Exceptional Palate Pleasers

Tom Poland

Palmetto State Specialty Foods

By Tom Poland

Across South Carolina appetizing fragrances drift from kitchens, farms, fields, kilns, and roasters. Fiery sauces … heavenly coffee … the freshest produce, and crabcake are but a minuscule sampling of South Carolina specialty foods. Year-round, specialty foods please palates across the state.

From Anderson to Charleston, from Blythewood to Columbia to Wadmalaw Island, Mt. Pleasant, and points in between, specialty foods bring joy to many. Specialty foods—unique and high-value food items made in small quantities from high-quality ingredients—enhance South Carolina’s stature as a state known for fine foods.

Providing specialty foods is demanding. Suzy Ellison, executive director of Specialty Foods for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, applauds specialty food providers’ courage and entrepreneurial sprit. “South Carolina Specialty Food Association members have a true passion for their products,” said Ellison. “So much is involved in starting any business, especially in the food industry. Blood, sweat, tears, and desire are among the first requirements.” 

Give specialty foods a try. They’ll taste the difference because there truly is South Carolina heart and soul in every product.
—Suzy Ellison, South Carolina Specialty Food Association

Ellison adds that specialty food providers “step out on a limb.” It’s a tough business bursting with challenges and tasks: labeling, packaging, regulations and legalities, product testing, and marketing—all difficult undertakings that contribute to a long and tedious process. Add to that sourcing, distribution, inspections, finances, and time management … the list goes on. But anything worth doing is never easy and though it’s difficult, specialty food providers shine a favorable spotlight on South Carolina. Businesses like Burnt & Salty add to the state’s identity as a destination rich with great food.

 Burnt & Salty—The Condiment Lifestyle
Consider condiments crafted from Filipino vinegar-based sauce and sweet chili glaze. Consider Coconut Suka, a combination of fermented coconut water, ginger, garlic, Thai chili, cilantro, and chives. Please your palate courtesy of Mt. Pleasant’s Burnt & Salty where owner Cris Miller and Bob Cook share bold, unique flavors via a new generation of condiments. The objective is simple: mix familiar flavors with unfamiliar flavors.

Miller and Cook were ready to start a business, but Miller’s serving in the Navy Reserve precluded starting a restaurant, despite both’s deep experience in the restaurant industry. Miller’s a senior chef (E-8) in the Navy. Cook, served as chef de cuisine of Cypress and Artisan Meat Share and the Little Traverse Golf Club for a decade in Michigan. He suggested a condiment company because everyone loves condiments and he had received great praise on condiments he had featured in restaurants.

Was it easy? “What wasn’t a challenge,” said Miller, who mentioned “simple stuff like multiplying recipes, learning how to package legally, and figuring out the testing process.” Being classified as an acidified food led to additional classes/certifications and inspections with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. They had to learn about pH and water acidity. Said Miller, “Add sourcing ingredients, accounting, finding retailers that will sell our products (ongoing), designing and printing labels, having a website, accounting, distribution, marketing, time management, allocating finances, working together in a kitchen, and shipping.” And things would break, too.

In spite of the headaches, Burnt & Salty provides an “alternate sauce,” not a familiar BBQ or hot sauce. That requires some explaining. “When it is on the shelf, no one know what Korean Mustard or Coconut Suka is,” said Miller, “so tastings and demos are essential to explaining our brand.” The proof is in the tasting and once tasted, a new fan base grows. Miller refers to them as fun, adventurous eaters, the Indiana Jones of eaters.

This holiday season Burnt & Salty will work with specialty food providers like Bulls Bay Saltworks and Geechie Boy Grits to create a perfect South Carolina gift basket. “We’ll load them with Asian candy, shrink-wrap it, and decorate it simply,” said Miller. Check out their Dumpling Kit (great kids activity) and Elf Pants or Santa Pants on their website. “They’re so festive,” said Miller. Email Miller and she’ll customize gifts for you. “Last holiday season, for example,” said Miller, “a customer wanted a gift basket with our stuff, some of our T-shirts, and an oyster shucker made here in Charleston.”

