By Elizabeth Gabriel
Dave and Carly Dougherty, the husband and wife team behind Food and Ferments, fell in love with fermentation soon after they met while working together at A Full Plate Cafe in Philadelphia. With roots in farming and food, theirs was a path that quickly led to quarts of sauerkraut and gallons of kombucha fermenting in all corners of their apartment. Their love affair with all things sour hasn't stopped since. In 2012, they launched Food and Ferments and became one of the first companies in Philadelphia to offer a wide range of naturally fermented food and drinks.
In the fall of 2014, Food and Ferments relocated to central New York, building a kitchen at Twin Oaks Dairy - an operational organic farm still run by Carly's family - complete with fertile land, wooded forests, and breathtaking views. They now make their ferments at their commercial kitchen in Cortland, NY. Their vision is one of a hybrid life - days spent shredding cabbage and culturing kombucha in the country, paired with weekends traveling to cities and local towns, selling goods to their fans spanning the East Coast from Philadelphia to Upstate New York, and finding time to hike, cook, and see concerts (tomorrow they are heading to the Phish show in Syracuse, Carly tells me). These days, they’re enjoying doing all these things with their 8-month-old son, River.
It is their hope that Food and Ferments can play a part in helping to renew and revitalize the time-honored food tradition of fermentation, which promotes good health and celebrates culture and where fresh vegetables transform throughout the seasons into tangy sauerkrauts, crunchy pickles, and spicy kimchis.
TNF: How did you end up running Food & Ferments?
Carly: I grew up on Twin Oaks Organic Dairy Farm in upstate NY, so I was always around fresh foods, and Dave has always loved flavors. Together, we have always been really creative and curious. We were in the food industry in Philadelphia and, at some point, were introduced to beet kvass at a conference. It inspired us. We started experimenting with kimchi in our apartment, which eventually became a business. We started part-time while still in Philly and then relocated back to Twin Oaks Farm in Truxton. It was a big decision to move, to start all over with retail markets, but being near family was important. Luckily, we found amazing regional farms like Main Street Farms in Cortland and other farms in the Ithaca area, so we connected with growers and plugged in well enough to grow our business.
Once back in New York, we started in a 500-square-foot basement in my mom’s house and would still bring a lot of product to Philly because that’s where our markets were. We would load the truck up once a month and drive down there. It was fun to stay connected in person, but, of course, not sustainable. Eventually, after almost a decade of traveling down, we now have a small farm distributor delivering our products to our Philadelphia accounts. Besides delivering to many of our NYS wholesale accounts ourselves, we also work with Regional Access.
TNF: How did you grow the business to go from being part-time to full-time?
Carly: I did a 6-month internship in California where we did a lot of fermentation and took a business course and thought I could be full-time right away after that, but I just couldn’t. It took Dave and I to work part-time jobs for a couple of years before we could swing working full-time in the business.
Once we moved to central New York, our cost of living was lower and that helped. We still needed to grow the business slowly. Today, we have 5 part-time employees and 2 full-time. When we moved to NY, we had 1 part-time employee. We've grown from being in 3 retailers ten years ago to being in over 100 independent retail outlets now.
We were processing in a small kitchen for nearly three years before partnering with Main Street Farms in 2017. We subletted some space in a warehouse they were using and transitioned our kitchen to that space. We’ve received some micro-enterprise grants through Cortland County to help buy equipment and packaging. While it seems like there is a lot of support for farmers and beginning farmers, it has been hard to find support for food producers. Eventually, the owner sold us the 4,000-square-foot warehouse, which we now have a mortgage for and Main Street sublets from us. The mortgage is the first debt we have taken on, but it felt like a smart decision.
About the same time that we were growing, Crooked Carrot - another awesome local ferment company - was evolving and closing. That left a gap in the market for us to fill. We started going to the Ithaca Farmers Market and the CNY Regional Market in Syracuse and sending our products to the Broome County Regional markets.
