Small Bites: Smiling Hara Tempeh goes big with its cultured beans

A bean in the hand: Smiling Hara Tempeh is an unpasteurized product, healthier for the body, says Sarah Yancey. Phot by Alexis Culver

Locally made Smiling Hara Tempeh has been approved for distribution in all of the nearly two dozen Whole Foods grocery stores in the Southeast. "We're really excited. It's kind of mind-blowing," says Sarah Yancey, who owns the cultured-bean product business with her husband, Chad Oliphant.

"It kind of fell in our laps, honestly," Yancey says. After the couple applied for a Whole Foods local-producer loan program, they received a call from the vice president of purchasing, who offered to meet with them. "We sat down and that was the first thing that he mentioned — that he was interested in getting the product in the store first and foremost, and then we would talk about a loan," Yancey says.

The deal will enable the couple to double production, from about 700 pounds a week to 1,400. "It's going to be major," Yancey says. "It's going to give all of our employees full-time jobs, which is what they've wanted from the beginning, and we've lost a lot of people due to the fact that we couldn't provide a full-time job."

All of the production and packaging will still take place at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, an 11,000-square-foot shared-use kitchen incubator and natural-products manufacturing facility. "We've learned how to make a lot of tempeh in a short amount of time and with minimal space. The only challenging part, at this point, is freezer space," Yancey says.

That freezer space is important because Yancey’s tempeh is unpasteurized and frozen immediately after incubation. "It's important that people know to look for us in the freezer section," she says.

According to Yancey, there’s much to learn about her product. "There's a huge educational component to our business. Even people that know about tempeh don't realize that there's a huge difference between ours, which is unpasteurized — with all of the benefits that come along with that — and mainstream, pasteurized tempeh."

Describing tempeh in a way that makes it sound appetizing to customers unfamiliar with the fermented-bean product can be challenging, Yancey says. "When I’m talking about it, I have it cooked and ready to put it in their mouth, which usually seals the deal. But, I describe it as a ‘cultured bean,’ if they just want a simple explanation."

Beyond a distribution deal, Yancey says Whole Foods is providing financial support. "To further aid us in this expansion, they've just granted us a $10,000 loan, all for the purpose of being able to afford to double our production before we even get paid by them," Yancey says. She adds that she was one of the people weary of Whole Foods and its motives when the natural-foods store took over Greenlife. "So many things changed [during that transition]. But I've been spreading the good word as much as possible, encouraging small-business owners to apply for a loan through Whole Foods and get in touch with the big guys who make decisions, because I now get that they're really out to support local," Yancey says.

Yancey and Oliphant’s tempeh will be available in southeast Whole Foods stores this spring. To learn more, visit http://www.smilingharatempeh.com or http://wholefoodsmarket.com.

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