Burnt & Salty. It’s where Cris Miller and Bob Cook create craveable sauces you can use everyday to enhance the flavor of your food. Said Cook, “We put our heart and soul into every single thing we make, our goal being your opportunity to experience amazing craveable flavors. Once you taste them, you’ll understand the cult following that’s been generated.”

Burnt & Salty transcends food. It’s creating a culture and tribe who love the “condiment lifestyle.” The general population is trending toward smaller businesses that make their own stuff. Join the trend. Discover craveable flavors; it just might be your cup of tea.

Burnt & Salty

Charleston Tea Plantation—Tea Time
William Barclay Hall founded the Charleston Tea Plantation, which produces black and green teas in over 320 varieties on 127 acres. The Wadmalaw Island plantation traces it origins back to a plantation Dr. Charles Shepard’s 1888 Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville. South Carolina shares a long relationship with Camellia sinensis, the tea plant closely related to the flowering camellia.

Hall, a third-generation tea taster, received his formal training in a four-year tea apprenticeship in London. If you intend to be a tea taster, you better have a deep love for tea. His apprenticeship required him to taste 800 to 1,000 cups of tea five days a week for four years.

Developing a discriminating pallet is crucial with tea. Tea, Hall explained, is not a once-a-year harvest like you have with wine or coffee. With wine and coffee you either have a good year or a bad year. Not so with tea. Tea is harvested every 15 to 18 days, and the quality constantly fluctuates. “Too much rain. Not enough rain. Too hot. Too cold, beginning of the season, middle of the season, end of the season—all influence the flavor,” said Hall. “It’s up to the tea taster not only to make the tea but to bless it.” The taster has to blend the teas in such a way that a consistent flavor results.

In 1987 Hall founded what is today the Charleston Tea Plantation, creating a commercial operation. Founding what would be North America’s only tea plantation didn’t faze him. “When you’re young you have no fear,” said Hall. “When we started, we thought every supermarket in the country would want us on its shelves. Come to find out the buyers in the supermarkets couldn’t have cared less about us. The quality of the tea was excellent.”

Marketing—getting the word out—represented the biggest hurdle. “America grows its own tea now” wasn’t enough said Hall.

A marketing boost came from partnering with Bigelow Tea in 2003. The Bigelows run a true family business. Today two descendants, daughters, run the operation. “That partnership helped us tremendously,” said Hall.” We were able to build a new, modern factory where we could invite people to come see us.”

The plantation long marketed American Classic Tea but the overarching name now is Charleston Tea Plantation Tea. A larger leaf style gives their teas a richer, smoother taste. Tea lovers appreciate the subtle nuances and fresh-from-the-farm flavor of full leaf loose tea. Flavors include Charleston Breakfast Tea, Plantation Peach Tea, Island Green Mint, and the familiar Earl Grey. Each tin contains 2.3 ounces of premium tea.

Visit the Tea Plantation and sample its cinnamon spice tea, a holiday favorite. “People flock to it and its Christmasy spice flavor,” said Hall. It gives you that warm, Christmasy feeling.”

The Charleston Tea Plantation is open to visitors seven days a week. Check it out. See what a modern tea plantation looks like thanks to the efforts of the Bigelow family, William Barclay Hall, and staff. Sample teas and inhale the heady aroma of tea being processed.

Charleston Tea Plantation

Iron Brew—One Sip Hooks A Customer For Life
Pardon a mixed-plant metaphor, but Blythewood’s Iron Brew Coffee is stepping in high cotton. Food & Wine Magazine voted it among the Top 7 Boutique Roasters in the U.S. High-altitude loving coffee isn’t a South Carolina crop; it has to be imported and Iron Brew, one of the South’s favorite roasters of single-origin, gourmet coffee provides patrons top-quality, 100 percent Arabica beans from the Cerrado Region of Brazil. Each bag of coffee contains the smooth captivating flavor of Brazilian coffee.

Coffee amounts to a way of life for many, and becoming a highly touted provider specializing in coffee wasn’t easy. “A big problem we had early on was breaking through clutter and deluge of other coffee companies out there,” said Matt Patterson, sales manager. “Most people would probably be surprised to learn how many small coffee roasters exist around South Carolina alone.”

Patterson’s right. Coffee roasters are like microbreweries these days. Just about every town has one. At first, Iron Brew, a family owned business, packaged its coffee to look like every other bag on the shelf, warm colors and earth tones. Then big change arrived: the time to cut through the clutter arrived.

