Ever since I discovered chia seeds while creating the recipe for our Strawberry Beet Leather, I’ve started putting chia seeds in everything. Did you know you can even use chia seeds to help make perfect jam?
Usually jam has tons of sugar in it because the sugar interacts with the pectin in the fruit to act as a thickener. If you leave out the sugar, you get runny jam. This means that most jams you find in the grocery store, and even most recipes for making your own, are all overly sweet. So what happens if you add chia seeds instead of sugar? The chia seeds have a magical thickening property that make them the perfect substitute.
I’ve started making our own perfectly-sweet strawberry jam. I use roughly 500 grams of strawberries to 3 tablespoons of chia seeds and only as much sweetener as we want. You just heat the berries over medium heat until they soften, mash them in a bowl, add the seeds and optional sweetener, and then wait a few minutes until it all thickens. Delightful.
There’s a neat organization here in Stuttgart called Tafel (Schwäbische Tafel Stuttgart). It collects food which would otherwise be headed for the garbage can and makes it available to people in need. Its stores offer things like like day-old bread, products nearing their expiration dates, or wilted produce, all for deeply discounted prices. Whole loaves of bread which might sell for 3 Euros in the bakery are available for less than 50 cents!
The organization is fueled by volunteers and donations. Volunteers take vans to surrounding bakeries and grocery stores, and they bring back heaps of food which the stores can no longer sell. More volunteers sort through the heaps of food. Large bins go out almost immediately onto the shelves to feed grateful customers.
When the vegetable stand at the farmers market mentioned that they donate their leftover produce to Tafel each week, it piqued my interest. This was the second time the name was mentioned to me in the last months, and the concept had somehow stuck. So I took a trip to our local Tafel store. It turns out their work is as neat as it sounds, and they are thankful to anyone willing to donate some time to this helpful and rewarding cause.
Remember the jerky mishap? A similar thing happened again this week! This time it wasn’t the jerky though, and I can’t blame it on a math error. We’ve been finalizing a brand new product, and food is just so dang unpredictable. So now we have a huge batch of not-perfect new product.
If I can recover before the end of the week, you can come taste it at the farmers market on Saturday. See you there!
When we started Peapod last year, there were a million things to do all at once. Our biggest priorities were (and still are) getting our products out to customers and hearing their feedback. It’s been a crazy whirlwind of learning and doing.
Finally, I’ve taken some time to tidy up things behind the scenes. One priority was getting our bookkeeping in order. It was actually really fun. It helps that I secretly love making spreadsheets.
Because Peapod is registered as a small business (Kleinunternehmen), the bookkeeping required by the government is pretty simple. There is basically just one form, called the EÜR (Einnahmenüberschussrechnung), which has to be filled out at tax time. It shows the company’s income and expenditures. It’s important to update these numbers on a regular basis though so that everything is compiled by tax time.
It was also important to me to develop a quick, easy way to see our finances at a glance.
So what better excuse to make a neat set of spreadsheets! I did a bunch of reading and research about the best way to structure everything. Now I can input our income into one sheet and our expenditures into another sheet, and some simple functions do the rest of the work. Our yearly tax information generates itself, and our monthly/yearly finances are output in simple, understandable tables.
One of my recent favorite podcasts is called Edible-Alpha. It’s hosted by Tera Johnson, founder of Tera’s Whey, and it’s packed full of useful information and insights into the food industry. Tera talks to guests in the food world about how to grow a successful food business. I’ve been tearing through the episodes, soaking up as much as possible. For anyone interested in the food industry, I think you’ll find it fascinating.
The last few months have been a study of product pricing. The big question was: how much are customers willing to pay for our product? I was eager to collect lots of data since I didn’t have a good feel for market prices. What I didn’t realize is that we were also gathering valuable information on retail markups.
The jerky is on the shelves of various different retailers: butcher shops, sporting facilities, different types of specialty shops. Surprisingly, the retail markups vary wildly, even within similar categories of retailers, and even within the same geographical region. Some shops want to keep 20% of the sale price. Others want to keep 60%!
Even though I define my own product unit price and my own suggested retail price, the numbers have to fit within retailer expectations in order to get on the shelves at all. At the same time, our product prices across all store shelves have to be pretty consistent. This means that if the retail markups vary wildly, our income per package also varies wildly.
For a 15g bag of jerky selling for 3 Euros (including sales tax), some retailers might expect to pay Peapod just a little over 1 Euro. And this value is assuming that we do our own distribution instead of outsourcing to a distributor. We currently do distribution the old-fashioned way.
There are obviously lots of other factors in play here, such as volume of sales at each retailer or marketing strategies.
