb here and do something that nobody’s ever read before.  And it worked.”

When Thomas Keller’s Chef de Cuisine, Dave Cruz, called her, that was it.  He loved the letter so much that he didn’t even ask Jen to come to California for an interview.  She was hired on the spot.  And at the end of her culinary program, Jen drove out to Napa to intern for four months at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Ad Hoc.

One day, while Jen was prepping fruit to make a shortcake, Thomas strode into the kitchen.  An unusual occurrence, as the other interns had never seen him before.  He stood next to Jen, pulled out a cutting board, and began working alongside her.

“Nice blueberries, chef,” he said to her.  That’s when Jen knew she was onto something.  That she could do this.

The Recipe for Small Batch

Combine a creative mind, a family background in cooking and entrepreneurship, a transformative experience in the kitchen of an award-winning chef, and friends and family who promote your delicious pastries to everyone they know.  Whisk gently in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Add some egg-cellent experience catering holiday parties and holiday baking, and wait for your concoction to rise.

Just before it’s finished, whisk it to southern Maryland to allow it to reach its full potential.  Here, apply the icing, and let it set.

Jen worked full-time at a restaurant in Charlotte, but people had heard about her prestigious internship and began asking her to cater their events.  In fact, Small Batch began very organically, with a request here and there on the side.  Soon though, Jen was spending almost as much time working with her own customers as she did working at her job.  And that’s when she began thinking about truly turning her passion into a business.

This all came to fruition just as her husband got a job in southern Maryland.  Moving to a new place, especially a place that has Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. close by, seemed like the perfect opportunity to start her cookery.

Word of mouth, and free samples has helped Jen build her clientele in the new area.  “Getting my product and my style into people’s mouths and then having my product speak for itself.  Although usually a lot of people can’t speak because they’re stuffing their mouths with my cupcakes!”

The most important thing though, is staying true to herself.  “I love homemade cupcakes.  I love mason jars filled with homemade jam.  I love little small photographs that are old and show texture and light and I love something that has that handmade look but isn’t necessary crafty.  I just love seeing a person in objects.”

And that’s what Small Batch is about.  And what makes it so special.

Jen’s plans for Small Batch are nothing but small. In the future she hopes to be a triple threat: event planning, photography, and catering, to make your perfect moment linger in your mind forever, intertwined with the flavors, sights, and smells of the day.

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Jen’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

  • Don’t get a lot of people involved in your business to start.  Sometimes it’s just easier to follow your own bliss and your own advice than to listen to what other people have to say.  Once you’re more established then you can take opinions.
  • It’s really important to stay true to yourself and listen to your gut.
  • Don’t become enamored by money, and definitely don’t set your goals based on money for the first couple of years.
  • Don’t quit your full-time job until you have to.  It doesn’t make sense to jump off the deep end immediately and then not be able to keep a roof over your head.
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Oshri Hakak – Living Ink Flow / Living Foil

Imagine that the events from your week, the feelings from your day, could be translated into a visual representation, into a piece of art.

Then imagine that you might die tomorrow.  Really, think about it.  And if you did, what would you do with the time you had left?

Oshri Hakak knew that if that was the case, he wouldn’t want to spend his time sitting in front of a computer building spreadsheets, like he did at his office job.  Oshri knew that he would want to be creating… creating drawings, sculpture, music, friendships, ideas, collaborations.  Creating something bigger than himself.

Speaking about his art, he told me “I think there’s a pretty diverse spread of emotions and topics that I cover.  From love to psychology to political commentary with humor.  The point for each one is to – as much as I can with the combination of image and words – just dive deep into whatever it is.  One thing I realize is that a simple image can actually do that.

In March, Oshri took a trip to India. Seeing the millennia-old tradition of cremation on the Ganges brought the meaning of death into clear focus.  “When you’re that close to death, it changes you.  Especially when you haven’t seen anything like that before – there is no better call to life.  It was just this thought that I’m going to end up there anyway, so I should do something that I feel like has a better likelihood of being valuable to the world,” Oshri said.

He came home, and left his job to start his art business, Living Ink Flow, focusing on creating… creation… the process… the image… the thoughts… the feelings… each piece different, each piece a reflection.

