Producer Story: You Betcha Kimchi

Iman and Joe at City Food Studio.

Iman and Joe at City Food Studio.

You Betcha Kimchi
3722 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55407

With natural probiotics and gut health making headlines these days,  we’re turning our attention to a local purveyor of fermented foods and our favorite brand of Kimchi: You Betcha Kimchi.
You Betcha Kimchi is a Minnesota grown business started by Iman Mefleh and Joe Silberschmidt, a young vibrant couple with a passion for bold fermented flavors and sustainable urban agriculture. These young entrepreneurs started You Betcha Kimchi in 2013 after taking the Farm Beginnings program through The Land Stewardship Project. Currently operating out of City Foods Studio, their Kimchi business has grown as our taste buds for this Minnesota twist on the Korean classic continue to expand. 

As if that weren’t enough, the duo also recently expanded their business operations to include the purchase and management of Growing Lots Urban Farm, located in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. This one-acre CSA and market garden is using organic methods to transform two previously vacant urban lots into vibrant, productive green spaces. Summer CSA sign ups have already begun for the 2016 growing season and you won’t want to miss out on these, we promise! 

Tell us a little bit about the history of You Betcha Kimchi.
We started our kimchi business in the fall of 2013 because we want to eventually live on a farm. It is a very fun means to an end. 
Iman was the 6-year-old who would ask her mom to not buy "any non-hydrogenated peanut butter." She grew up cooking with her Lebanese grandmother and 2 younger sisters. Joe was the 6-year-old who ate almost exclusively Eggo Waffles. It turned out to be a good match as Iman had lots of experience as a fermenter and health enthusiast and Joe had lots of experience in farming and organizational development. 
We took an extremely helpful business class for organic farmers through the Land Stewardship Project called Farm Beginnings. This allowed us to build a vision for our lives and figure out how our business would fit into that and connected us with resources to help with the legal, financial and marketing aspects of our business. Kimchi is a good product to begin a farm business with because it is unique and value-added, forgiving of imperfect vegetables, comprised of mostly easy-to-grow and storable crops and it keeps well so doesn't require an instant buyer. 
The vision was to make a tasty Minnesota take on kimchi using local vegetables that we grew ourselves. We began by chopping cabbage in the laughably little kitchen of our apartment and raising the eyebrows of our neighbors with kimchi's formidable aroma during its fermentation. We started selling to family and friends, then friends of friends and so we were able to launch our business with an excited customer base.

The project quickly outgrew its pot, so we replanted at City Food Studio in South Minneapolis. It is home to some incredible small food businesses in addition to being an interesting, exciting business in itself. It has been critical to the growth of our business, as collaborating with other "artists" there (they are big into food = art) which has allowed us to share ideas, materials, experience and contacts with other burgeoning small businesses.
In spring 2014, we planted seeds at Garden Farme in Ramsey, a 93 acre certified organic farm. We also partner with Seven Song's Farm in Kenyon to grow our delicious organic ginger and garlic and the rest is history, so they say. 

City Food Studio is giving life to many small and mighty food producers located in Minneapolis. 

City Food Studio is giving life to many small and mighty food producers located in Minneapolis. 

How have you grown over the last year?
We got married in November of 2015. Almost immediately afterwards, we were contacted by our friends Stefan and Michael who ran Growing Lots Urban Farm. They knew we were looking for farmland to expand You Betcha Kimchi, but thought we might be interested in taking on their CSA farm project in the smack middle of Minneapolis on two converted parking lots. The more we talked about the possibility of farming in the city and running a CSA instead of growing for the kimchi, the more we realized it was the perfect fit. So yes, instead of a honeymoon, we used money from our wedding to buy the farm. We decided to build on our relationships with local farms to source the ingredients for our kimchi and use the limited growing space we have in the city to grow veggies for the CSA. What's great is that we've realized we really fill a niche for local farms who want to wholesale to buyers besides the very competitive co-op and restaurant markets. We've been able to ramp up our production a lot this past year and we've expanded into several co-ops and a restaurant. 

Where can we find your products now? 
We're available at City Food Studio where we make the kimchi. They're on 38th and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis and are open for retail every Tuesday night (5-8pm) and Saturday morning (9am-1pm). We're at the Linden Hills Co-op (SW MPLS), River Market Co-op (Stillwater), The Herbivorous Butcher (NE MPLS), Coalition Restaurant (Excelsior), and the Northeast Farmer's Market. They are currently doing their Winter Market every third Saturday at the Solar Arts Building. The next one is a night market on February 20th from 6-9pm featuring great music and vendors. We'll be the ones starting the dance party. 