In reading about pricing within the food industry, I came across this rule of thumb: take the cost of your materials+packaging+labeling and multiply it by 4 in order to estimate the sale price of the product. If customers will pay at least this price for your product, you might have a working business model.
We’re in the process of developing a working business model.
It was the day our first batch of customer-ready jerky was finished. I had hardly slept the night before out of excitement. James and Kiddo met me at the kitchen so we could package it up together.
A couple of hours before the jerky should have been finished, we snuck some pieces from the oven. They didn’t seem as dry as they should have been. How strange. The possibilities raced through my mind. Did we miss a step? Did we need to open some more windows for better air flow? Was the air today extra humid?
Also, the jerky tasted spicy. Maybe the air was extra humid AND the garlic was extra spicy. It could happen, I rationalized!
I reread the recipe. James reread his notes. After some investigation, we figured out what happened. Some of the ingredients were accidentally tripled in the marinade. Tripling the honey meant that the jerky didn’t dry properly. Tripling the garlic and ginger meant that the jerky was spicy. Tripling some things but not other things meant that the flavors weren’t properly balanced. What a mess.
How can two engineers spend months meticulously refining and documenting a process, only to botch the recipe on the day it actually mattered? Mistakes happen.
Here’s a picture of our Old Country Road jerky. Notice the fennel seeds on top?
These are a few brands of fennel seeds available in Stuttgart. The two on the left are from Edeka, a big supermarket chain in Germany. The one on the right is from our local Asian market. Although they may look similar at first glance, they are actually noticeably different. I discovered this by accident.
Malaya (left) has the smallest seeds. It was actually this size difference which first caught my attention as I sprinkled the toppings onto the jerky. Edora (middle) has the most intense aroma and flavor, and the seeds are even noticeably puffier when chewing. In terms of price, Edora costs about three times as much as the other two brands!
The clear winner for our jerky is Malaya. Jerky toppings should have an interesting and complementary flavor without being overpowering. The texture and mouth feel are just as important. Malaya was our favorite in all of these categories.
I’m learning a lot by talking to customers. I get all sorts of feedback: some positive, some negative, and a whole range in between. Here are a couple of gems.
“Ugh, I don’t like this. This is very bad. Nobody should make this. Why are you making this? It’s just not good. Please. I don’t think this is necessary. It just doesn’t taste good. In any case, it’s not for me. It’s not my thing. Do you have to make this?…[pause]…But don’t let me discourage you!”
“Hmm. I guess it’s ok. It’s kind of weird. We don’t really have this in Germany. Are you familiar with Landjäger (typical German sausage available in all grocery stores)? Why don’t you sell Landjäger? People buy that.”
This kind of feedback is hard to take seriously. I usually thank them for their feedback, and then I make a mental note to tell James about it later so we can share a good laugh.
People share their opinions on the packaging too. One store declined to sell the jerky entirely because our packaging was deemed inadequate. Someone else told us that the packaging is too neutral and not catchy enough. I like our packaging. I think it looks high quality but also homemade. I won’t go into detail here about packaging and labeling though because that story is a blog post for another day.
James can confirm that one of my favorite activities is looking up ingredients and nutritional content of different foods. So when we sent our beef jerky to the lab for tests, I was delighted. The health department encourages food companies to get lab tests, but I didn’t need much persuading. I wanted to know exactly what was in our jerky.
We ordered two sets of tests. The chemical tests were necessary to create our nutrition facts. The microbiology tests checked for things like E. coli and Salmonella. We also got the aW-value (water activity value) tested to better understand the shelf-stability of the jerky.
Drop-off day at the lab felt like a big expedition. James and I had spent the previous days making final tweaks to the recipe, drying several big batches, and then packaging everything up according to lab specs. So on drop-off day, Kiddo and I packed up a big sack full of jerky and made our way over to the lab, first by train and then by foot. The lab turned out to be located in a big industrial complex, with large trucks, palettes, and loading docks. Kiddo and I walked up the loading dock. I’m pretty sure we were their first customers to arrive on foot carrying a sack of food. Thankfully, they accepted it.
After a couple of weeks of great anticipation, our results arrived. The best part were the results for the aW-value. You can see in the image below that molds, yeasts, and bacteria grow when the water activity level is above 0.7. Our aW-value is 0.46! This means that the jerky is so dry that it is highly shelf stable.
The results of the other tests were less surprising. Nutritionally, beef jerky is, well, almost entirely beef. In terms of microbiology, we’re all relieved to know that our beef jerky has no E. coli, fungus, yeast, Salmonella, Listeria, or other terrible contaminants growing in it.
I think future (non-jerky) lab tests will have more interesting results. I’m already looking forward to them.