Using a unique two-handed brush technique, Oshri creates images with a few fluid lines and brief phrases, based on ideas that flow through his head during the day.  Loosely based on his emotions and events he experiences, they are intended help you reflect on life in a way that brings out your joy and uplifts your spirit.

And then there’s Living Foil.  Sculptures made out of foil, perched precariously on trees.  Sitting next to you on a bench.  Proffering a hand to you outside the train station.  They are placed in a guerilla style, popping up where you’d least expect them – filling each day with a pleasant little surprise if you’re lucky enough to come across one.  They are Oshri’s foil people. 

Oshri has been creating art all of his life.  He had just never before considered turning his passion into an engine – a business – that would allow him to share it with an expansive community.  But when he returned from India he began thinking about channeling his passions in a practical fashion, while still retaining the fulfillment he gains from the creative process.

“I’ll always be creating art.  I know that’s one thing I’ll be doing my whole life, so I might as well build a business out of it, especially since I love to travel so much.  This would allow me the flexibility to travel more often to Sierra Leone, plus it would work well because I can produce art from anywhere.  And it would make the art more interesting too, to conceive and produce it in different places.  So I feel like it’s something that can really, work in tandem with everything else that I love to do.”

To understand a bit more about why Oshri travels to Sierra Leone, you need to know more about his idea-making adventures.

In college, Oshri co-founded a non-profit called SLEEP which delivered used textbooks to Sierra Leone, and which since has coordinated a book drive with Los Angeles Unified School District and World Vision to salvage about half a million books to be used for donation.  He has also been developing BeeFreed, a social enterprise for agriculture and food processing, also in Sierra Leone.  Let’s just say that he’s a busy bee.

He hopes that with the financing from Living Ink Flow and Living Foil he can continue traveling to Sierra Leone like he has done almost every year since 2008.

So Oshri has a clear purpose for selling his art: first and foremost to share it with more people – to “create meaningful impact through the images that can subtly, but poignantly, affect people in ways that they want to be affected.”  Second, to allow him to continue making an impact in Sierra Leone and other places close to his heart.

Although he knew what he wanted to do, Oshri had none of the skill sets that would prove helpful in trying to build a competitive website to showcase his artwork.  As he said, “because although I’ve been creating art my whole life, this is really building from scratch in terms of presenting and sharing it with a larger audience, with intention.” 

That’s where his friend Bhumi came in.  She loved the idea and generously agreed to create Oshri’s website.  The simple and sleek design presents Oshri’s work in an accessible fashion, and also allows him to easily scan and upload his inks so he can manage the process himself.

What I love most about Oshri’s stories are his unique marketing methods.  He is willing to try almost anything, as long as it seems viable and fun.  Like arriving at the reception desk to deliver a sculpture to a billionaire art collector in Manhattan whom he has never met.  Or meeting a celebrity musician after her concert and promising to mail her a sculpture as a gift.

He also has displays of his art at local restaurants in Los Angeles.  One even cleared off a whole section for him to display his foil people.  Recently he started showing his foil people in a gallery.

At this point the operation is a one man show, and Oshri is drumming up more business by offering greeting cards, posters, and other forms of presenting his artwork.

But ultimately, the business takes a backseat to the joy Oshri gets from sharing his work with people who care about it.  “I love how it connects something about my essence to something that other people can relate to and enjoy.”

And that, in essence, is why I know Oshri will be successful.  Because when you’re passionate about something, other people will be passionate with you.  They will cling to the life and joy you exude, to the life and joy that comes through in your work.

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Oshri’s Advice for Aspiring Artists and Entrepreneurs

  • Each time you feel ready to up things up a notch or make an exploratory move, start from a point of gratitude and love – towards yourself and all so-called others. (As his music teacher repeated to him, “An attitude of gratitude best befits us in the eyes of the Creator.”)
  • Use O Desk for the things you don’t want to do, but that are necessary.  You may not want to work on every element of your business yourself, and that’s okay.
  • If you want to develop a skill over a lifetime, you have to find a way to keep it fresh every day.
  • If you have something to put out there, don’t wait. Ultimately, you decide when the time is right, not external factors.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the questions you know you need to ask – and take time to breath and reflect everyday to make sure you’re getting to the right questions, paddling down the right stream.
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Radha Agrawal – Super Sprowtz

Did you like eating vegetables as a kid?  Chances are, you didn’t.