What are the differences between pickling and fermenting?
The quick and dirty of pickling vs fermentation: pickling involves heat processing and fermentation does not. 

When you pickle, you usually heat vinegar, salt, and sugar (which is called "brine") in water and pour it over the vegetables. To make the pickles shelf-stable, you can them using a canner (a big pot that you put the jars in to get them to seal). 
When you ferment vegetables (there are so many other ferments and methods!) you generally use a salt water brine and submerge your chopped (or not) vegetables underneath the brine using a weight of some sort. The brine creates an environment that is conducive to the growth of "good bacteria" (lactobacillus plantarum in this case) and prevents molds and such from growing on the vegetables (which would happen if they were exposed to air). Fermentation also involves time- sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, depending on your desired result. Some sauerkrauts can ferment for months. Our kimchi ferments for 7 days. Ideally, you'd ferment for more than 5 days to hit a good flavor and probiotic level. You can check the pH to make sure if you don't trust your tastebuds, which should read lower than 4.0. Ferments are not usually canned after they are done fermenting because the heat would kill the good bacteria. Instead, they are stored in a cool environment to slow down the fermentation (in the case of refrigeration, it nearly stalls the process). 

 

How can people support what you are doing?
Well, the easiest and most helpful way is to buy our product! And to support local farmers, restaurants, co-ops, farmers markets, politicians and community organizations so that we can continue to have a vibrant and sustainability-minded local economy. We also love hearing recipe ideas, potential sale or partnership opportunities and interest from volunteers. A young business obviously needs a lot of resources to get off the ground and we always appreciate volunteers for both the farming side of our business and the kimchi-making side (we pay volunteers handsomely in kimchi). We’re also looking for some help on the day-to-day operations so anyone who is interested in being involved can email us at info@youbetchakimchi.com..

What are your sources of energy and inspiration?
Local farmers that really model a quality of life that we value: simple, flexible, fun, sustainable and generous. There are so many in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My grandfather owns a 250 acre corn/soybean farm and thinks we're nuts for going into organic farming. We're working on him... We really appreciate those that have been successfully going against a cultural and economic grain of making farms and simultaneously urban living incredibly expensive, time-consuming and difficult.

Only the best ingredients and flavors go into these jars. 

Only the best ingredients and flavors go into these jars. 

What do you think is missing from your community?
There is a big swell in interest from young people in local food and farming, yet the average age of a US farmer is 58 and rising. There's this huge gap, both economically and culturally, to conquer for young farmers, especially for small-scale organic farmers here in the industrial-farm dominated midwest.
What we need are more organizations and government programs who can connect young farmers with land opportunities and assist with the infrastructure and financial support to make it viable.

We couldn't help but peek at the next batch.

We couldn't help but peek at the next batch.

What do you think are the qualities it takes to be a farmer?
To be a small-scale, organic farmer? Mild insanity. A sense of humor and a sense of adventure. A commitment to continual learning and therefore an equal willingness to fail. Social and community building skills as farming is impossible to do alone. The ability and willingness to do very hard physical labor. A liberal arts college degree helps, as does any study in science, agriculture and business. Many people can learn to grow things well, but not all good farmers know how to market themselves and end up struggling a lot.

What are you most looking forward to in 2016?
Oh mama. Everything? It's feeling like a good year.  We're both looking forward to growing our CSA and having a lot more systems in place. Last year we really just had to hit the ground running since we bought the business in late December. After a year of experience and feedback, we've learned how to build on the success of our first year to implement valuable improvements. We're upping our membership from 45 to 65 and are looking forward to bringing in new members. We began a new lease on a third lot on 40th and Minnehaha and are the proud owners of a recently donated walk-behind tractor to help convert the new lot. You Betcha Kimchi is working on expanding our team so it's more than just the two of us. As Iman has really taken on Growing Lots full-time, You Betcha Kimchi is seeking a manager to help with production. We are hoping to expand our market to new restaurants and retail. Our goal is to remain a truly Minnesotan company that stays within the state. So no You Betcha in Texas, sorry y'all.