Betting on “The Underdog of Food”COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Meet the woman behind Tart, a small-batch vinegar brand that popped off in lockdown.Published: September 28, 2021
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During the 70 odd interviews I’ve conducted during the pandemic, I've seen one unequivocally uplifting trend unfold in real time: homebound creatives turning their side hustles into bonafide businesses. Don’t just take it from me; according to the Economic Innovation Group, new business applications skyrocketed to nearly 4.5 million in 2020 — up 24 percent from 2019, and the highest increase on record.
From plants and baked goods to jewelry and aperitivos, there’s no shortage of passion projects that can be propelled into lucrative full-time gigs. This week, I’m featuring another success story in the growing anthology of COVID-era cottage industries: that of Tart, a small-batch vinegar brand created by Chris Crawford, a Brooklyn-based chef with a variegated CV that includes cooking at Chez Panisse and making pasta for David Byrne. Throughout her culinary career, Chris has been making vinegar on the side; it wasn’t until early 2020 that she resolved to turn it into a real business. Keep reading to learn how she’s making it work.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your background before launching Tart.
I worked in restaurants since I was about 16 years old ... I transitioned into cooking [from front of house work] before the recession. I thought it was a temporary thing, but then the recession made it a non-temporary thing; also, I really liked it. I was in San Francisco at that time, and we would do a lot of weird stuff. That was my experience in food: you tried everything out, you didn't stick to a formula. And I was making vinegar in restaurants for fun.
You can ferment anything into vinegar, which I find really interesting. It also changes a dish and makes it better in a way that you don't anticipate. It's the underdog of food.
What prompted you to leave the restaurant world?
When I had a kid, I was like, If something happens, I have to have a job that has health insurance. I started working in an office, cooking for the staff. It was the Criterion Collection, so there were a lot of really cool artists and filmmakers. My title was Minister of Culture … I planned and organized [meals for] small, intimate events. David Byrne would come in to okay something for a release and I would make pasta. That was really special. I did that for five years, but I always wanted to have a vinegar business, and doing Criterion and the vinegar was impossible because there were too many events. So I quit Criterion to do private cheffing for MoMA, [which] allowed me three days a week to work on the vinegar. I was making it out of my apartment and I started selling online. I signed a lease for a factory [in Red Hook] in March of 2020, and then two weeks later, everything shut down.
What happened to your role at MoMA?
That gig ended. Because I was a freelancer, I basically had no security.
What did you do next?
I made a lot of vinegar. I remember thinking, I'm either going to fail at this really bad and use all my savings, or it's going to work. At first, I was like, I'm never going to be able to sell enough, and by November, I was sold out. Samin [Nosrat] posted it on her gift guide ... and Alison Roman got her hands on one somehow. I've never met her, but I want to make a t-shirt with a chart that shows all my sales [after Roman’s endorsement], because it looks like someone straight-up had a heart attack. I've grown in a way where every time I sell stuff, I put it right back into the company. I don't have any investors. I don't have any safety net. I just buy and sell as I go. Everyone keeps telling me I need to grow faster, and I don't really want to ... It seems more natural to me to grow in a way that feels like I can control it a little bit. I'm learning every single batch.
Knowing you’re a one-woman show, I bet things get pretty hectic when a bunch of orders flood in. Are customers understanding if and when you’re out of stock or you can’t ship something instantaneously?
During the pandemic, people got a realization that small businesses aren't Amazon, they can't run like Amazon, and you can't expect things from them the way that you would [of Amazon]. In all the sales I've had, which is a lot to me, I feel very grateful that only a few people have come out of the woodwork [with complaints]. One time, a guy sent me a message saying, "I was so excited about your product, and then I went on your website and realized the shipping was $10, and I'm disgusted." I've taken the time to be like, "You actually can't speak to me like that. Just because I've sold something to you, it doesn't entitle you to degrade me or to expect things from me in this way." I have a no-asshole policy. If you're an asshole, I'm going to refund you, but I’m not going to deal with you [again]. Typically, I have the most patient, understanding customers. I had bottles freeze in the winter, and when I emailed people to say sorry, out of 100 frozen bottles, one person asked for a refund, and a lot of people were like, "I'll repay for the shipping.” I was like, "Of course not." It was a revision of humanity in such a sweet way that people not only understood it, but they were generous. Ninety-eight percent of the people I deal with are that way, and it's just every once in a while that I'm like, "What?"
Sour cherry vinegar in the making / Photography by Chris Crawford
Your website suggests adding your vinegars to “whatever you love to put in your mouth.” To what extent do you imagine or recommend specific use cases?
I love the idea of food exploration as opposed to being told, "This is exactly how you should do it," and that people start to understand that their palettes are special to them and also their bodies are unique, and they should listen to their bodies. When you start telling people how to use something, it creates a limitation on what they use it for. A woman emailed me at the very beginning of my business and was like, "The rose vinegar is actually the perfect pH for a toner. I use it on my face, and it's better than anything that is made in a lab because it's a natural product.” Customers reach out to me with stuff like that, and I'm like, "That's amazing."
Over the past year and a half, many displaced restaurant workers began selling homemade goods to their local communities. Do you think this new cottage industry is here to stay?
Yes, 100%. A lot of my friends left — and these are all people who really do need money. Your body, your life, your heart, and your soul are worth more than tips. Also, I'm older, and my peers are older, and we’re tired. I got really burnt out on restaurants and the way that they run. I did permanent damage to my body with 20 years of restaurant work: lifting up stockpots, having french fries for dinner … I had to ice my back this morning to get up. I support [the traditional system] crumbling in a way that people are like, "I'm not going to accept this toxic behavior to do art," and that's what food culture is. It's a form of art.
Right now, I'm trying to ease into how I can grow. I think the business is doing good; I like to think that it is not a baby tadpole, but that it has little appendages that are poking out, and it can swim a little faster. My goal is to collaborate with more businesses that are focusing on regenerative agriculture and to find more products to ferment that are [prioritizing] soil health and the environment around them.
I take food safety classes with Cornell. I'm going to a Fermentation Association seminar in Chicago in November. I do stuff like that all the time; when you find something you really like, it’s important that you're also getting better at the skill. I'm obsessed with becoming better at the thing I'm doing.
How to support Chris:
Until next time,