Every business faces challenges, but earlier this year, when Smiling Hara Tempeh learned its product had been affected by a salmonella-tainted culture from a company in Maryland, community support helped the fledgling company survive. Cofounder Sarah Yancey credits customers, clients like Whole Foods Market, and partners like Mountain BizWorks and Blue Ridge Food Ventures with seeing her company through the tough times.
“The level of enthusiasm and loyalty from the community has been deeply moving, and inspires us to keep this dream alive and make it the best it can possibly be,” Yancey said in a May statement.
We talked with Yancey to get an update.
What was the hardest part about this experience?
Sarah Yancey: The very hardest part was in that first week, when we learned that one of our ingredients was contaminated. [Cofounder] Chad [Oliphant] and I were in total shock. We went through the motions of the recall in integrity, but also in complete heartbreak.
Were you ever tempted to give up on the business?
Seeing that we are only in our third year, we have always struggled in this business. This was by far the biggest challenge, but whenever the thought of giving up came into my mind, it was overwhelmingly sad and I would quickly replace it with positive thoughts. I kept, and continue to keep my mind on, the bigger picture: "This will eventually be a small bump in the road." "People absolutely love our product.” "No one else is making live tempeh on the scale that we are." "We must survive; the local economy needs businesses like Smiling Hara." These are the thoughts that keep me at it.
What role did your local partners play in making it through this rough time?
This is the question that makes me cry every time. The support we have received from our local community has been deeply moving. Walter Harrill from Imladris Farms came to us in the heat of the recall and ran around helping us retrieve product. Rosetta's Kitchen and others have paid us in full for the tempeh we delivered to them this week, despite the fact that we owe them in product refund. They are asking that we use the money to help us get back on our feet instead. These are only a few examples of the undying support, and we will never forget it. We are so incredibly grateful.
How has this experience strengthened your business? What have you learned?
We have made history. We experienced a situation that was unprecedented with tempeh. We have approached this from the perspective of turning adversity to advantage and learning all that we can. Our business has been strengthened through this experience, and as a result, we are well positioned to grow Smiling Hara safely and efficiently. Our production now exceeds industry standards and provides the safest and most nutritious tempeh available. We have also developed very valuable relationships with tempeh producers internationally. There is a wonderful openness — as opposed to proprietary competition — that makes us feel really good about the business we’re in.
What advice do you have for other small business owners on how to be prepared for (or recover from) the unexpected?
Keep excellent records, be transparent, and if you truly believe in your business, don't give up.
What's Smiling Hara up to now?
We are working tirelessly to get back up to speed. We expect to be available region-wide again this fall, thanks to generous support from Whole Foods Market. We also have a lovely event brewing up between Smiling Hara and Manna FoodBank called the EPIC Tempeh Reuben Challenge which will be held at Asheville Music Hall on Sunday, Sept. 30, from 2 to 6 p.m., and will consist of 10 local restaurants competing to make the best Smiling Hara Tempeh Reuben ever. We are also pleased to announce the following celebrity judge panel: Asheville Scene Food Writer Mackensy Lunsford, Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, Blue Ridge Food Ventures Director Mary Lou Surgi, the Buchi Mamas (Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher), Buncombe Health Department Director Gibby Harris, and we are in talks with Mayor Terry Bellamy!