The local food movement is so ubiquitous these days, even brands like Welch’s have worked American farmers into their ad campaigns. With a trend that so vastly alters our edible landscape, it’s no wonder you see food start-ups appearing around every turn (as a buyer at AP, keeping track of all these exciting newbies can consume entire work days).
But it’s certainly a gamble, and for every micro-batch granola company or backyard apiary that breaks even, there are several that struggle to barely turn a profit. High cost is no stranger in the average gourmet shop, but when an aspiring entrepreneur is juggling the price of cooking supplies, facilities, packaging, marketing, staffing and more, sometimes no amount of return on these investments can pull them out of the red.
A bleak situation, but not one without hope. Enter Crop Circle Kitchen, a Boston-based communal kitchen & business incubator the likes of which are appearing across the country. The concept is simple—small-batch hot sauce chefs, chocolatiers and food trucks work side-by-side in a cooperative space, rubbing elbows and sharing costs to make a dent in one of the most expensive aspects of a food start-up—the kitchen.
In honor of CCK opening their second location in the old Bornstein & Pearl meat factory on Quincy Street in Dorchester, we’re launching an AP blog series. In each installment, we’ll pay a visit to one of our makers who cook in tandem with other snack masterminds of the Boston food scene. And for this inaugural edition, what better place to start than one of our personal favorite snacks—guacamole.
Chica de Gallo guacamole has only been on our shelves a few weeks, but you may recognize the product due to it’s predecessor, Mi Padre Pedros. MPP came to us from a trio of friends working out of Crop Circle, but the enterprise proved very time-consuming and after a year, one of the partners had to take a step back. The remaining cooks behind this insanely fresh dip are Amanda Bauman & Ben Russo, who’ve spent the past month or so rebranding to become Chica de Gallo. The packaging is slightly different, but the green goodness inside is just as addictive as ever.
When we arrived at the Sam Adams Brewery complex on a Friday night in February, we almost couldn’t find Amanda & Ben amid the maze of old brick. Situated in Jamaica Plain just off the Stony Brook Orange Line stop, Crop Circle is identifiable only by a small plaque near a nondescript door (and by the several food trucks resting in the parking lot). Amanda found us and led us through a small network of hallways into the kitchen, where her and Ben were the only souls crazy enough to spend their Friday night donning latex gloves in a drafty industrial kitchen space.
“[The other cooks] actually get freaked out a little when we’re here,” Amanda said. Apparently the smell of four different chopped hot peppers can be absorbed by fat molecules, a problem for folks crafting delicate sweets like chocolate or pastries, or anything using cheese or butter. “We’ve made the whole Roxy’s crew sneeze a lot,” she said.
Sacrificing date night to have their sinuses taken over by hot peppers and onions isn’t so bad for the couple, who live just a quarter mile from the kitchen with their 3 dogs. They met several years ago at a dog park, having both moved to Boston from their hometowns of Texas and Connecticut. Amanda, the Texan, is always pushing for more heat in their products.
“I want to cry,” she said regarding her preferred heat level in spicy food, “and I think other people want to cry, too.” To come up with the perfect marriage of spice, Amanda & Ben dedicated long, scientific hours of home research to finding the right pepper combo. I’m picturing a dark basement, a single bare lightbulb and a giant whiteboard of charts, which they tell me isn’t too far off from the reality.
“We bought every single pepper they had in the store,” Ben said about their first business trip to Russo’s Market in Watertown, where they bought about 15-16 different hot peppers and took them home to compare. “We had a jug of milk next to us the whole time.”
This focus on ingredients is the true backbone of Chica de Gallo. Whether they’re conducting excruciating pepper tests or juicing 90 limes by hand instead of substituting pre-packaged lime juice, Ben & Amanda know what extra steps they must take to maintain the uniquely refreshing flavor they’re getting a reputation for. Their traceable ingredient label reads like a map of Boston’s freshness outposts, from the box of cilantro they pick up at 4am from the Chelsea Market to the tomatoes they source through Boston Tomato, also in Chelsea. You don’t know ripeness until you’ve been schooled by an avocado salesman before sunrise—apparently avocados at their peak will emanate heat, whereas the underripe ones are cool to the touch.
This kind of attention to the details would be impossible without the support system Crop Circle provides its constituents. In addition to offering the space, CCK also counsels their tenants on the less sexy small-business topics, such as zoning & licensing. They even have a shared office beside the kitchens, charmingly cluttered, with mailboxes for each enterprise. With the help and guidance of the CCK people, Amanda & Ben are able to focus on the important stuff, like juicing 90 limes, learning avocado science from old men at the docks, and eating way more peppers than humans should.
“If this place wasn’t here,” Ben said, “we probably wouldn’t be doing this.”
Want to try Ben & Amanda’s stuff? Stop by American Provisions on April 5 at 2pm for our Taco Pop-Up Party, where you can scoop Chica de Gallo guac onto locally-made tortillas and sip Notch Brewing beer samples.
Stay tuned for the next installments in this series, where we will visit, photograph, and just generally get in the way of our friends at Apotheker Chocolate, Alex’s Ugly Hot Sauce, Blue Goat Greek Dressing, and Nola’s Salsa!
All photos taken by AP staff photographer, beer geek, and wino-in-training, Caley Mahoney.