“About five years ago,” said Patterson, “we decided to completely redo our packaging and really call out our South Carolina roots. We designed our ‘tree and cup’ logo and picked vibrant colors sure to catch people’s attention. Once we gave people a strong reason to give our coffee a shot—supporting a local business—the high quality of our beans did the rest. One sip, and Iron Brew has a new customer for life.”

Iron Brew Coffee came to be after Vance Patterson traveled to Brazil for one of his other businesses. During his visit, Vance had the opportunity to check out some Brazilian coffee farms in the Cerrado region. After sampling their exquisite coffee, he decided to import the green beans and roast them in the states. At first he outsourced the roasting but relying on others for quality concerned him. He researched roasting coffee methods and settled on a cast iron drum roaster because of its ability to lock in rich flavors. “Iron Brew,” took its name from the decision to roast premium coffee beans in a cast-iron drum roaster, as opposed to stainless steel roasters.

It was fourteen years ago when Vance hired a roast master. Iron Brew Coffee expanded, Vance hired son, Matt, to handle sales and daughter, Megan, for marketing. With Lavarcus roasting, and Luke delivering fresh coffee to retail establishments, that completed the Iron Brew Coffee family.

Visit Iron Brew’s website to find retailers selling their coffee. Columbia’s Uptown On Main carries its coffee. Proprietor Martha Studstill says the coffee sells well. “It’s a pleasure to have it in my shop and they are good to deal with.” Studstill loves Iron Brew’s Sticky Bun, a cinnamon-flavored coffee, a coffee that makes a great holiday gift. The average coffee drinker downs three cups a day. Are you among them? If so, give Iron Brew a try.

Iron Brew

Crave Artisan—Where Taste Hits Palate
For John Brunty the path to specialty foods began by helping bring a local product to market. That led to his involvement with the SC Specialty Food Association. Next, came a website that he dedicated it to selling local, South Carolina products. That led to the distribution of products and the opening of Crave Artisan as a warehouse, retail location.

Think of Crave Artisan as a specialty grocery store and cafe. If chipotle mayonnaise and artichoke and Parmesan spreads sound good, Crave Artisan is your kind of place. Each weekday features a special. Monday it’s the ham and Swiss croissant. Tuesday, the green goddess salad. Wednesday, it’s the chicken sandwich. Thursday is chicken taco day, and Fridays bring the salami Panini. Popular any day of the week is the Crave dog. Got a serious sweet tooth? Try Aunt Mazie’s Chocolate Cobbler and Sallie’s Greatest Blueberry Lavender Simple Syrup, a mouthful in more ways than one.

Brunty, like other specialty food providers, faced hurdles. “The challenge of any specialty product is awareness and price,” said Brunty. “Smaller-batch artisans have to charge more because often they either make the products themselves or have to pay more at a factory for smaller numbers of production. Awareness is letting people know these amazing products exist and are available.”

To overcome these hurdles Brunty created an atmosphere where shoppers can try things before they buy. The rewards come from telling people about each vendor, letting them try the products, and seeing their faces when the taste hits their palates. “Helping get so many local vendors known and sold is rewarding,” said Brunty.

Columbia’s Millwood Avenue gives Crave Artisan a location that features a cross section of clientele. “We are in the middle of some great neighborhoods.” Said Brunty. That neighborhood brings students, teachers, professionals, and downtown office personnel to Crave Artisan. Brunty wants all shoppers to understand something vital: “We are a small business representing many small businesses. As a result of being such a proponent of local products, our food is top of the line and very fresh. “

Crave Artisan. It started as a specialty store. Then a café came along proving to patrons how well the various products go together. “The cafe kind of took over,” said Brunty, “and we now offer seating.” Brunty’s goal was to bring local producers and consumers together in a convenient location. Folks come to buy local honey, produce, dairy, eggs, meat, and bakery items there. They can find small-batch artisan products such as homemade goodies, spices, and snacks as well. During the holidays, they can choose from many specials and combination of items. “Gift bags are great to get here because you can’t go wrong with food and they all support a local person,” said Brunty. “The local products continue to be a good draw and we get a great deal of foot traffic each day.”