Did you like super heroes, or puppets, or TV shows, or picture books?  Chances are, you did.

That’s why Radha Agrawal created Super Sprowtz, a children’s multimedia company with a mission of connecting kids to their food.  “The arts – stories and action adventures – are the most influential way to get kids inspired and engaged.  We wanted to create a world that makes vegetables cool and fun,” Radha told me about her original idea.

It started as a few coloring book pages and an “ah-ha” moment in 2009, and is now a rapidly growing business that hosts puppet show tours, has a nutrition education curriculum, a permanent exhibit in the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and so much more.

You could say Radha is a super hero herself, with all that she’s done in the past couple of years.  Radha Resilient: Super Successful, I would call her.


 

Meet the Super Sprowtz!

 
They started as 2-dimensional coloring book characters for the West Village organic pizza restaurant Slice that Radha owns with her sister.  (Yes, this is not Radha’s first time around the entrepreneurial block.)  Originally called the Vegtapeople, Radha created these coloring book pages to promote the family atmosphere of the restaurant.

Radha would color with the children who came in, and told them stories about the Vegtapeople and their superpowers.  To her and the parents’ surprise and amazement, once the kids found out about the superpowers, they would go up to the counter and order more vegetables.

“I saw this amazing direct correlation between story and action.  And just in this half an hour of coloring with them and talking to them about the superpowers, they went and they changed their behavior.  They changed their eating habits and their parents were like ‘Oh my gosh, my son, who hates broccoli, is now eating broccoli because he realized that it’s good for your bones; it gives you superpowers.’”

Radha then started fleshing out the characters, and wrote several children’s stories.  Each book focused on one character and its adventures battling bad guys like Pompous Pollution.  The bad guys were necessary, Radha said, because “to me you can’t teach by just showing what’s good. You also have to show what’s bad.”

In their final iteration, the 2-dimensional Vegtapeople morphed into the 3-dimensional Super Sprowtz puppet characters.  Suzy Sweetpea: Super Speedy.  Sammy Spinach: Super Stretchy.  Erica Eggplant: Super Smart.  Colby Carrot: Super Sight.  And others… what kid wouldn’t be instantly attracted to the alliteration, the bright colors, the fun stories?

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and Radha knew she wanted to turn her storybook characters into something bigger.

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees (although neither do vegetables for that matter)

Radha’s previous experience gave her many of the skills she needed to jump into creating Super Sprowtz.  After graduating from college she worked as an analyst at an investment bank.  Although it didn’t suit her, she told me wryly, “at least now I’m not scared of spreadsheets.  And you need those.”

9/11 resulted in her whole group – which covered airlines – being laid off, thereby cutting her analyst career short.  But free of banking, Radha knew she wanted to work in film. She spent the next several years as a talent agent for TV commercial directors, working on productions, and finally producing a film in the Middle East about the Iraq War, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

“I wanted to apply all of my know-how in TV commercials and production and apply it in a way that was meaningful for the world, and also was filling a hole in the market.  There was nothing out there that was a comprehensive brand.”

The stage and the table were set.  She had the idea, but she needed the funding to make it happen.

Radha put together a business plan and talked to every businessperson she knew.

“How do you make the best possible business plan possible?”

“How do you present an idea that will get people excited about it in a financial way?”

“How do you think like a CEO?”

With the business plan, her children’s books, and a never-give-up attitude, Radha began banging on doors and pitching to friends and family members.

She got a lot of no’s, but finally a big yes.  A check for $50,000 from a college friend who told her “I believe in you.”  And then the yeses started rolling in.

“But it’s one of those things where everyone saw it right away.  They saw the idea on paper and they didn’t need to see anything else.  They were like this is so obvious and I want to be part of it.  But I also think they invested in me as much as they invested in the idea,” Radha asserted.

Over the course of only friend and family rounds, Radha raised $550,000 for Super Sprowtz.  Let the adventures begin.

Turning the Idea into Something Digestible

Radha knew the key to being successful in this business would be packaging Super Sprowtz in a polished and exciting way so that it could compete with other brands, Disney for example.  Everything had to be the best of the best.

