Giving Back: 5 Companies Making a Difference
It’s rare that a product moves a supermarket buyer to tears, but some of the companies spotlighted in this year’s feature have efforts so personal, one actually did just that.
Causes span the globe, helping young children and whole villages, fueling opportunity and education through baked goods, holiday beverages and other products available at specialty retailers across the country.
Read on to learn about a Holocaust survivor whose mandelbroyt funds education and remembrance efforts; a business inspired by an adoption and the stigma of foster care; wild honey that helps rebuild war-torn communities; a foundation supporting family dairy farms; and an enterprise that gives refugees a chance to start a new life. The specialty food trade has a long history of philanthropy, with companies donating products, time and profits to endeavors that hit close to home or halfway around the world. Here are five whose commitment is inspiring.
Supporting foster children and adoption
Inspired by the drink that made their adopted child happy, the founders are turning profits from eggnog and ice cream into support for children in need of homes.
Personal joy ignites inspiration… In 2008, Heidi and Shane Fausel of Frisco, Texas, adopted a 9-year-old boy from foster care. He spoke of a beverage he particularly loved while living with another family but had trouble explaining it. It tasted like Christmas, he said.
“We had no clue what he was talking about,” Heidi Fausel says. “We’d give him Gatorade, whatever we could think of.” Nothing clicked until Christmas season rolled around and Shane brought home eggnog.
The boy (the Fausels prefer to keep his given name private) took one sip and exclaimed, “That’s it! Christmas milk!” The proverbial light bulb went off in his new parents’ heads. The couple bought the domain name for ChristmasMilk.com that night. At the kitchen table, they sketched out on a legal pad the idea for an eggnog company.
The Fausels had no background in the food industry, so they began cold-calling dairies, brokers and distributors. Two years later, Christmas Milk entered the marketplace in time for the holiday season. Heidi and Shane, who runs an industrial sales company, adopted three more children, siblings in foster care who were at risk of being split up. The Fausels felt so passionately about children languishing in foster care that they resolved to earmark 10 percent of their Christmas Milk sales to benefit Texas-based adoption agencies.
The marketplace responds… “Our recipe tastes more like melted vanilla ice cream than eggnog,” Heidi says. A buyer at their first food show had to take the flavor profile on faith since the Fausels failed to bring samples. Heidi’s story was her sales pitch. “The buyer from Kroger started to tear up and said, ‘We’re going to get it,’” she recalls. “It was wonderful to walk into the store with my son that Christmas and see it on the shelf.”
During the 2011 holiday season the Fausels sold 21,000 units. This year, Christmas Milk is expanding nationally, being stocked by additional Kroger stores, Albertsons and Pete’s Fresh Market in Chicago, among other retailers. The eggnog is sold seasonally, but three eggnog-based Christmas Milk ice creams are now available year-round: original French vanilla, chocolate swirl and sea salt caramel swirl.
Heidi estimates sales have increased 600 percent since they began; she projects they’ll clear six figures this year. In keeping with their commitment to foster care agencies, from the very beginning of the business the couple made donations to The Gladney Center for Adoption, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. Last year’s bequest provided the funds to help finalize the agency’s website, achildtolove.org, which profiles the children waiting for adoption, from toddlers to teens.
The Fausels plan to expand their philanthropic outreach across the United States. “Eventually we’ll be in a position to donate to multiple states across the country where funding is needed at legitimate, solid adoption organizations,” Heidi explains. “There are so many people wanting babies they forget there are plenty in foster care.” The Fausels also strive to counter any stigma related to adopting from foster care. “These kids are not behaving badly; they did nothing to deserve it,” she says.
Learning as they go… Feedback from customers has played an important role as the Fausels have perfected and launched new products. Christmas Milk has always been hormone-free and the company recently removed high-fructose corn syrup and all artificial coloring.
“We’re getting ready to hit 1,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook,” Heidi says, adding that they’re also active on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. And they have a celebrity follower, Nia Vardalos, of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” fame, whose recent book, Instant Mom, details her adoption of a girl from foster care. When Vardalos came to Dallas for a book signing, the Fausels co-sponsored the event.
“It’s so exciting to go from a dream and an idea with no background, then actually make it happen,” says Heidi. “And to have our kids watch us do it.”—J.B.
Hiring refugees, and helping them succeed
Employing immigrants from Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Iraq, to work in its snack business was just the beginning of how the company founders help people in need.
Finding meaning in a new venture… During the planning stages of their business in late 2009, Marius Andersen’s wife, Hilary, happened upon a newspaper article describing the struggles and difficult working conditions of Burmese refugees right in their hometown of Greensboro, N.C. Their stories struck a chord with the couple, who were preparing to hire a fleet of employees for their new venture.
“We figured, if we give an opportunity to the people who have the least opportunity, then this could be a good place to work,” says Andersen. Through Church World Services, a nonprofit organization that runs a refugee resettlement program, the business hired four employees and solidified its commitment to a safe and stable work environment, starting new hires above minimum wage, with health insurance and a chance at upward mobility. Creative Snacks’ staff, which has grown to 60, includes 28 full-time refugees today.