While growth has been important, we also try to scale sideways. We have built up our products to adapt to the season - kombucha in the summer and fire cider in the winter. We also realized that our farmers market customers were different. In Syracuse, people were grocery shopping, and we started selling them growlers of kombucha. At the same time, it’s more college and tourists at the Ithaca Market, so we started selling pickles on a stick! It’s been to our advantage to be nimble and shift with the needs of our customers.
TNF: How do you manage to scale up your business while also committing to the sourcing goals you have of buying regionally?
Carly: It ebbs and flows. For example, we had never made dilly beans before, but Stick and Stone Farm in Ithaca approached us and could sell them to us at a price we could manage. Now that’s a product we always make and it has turned out to be one of our more popular ones. Main Street Farms grows tons of carrots, so we started making our Jalapeno Carrots. Generally, we have about 10 regional farmers who we work with regularly and can lean on. And, while we buy as many organic products as we can, some items are just too expensive and we have to make a business choice - like peeled garlic - usually buying local and peeling ourselves has too high of a labor cost.
TNF: What’s a lesson learned you’ve made as you’ve scaled, sideways or up?
Carly: When we had our son River, we should have defined our roles more. We’re such a central part of our business and I didn’t realize I would want to step away for 6 months and be with River. All of a sudden, neither Dave nor I were there on a daily basis. We weren’t prepared for that - we didn’t expect that that’s what we would want. We learned that we needed to set up more Standard Operating Procedures and have more clearly defined roles for everyone, including ourselves.
Fortunately, there are some resources to help us do that. Other business owners are super helpful, and I greatly rely on our “hive mind” of the team a lot. I’m also on a Facebook group where I can ask questions and see what other people are asking and doing.
I saw my parents run their farm with two kids and thought that could be us, but that idyllic picture with my kiddo strapped to my back isn’t as easy as I thought - for him or me, plus our business means I spend a lot of time in a big kitchen facility - not an ideal place for a toddler.
TNF: How is it running a business with your life partner?
Carly: It’s a lot, plus we have a 10-month-old now. I think our communication works well, and we have different roles - Dave does the brewing, and I’m in the warehouse, fermenting, packing and managing the staff. We define our roles so we aren’t always working shoulder to shoulder. We also have learned to respect each other's perspective on things and make choices together.
TNF: What keeps you feeling enthusiastic about Food & Ferments right now?
Carly: We didn’t intend to have a team. We thought we’d stay small, so it could be just Dave and I, but now we really love having a team and we love that our business success means we can provide for them. As of this year, we now provide PTO and sick leave - it feels great! Also, most of our employees are moms, and we are a women-run kitchen. It’s been rewarding to lift up other local women in their work and dreams and support their schedules by being flexible when we can.
And I love seeing our employees take their time off and take care of themselves. It’s a huge challenge always to try to do more and do it better - but it’s a challenge I like. “Everything takes longer than you think it will” is one of our mantras: always adjusting our expectations and having grace for ourselves, our partners and our employees is key.
I also really enjoy the farmers markets. Going with River is fun and enjoyable as a family - and it’s my work. I feel lucky for that. Also, we pilot our own ship; we could open a retail store, for example, if we wanted to, or create new goals and products as we feel inspired. It feels great to have the liberty to do that.
TNF: Are you going to start a retail store?
Carly: We’re starting to go to food events to give it a try: Ithaca Apple Festival, Little Falls Cheese Festival and the Geneva Garlic Festival. We’ll see how those feel. We know we don’t want to get too big. We try to stay grounded in how we define success for ourselves and what is important to us. We thrive when we have relationships in our community with local farmers or the owner of a co-op. We know we don’t desire to be a national brand. It was freeing to realize this.
TNF: What’s your favorite Food & Ferments product?
Carly: Old World Caraway sauerkraut
TNF: Is there a book or podcast you really like and recommend?
Carly: Full Moon Feast by Jessica Frentist talks about fermentations and the cycle of the season, and The Dirty Life memoir by Kristin Kimball.