Valley Bounty: Appalachian Naturals

The Recorder, February 3, 2021 By Jacob Nelson

Picture local food and fresh produce: eggs or meat may come to mind first. But we also eat a lot of “value-added products”— where someone took ingredients and created something out of them, such as jams or dressings. When made locally, especially with local ingredients, they also contribute to a strong and transparent local food economy. Appalachian Naturals in Goshen, owned by Kristin Barry and her wife, Shelly Risinger, has been making value-added products including dressings, salsas, sauces and more since 2005 with a commitment to quality ingredients and local sourcing.

The recipe for their famed ginger miso dressing was born in the early 2000s as the housemade offering at the couple’s restaurant in southern California. When patrons kept asking them to bottle it so they could enjoy it at home, they knew they had something special. But Barry saw a need for their company years earlier.

“When I was 20, I ate a hamburger with barbecue sauce that sent me into anaphylactic shock. I had reacted to trace chemicals in that food,” Barry said. “For years I could only eat dressings and sauces I made from scratch.”

Appalachian Naturals’ appeal — besides deliciousness — is a commitment to pure, healthy ingredients, testing and transparent labeling, earning them customers who also deal with food sensitivities.

“If I caved on my principles, I couldn’t eat my own products,” Barry said. “Why would I do that?”

For seven years they operated out of shared facilities across the Valley, notably the Western Mass. Food Processing Center, a shared commercial kitchen in Greenfield managed by the Franklin County Community Development Corp. By 2012 they could afford their own facility, built in a barn on the couple’s property.

“That was a game-changer,” Barry said. “Now we can fill 1,000 bottles of dressing a day with just two people.”

Greater efficiency led to increased production at an opportune time, right when brand recognition reached a tipping point and more grocers began accepting their dressings and salsas into their stores.

“Suddenly we could compete with the big brands, and sales jumped quickly — I’d say 60 percent in 2012 and 10 to 20 percent a year since then,” she said. “By 2014, we could afford to hire a few employees, which we desperately needed because we were wrecking our bodies doing everything ourselves. Then I was able to spend more time reaching out to distributors to get our products sold all over New England and then nationally.”

Appalachian Naturals’ story — a local company successfully scaling up and lowering prices without compromising their product — is rare. “A lot of small food businesses in New England start with great ideas but no financial clout,” Barry explained. Smaller businesses pay top dollar for supplies and have less negotiating power with distributors and retailers, and renting facilities can be costly and inefficient. The result: a high price on the shelf. “No matter how great it is, most general retail consumers won’t buy $7 dressing,” Barry said. “You’ll be out of business — quickly.”

Appalachian Naturals didn’t really avoid this fate — they just struggled through it before earning stability. To cut costs, they could have removed high quality ingredients or stopped getting them locally. Instead, they put in years of sweat equity to earn the money and brand recognition needed to support increasing production, eventually reaching an economy of scale where they could offer their products at reasonable prices. There’s no silver bullet, but perseverance and grit are required, she said, “It’s an endurance race.”

Few companies that sell products like theirs at their scale commit to such high-quality ingredients while investing in their community by sourcing them locally. Appalachian Naturals has proven it’s possible, and hopes the industry follows suit.

In terms of using better ingredients, Barry thinks that’s already happening. “I’ve watched competitors change what they’re doing because of us, and I like that,” she said.

“A big chunk of our population is on a mission to eat healthy — great,” Barry said. “While we’re making healthy products, we can do it with conscious attention to supporting the local economy.”

In all, 89 percent of Appalachian Naturals’ materials are locally grown or locally sourced, meaning if they’re grown elsewhere, they work with a local company to procure them. “The more I can go pick up my maple syrup, honey, cranberries, milk and other things myself, the better I feel,” she said.

For a company their size, this is no small impact. Last year they processed 36,000 pounds of fresh local tomatoes into salsa — more than the weight of a large school bus. They also bottled plain tomatoes for some of their supplier farms to market themselves. These kinds of synergistic relationships simply make good business sense.

What makes it all worth it?

On a pure enjoyment level, it’s “when you open up a jar of salsa in February and it tastes just like that specific batch of summer tomatoes,” Barry said. Yet a deeper satisfaction comes from running things according to their principles, conventions be damned.

“Do I think it’s the most successful and profitable way to run a business? It depends on how you define profit and success,” Barry said. “For me they involve bringing value to other people’s lives, not just mine. I’ve often been told that’s not a good business model, but I’m stickin’ to it.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).