Which is why Super Sprowtz held the biggest audition in the puppet world that year.  The top puppeteers – such as voices from Sesame Street and the Muppet movie – flew to New York and auditioned to play the various Super Sprowtz characters. (Watch the hilarious auditions here.)

Once that was set, Radha and her team started connecting and networking in the space.  They wanted to find out who was doing the top work in the area and “how we could connect with them in a meaningful way.  Where we’re not just talking about doing work with them but we’re talking about building a future generation of healthier kids.  So it’s not just selling a show about fairy tales or fairy princesses, we actually have a mission.”

The Nitty Gritty – Things You Don’t Really Hear About
I thought it was really interesting when Radha started talking to me about the process for designing the puppets.  Look at how many things she had to adjust and think about while making the product:
  • What kind of fabric to use – how does it feel to the touch?
  • What color will it be?
  • I don’t like the way the puppet’s arm rotates.  Can we change it?
  • The eyes are too big.
  • The functionality of the mouth doesn’t work so well.
  • Where will we warehouse it?
  • Who’s going to ship it?
  • What will we pack it in?
  • Where is it going to go?
It’s an interesting exercise for conceptualizing the steps that will actually turn your idea into reality.

As the puppet show came to life, other ideas popped up.  A clothing line with organic baby onesies.  A television show that now airs with 3 minuteo spots on Child 25.  A healthy cooking show.  A nutrition education kit boasting 20-lessons and a 160-pages curriculum guide, and many other products featured on their online store.

Eat Your Vegetables and You’ll Get Lucky

Super Sprowtz went on a media tour to promote its mission and products.  Radha was holding one of her puppets in the green room before an interview, when someone came up to her and said “I have never seen puppets this cool in my entire life.  Who are you guys, and what is your story?”

Turns out this someone was the Communications Director for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.  The Museum was working on a new exhibition called “Eat, Sleep, Play,” and the board was at a loss for what to put in the “Eat” section.  “Come meet our Executive Director,” he said.  “Bring the puppets!”

And that’s how Super Sprowtz landed a permanent exhibition on the first floor of the Children’s Museum.  As Radha said, “You can’t make that up, you can’t plan for those moments to happen.  It’s good karma.  The right place, the right time.”

“If you work hard, good things will happen.”

Yes they will, Radha Resilient, yes they will.

Epilogue

Super Sprowtz is growing by leaps and bounds.  They recently announced their official charity partner, the Food Bank of New York, which will receive 5% of Super Sprowtz’ profits.  They will be holding 7 puppet shows at Century 21 stores over the next year.  And, the day before I spoke with Radha, they got their biggest order to date.

Which is good, because Radha has a big vision.  “Our plan is to be truly the default location for parents to go to when they think about nutrition education.  And of course our plan is to be a global company.  This problem is not something that’s just in America.  It’s a global issue.  There are 1 billion obese people, surpassing the starving, 900 million.  It just gives you an idea of how much our food system needs to change.”

Keep Sproutin’ Super Sprowtz!  Don’t forget to eat your veggies!

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Radha’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneur’s

  • If you’re going to fail, fail big.  Fail shouting it as loud as you possibly can.
  • Self-impose your deadlines.  If you don’t, when is anything going to get done?
  • The financial risk will always be there, but life is short.
  • You’re going to be stressed out, but you still need to live and have a life outside of work.  Radha recommends going dancing to relieve the stress.
  • Hire interns.  If you have an incredible intern, and they add value to your company, do what you need to do to hire the person full-time.
  • You have to be able to communicate your ideas in a way that other people can understand.  Test it out on lots of people to make sure that’s the case.
  • Pick five people who inspire you and surround yourself with them.  Don’t just focus on people your age.
  • Be patient.  Things take time and nothing happens overnight.  But keep putting one foot in front of the other.
  • You have to let go of the fear of having people laugh at your ideas, at having people laugh at the brashness of your approach.
  • The key to making any idea into reality is to build it in iterations.
  • Everyone is a critic, but not everyone is bold enough to pursue their idea, so you should take everything they say with a grain of salt.  Also, that’s when you know you’ve hit something that you really feel passionate about: when nobody can dissuade you from what you’re doing.
  • Just remember, you are what you make of yourself.
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