Got a special craving? Try Crave Artisan. A place where you can enjoy fresh, local foods prepared by a chef and served by a friendly staff, and you support local providers.

Crave Artisan
On Facebook

The Sweetery—Pleasing Homemade Tastes
An Anderson couple’s observation led to a specialty food business. Jane and Steve Jarahian noticed that bakeries were beginning to have the same “manufactured” taste. “We felt freestanding bakeries had lost the homemade taste that made them unique,” said Jane Jarahian. The solution? Start a business where they could offer cakes, cookies, and pies like you’d make at home. That observation would lead to a lot more than cakes. Today, folks around Anderson not only enjoy baked goods featuring the freshest and best ingredients, they also enjoy local milk, eggs, produce, and fruit too.

Anderson native, Paul Nelson, loves The Sweetery’s fresh, local ingredients. “It’s fabulous. Always a line there. My late wife, Teresa, loved it. She was a huge fan of the nut chews.” Nelson adds that he and his wife didn’t let two weeks go by without stopping by for good, fresh food.

That freshness exists for a reason. “We use Happy Cow milk, buttermilk, and butter, and we use local eggs when possible,” said Jane. “We sell Natures Beef and Walker Farms Products and use them in our soups and deli specials when we can. We have also used the cane syrups, Georgia Pecans, South Carolina peaches and strawberries in season as well as blackberries and blueberries. With the holidays here, we are now into South Carolina pumpkins and sweet potatoes for pies and cakes. We love using local products to keep the money in our community and state or close by.”

Jane has deep experience. “I’ve always enjoyed being in the kitchen working with food,” said Jane, who remembers baking as a little girl. Her love for the kitchen led to a family enterprise. After a career in biological research son, Ryan, brought his passion for cooking and love of the hospitality industry to The Sweetery, enhanced by an apprenticeship to Master Baker Wallace Grantland. Ryan, who’s taking over the reins, found his niche making homemade quality cuisine and putting a modern touch on family favorites.

The Sweetery features lunch specials … a roasted veggie sub, grilled chicken topped with melted muenster cheese, crunchy Frito chips, and homemade cole slaw, on toasted pumpernickel bread with stone ground mustard to finish it off. Taste Test Tuesday brings delicious creations such as a Southern Russian black Russian cake layers, with a dark cherry bourbon chocolate mousse placed between them, and iced with our cream cheese frosting.

Success brings attention. Good Housekeeping, Southern Living, and “Cooking with Paula Deen” have covered The Sweetery and its use of local specialty foods to create amazing meals. Add holiday treats to the mix. “During the holidays, we make fresh pumpkin pie and fruitcakes, mince meat, and all kinds of cookies—we are cookie elves on steroids,” said Jane. Many customers buy their wonderful cakes for great gifts. Their wine sticks, a more enjoyable experience for wine connoisseurs, also prove popular as gifts.

For 35 years The Sweetery has provided Anderson the best desserts. As the years passed, Jane, Steve and family added a full service deli, mail order cakes, dinner dishes, and a dessert bar. And it all began with an observation.

The Sweetery

Specialty foods are, indeed, special, and they’re available all across South Carolina. Grocery chains such as Lowe’s Foods carry them. In Charleston, Edmunds Oast www.edmundsoast.com/restaurant and the Veggie Bin (on Facebook) offer local foods, vegetables, and more. Scott Shor brings authentic food to Edmunds Oast Restaurant and Lauren Dunn gets local produce and local goods for the Veggie Bin, a grocery.

Specialty foods highlight a vibrant niche market as South Carolina agriculture goes. Farmers, producers, retailers, and customers make for a good combination. Specialty goods are proving their popularity nationwide, and South Carolina is doing its part to see that the word “fresh” goes onto a lot of menus and chalkboards throughout the state. Stone-ground grits, small-batch ice cream, pimento cheese, and more keep sending appetizing fragrances across South Carolina.

Suzy Ellison encourages South Carolinians and guests to give specialty foods a try. “They’ll taste the difference because there truly is South Carolina heart and soul in every product.”

This story was published in South Carolina Farmer Magazine.


Email Tom Poland tompol@earthlink.net
Visit his website www.tompoland.net 
Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”

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