Discovering mutual benefits… Loyalty runs high at Creative Snacks. Just look to the company’s turnover: in four years of business, only two employees have quit voluntarily. “And both of those people, within two months, came back and asked if they could have their jobs back,” Andersen says.
Strong bonds have formed among the team, often blurring the lines between professional and personal. “It has much more of a family feel,” Andersen says, citing a time when an employee came to work clearly ill. Rather than send her back home, Hilary drove the employee to a doctor and then home, where she met the woman’s family.
“There’s a whole different connection to people that you work with,” Andersen explains of employing refugees. “You care for them, and I think as a result they’re much more loyal to our company.”
Creative problem-solving… Language barriers weren’t the only challenge Andersen and his employees have faced. Scheduling posed one such obstacle, as many employees early on didn’t have cars. So he set up carpools, with shifts being arranged accordingly, “as opposed to what we needed them for,” he adds with a laugh.
Other considerations came with cultural understanding. Creative Snacks employs people from as far as Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Iraq. One creature comfort the company provides: rice. “Every two weeks I go to Costco to buy 100 to 200 pounds,” Andersen says. The communal break room has multiple rice cookers that staff use daily.
With such diversity does come conflict. Cliques form and hostility can arise between groups. But Andersen takes a direct approach to resolution. “It’s simply, if you want to work here, here are the rules we live by,” he says. Those rules? Hard work, honesty and respect for others. “That message seems to get through.”
Fostering growth… The refugees hired at Creative Snacks have typically begun as line workers, Andersen says, but many have moved on to managerial roles, in production, shipping and receiving and other areas. He encourages employees to further their education—in language, technical and life skills alike—to “develop the skills needed to improve their lives overall,” he explains, offering schedule flexibility to do so. “Even if that will have a negative impact for our company,” he jokes.
He doesn’t believe that would be the case, though. “What we’ve found is that, the more we give,” Andersen says, “we get much more back.”—E.M.
Creating ethical jobs in conflict-stricken regions
Growing up near the border of northern India, Amit Hooda saw how difficult life could be. That’s why he works with struggling communities to produce honey.
Opportunity knocks… The foundation of Amit Hooda’s work is the belief that ethics help bring peace. “That’s what motivated us,” says Hooda, to create a business model in conflict zones, “where people can make their living through ethical means instead of jumping into drug trade, arms trade and prostitution.”
Two factors played a role in choosing honey as the star product. In 2005, when the company was founded, demand was growing for organic and non-GMO products. Hooda also knew the fastest route to employment was to give people work they already knew how to do. In the Himalayas, wild honey was already being harvested by local villages, and its pristine origin stood up to organic standards.
Lessons in sustainability… Existing practices for harvesting wild honey were disruptive to the environment and inefficient, so Hooda gathered experts to establish new ones. His team trained harvesters to work at night, when bees are less active, and to cut the hive in a way that left the queen bee undisturbed; they also provided protective suits to minimize injury.
“Now they get three times the money from the same hive than they used to get before,” since the hive stays intact, notes Hooda.
Building credibility… Entering a conflict-stricken region with the promise of money and security wasn’t an easy sell. “We were dealing with a lot of broken people who were living out of fear,” Hooda explains. Some early suppliers took advantage, filling tins with bricks instead of honey, knowing that containers went unchecked. In the end, though, patience paid off.
Hooda’s team sought out individuals within families—mostly women, he says—who wanted to make an honest living. “Once we empowered those conscientious people with this ethical livelihood, they pretty much changed the family,” he says. “Once a few families changed, then the whole village wanted to change.”
Working with farmers in northern and central India, Hooda has seen conditions vastly improve, with communities moving closer to cities, more children going to school and amenities becoming more affordable. Earnings have swelled: in the span of three months, Hooda says, a family can make five times more than what they’d previously make in a year.
Delivering accessible change… Heavenly Organics has expanded its line to include sugar, condensed milk, chocolate products, and soon an energy bar, using the Himalayan honey. Low prices are a big part of Hooda’s strategy. He believes supporting social and environmental causes shouldn’t be a luxury. As he puts it, “We want to be known as a company that provides healthy foods and allows every individual to fulfill their social responsibility at a very low cost.”—E.M.
PAPA BEN'S KITCHEN
Promoting Holocaust education
These cookies are a testament to those who survived the Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps—and a way of honoring those who did not.
Keeping the memory alive… Ben Lesser, the family patriarch, was born in Poland in 1928, the son of a baker and chocolatier. Most of his family was killed in the Holocaust, but he managed to survive the Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps and immigrate to the United States. He married, raised a family, had a successful real estate business and, along the way, rediscovered his passion for baking, using skills he’d learned from his father. He also spoke frequently to school and church groups about the Holocaust.
In 2008, at “Papa” Ben’s 80th birthday party, his daughter Gail Lesser-Gerber gave him 1,000 commemorative pins to hand out to students and others who attended his talks. “The response was so overwhelming,” says Lesser-Gerber. “After his speeches, it seemed to have so much meaning for the students to have this memento as a reminder of what they had learned, to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
The Los Angeles–based family established the Zachor Foundation (zachor means “remember” in Hebrew) to support Ben and other speakers, but realized they needed a way to finance the thousands of Zachor pins they were giving out. The solution was Papa Ben’s Kitchen, which would draw on recipes that Ben had learned from his father. Specifically, mandelbroyt, a twice-baked almond cookie, considered the Eastern European cousin of biscotti.
An emotional reality… Lesser-Gerber immediately offered to take on the job as president of Papa Ben’s Kitchen and spent days documenting measurements and watching her father’s every baking step. “He did it all by touch and smell, what he remembered doing as a kid with his father,” she says. “We had to get that gold standard.”
Once they had their recipe, they went to work developing others flavors, including minty dark chocolate, chocolate espresso bean, lemon blueberry with poppy seeds, and spicy chipotle with ginger and dark chocolate. “A lot of Jewish bakeries sell mandelbroyt but they don’t have flavor like ours,” Lesser-Gerber says. “We use Maine blueberries and Belgian chocolate; almost all ingredients are organic. The cookies have a 10-month shelf-life.”
Gelson’s Market in Los Angeles was the first buyer, stocking its shelves in October 2012. From the beginning, tasting demos for the kosher cookie became emotional experiences. “We’d have people at our table for a long time,” says Lesser-Gerber, “telling us, ‘My bubbe used to make mandelbroyt,’ ‘I used to make this with my mother,’ ‘My grandmother taught me how to make this.’ It brought back memories for people who associated it with a labor of love.”
Spreading the word… The family has now given out more than 100,000 Zachor Foundation pins. Total sales of Papa Ben’s mandelbroyt have not yet been compiled, but several Whole Foods outlets in California are selling them as well as Smith’s in Las Vegas. Soon, the cookies will come to the Midwest and East Coast. The family influence continues as Ben’s granddaughter Jenica, 30, is head of sales and marketing.
Ben, who is now 85, continues to do speaking engagements and still bakes almost every weekend. “He wanted to leave a bigger footprint—bigger than him,” Lesser-Gerber explains. “He feels that both the Zachor Foundation and mandelbroyt are the way to do it.”—J.B.
VERMONT FARMSTEAD CHEESE COMPANY
Educating and assisting family dairy farms
In 1945, Vermont had 14,000 dairy farms; today there are fewer than 1,000. Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company is working to reverse the decline.
Saving a local farm… The Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company began in South Woodstock in the fall of 2010 as a community effort to prevent a local dairy farm from becoming a slaughterhouse. Initial funding costs were more than half a million dollars.
When the current owners successfully took over the farm, the next question was: “What are we going to do with it?” says Kyle Thygesen, Vermont Farmstead’s CFO, who has a background in finance and organic dairy farming. The group purchased a multi-breed herd of cows—Ayshires, Brown Swiss, Holsteins, Jerseys, Milking Shorthorns—with the intention of converting 100 percent of the milk into artisanal cheese. They hired an experienced cheesemaker, Rick Woods, formerly of Grafton Village Cheese Company, and Kent Underwood, a fifth-generation dairy farmer, to run the herd. Within a short time, the business was up and running and winning cheese awards for BrickHaus Tilsit, AleHouse Cheddar and Lillé, a sumptuous, creamy cousin to brie.
Supporting the dairy farmer… In 2010, the same year Vermont Farmstead was born, the company established the Vermont Dairy Foundation, whose mission is to provide education and assistance to family-based dairy farms of small-to-medium size. The goal aims to reverse an alarming trend: Vermont’s dairy farm numbers are dropping fast, with a 93 percent decline since 1945.
“This year we were able to give a $1,000 scholarship to a student going for an agricultural degree at Vermont Technical College,” Thygesen says, noting that the college is also bringing students to its cheesemaking facility for on-site lab work.
Synergy is happening in other ways, with Vermont Farmstead fostering continuing-education programs for dairy farmers who want to diversify, producing ice cream and cheese in addition to high-quality, fluid milk. “It’s not necessarily a matter of growing cow numbers,” Thygesen explains, “but revenue numbers. Cheesemaking is one of those things where you can add value, but you also have to learn how to take on the burden of marketing your product to retail and wholesale companies.”
Increasing opportunities… Vermont Farmstead’s strategy is to double business every two to three years. “It’s important for us to be smart about our growth,” Thygesen says. In that direction, the company recently partnered with Castleton Crackers to make cheese crackers using trimmings of its own cheese. Whitney Lamy, the Vermont resident who founded Castleton Crackers, is still in charge of her division and able to expand development through the advantages of having a bigger team.
The owners find ways to support the local community in its efforts. Vermont Farmstead currently milks 75 cows and also buys milk from other small farms within the state. From holding mac-and-cheese challenges with Vermont’s top 20 chefs to putting out newsletters and being active on Facebook, Vermont Farmstead is doing whatever it can to bolster the state’s dairy industry. “We feel very strongly it takes a community to raise a child,” Thygesen says. “So we want to make sure the community is part of what we’re doing.”—J.B.
Papa Ben’s Kitchen
Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company
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