As a California girl, my world, and my food world and learning experiences, have always centered around the ginormous food economy that the state holds. As I started to travel outside of it, in order to find a new home for the woman I’d become, I realized that there were many other places that had robust food, farming, and agricultural economies.
I also realized that many of those places were even more interesting and approachable than my longtime home state of California. Since COVID made me realize that the only place I wanted to be was Washington, I’ve spent most of the year learning about our local food economy to make myself permanently at home here.
As part of that, I’m going to dedicate most of 2021 to interviewing amazing Washington state companies and producers I meet in my journey. The first ones are my two friends at Kinfood, Kelly Singer and Ashley Labat. I said this past summer that the CSA model is going to have to evolve, and these two ladies are doing it. Here’s what they share about their food business journey and how they are #RefindingFood.
When did food become a part of your life? Or has it always been?
A: Food is a really big part of Filipino culture, and eating a healthy amount was always encouraged. My mom’s family immigrated to the United States from Manila when she was just a young girl. Large gatherings around Filipino food like pancit, lumpia, and lechon were a way to preserve culture and delightfully relish in nostalgia.
Growing up, the rice cooker was always ready to go, turning out hot fluffy rice to go with literally any and every meal. My dad, from Russian Jewish descent, has always loved to cook and bake. He fondly recounts stories of Uncle Ben making apple cake, Aunt Thelma’s latkes, or Ma’s giant buckwheat pancakes. My dad taught me how to make my first pie and is still the baker in the family today. The traditions and stories from both of my parents have undoubtedly influenced my curiosity and experience of food.
K: Food has always been a part of my life. I come from a large Dutch family and we would get together often, for birthdays and definitely every holiday. With so many people, meals were always served potlatch or picnic style. Every summer we would gather for an extended family picnic (over 100 people!) and each family would bring a dish or two to share, most homemade.
The one exception was Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wasn’t available in Holland at the time and it was my Opa’s favorite so it was always at the picnic. I can vividly remember the rows of picnic tables covered with food and how fun it was to go up and down deciding on which things to try. My mom is a great cook and a terrific baker and holidays were always filled with delicious things to eat, and she always let us help in the kitchen.
How did the idea for Kinfood come to be?
A: I moved to Seattle from California 10 years ago. This is when my love affair with food, where it comes from, and how it grows really began to take root in my life. Growing up in sunny southern Orange County, seasons really didn’t exist. I didn’t truly understand what a ripe blueberry at peak season grown on a nearby farm tasted like. I didn’t make the connection to the humans that grew that blueberry, the soil from where it came from, and the journey it made to my plate.
Moving to the PNW opened that window for me and sparked my curiosity around food and farming. I loved visiting farmers’ markets and picking out beautiful and inspiring vegetables to figure out how to build a meal around it.
At the same time, I worked for a humanitarian aid organization and traveled quite a bit for work. Food was always something to connect about no matter where I landed or who I met. This idea of kinship and food for me birthed somewhere between all these things. I wanted to work on something that was not only about food, but about the people and places our food comes from and the history and culture behind it.
K: I’ve always appreciated where our food comes from, having grown up in an agricultural area with many farmers, ranchers, and dairymen in our family. But a romance with food began to blossom when our family lived in France, off and on for nine years. Every Sunday, I would shop at our vegetable market on Rue des Levis and the way I cooked shifted to become very ingredient driven. You’d see this beautiful artichoke at your favorite stall then build your entire meal around it, going to your cheesemonger, your wine shop, your butcher, etc., the world revolving around an artichoke for an hour.
I was also the director for a sustainable development organization in Paris that focused on greener supply chains and operations throughout the EU to maximize a net-positive impact on people, planet, and profits. The learnings and experience were an inspiration to continue this work when we moved back to the US.
How did you go about approaching producers and other local partners?
A & K: We wanted to find producers that were in alignment with our values and grew beautiful heirloom produce. We’re interested in why farmers decided to grow certain veggies and where the seeds came from.
Not everything has to have a story, but most commercial produce is chosen based on its ability to be picked early and withstand long shipping journeys over a preference for flavor, heritage, or tradition.
The latter are qualities we intentionally seek out and hope to make more readily available to more consumers with a localized food system.
How have you used digital platforms and technologies to build your customer base?
A&K: We have used Instagram and our newsletters to build our customer base. However, most customers come through word of mouth. Partnering with tastemakers in the community helps us to amplify our brand with like-minded individuals and companies. Likewise, we love to tell the stories and share these special tastemakers with our customers on Instagram and our online journal.
What have been a few lessons you’ve learned about creating a food startup in Seattle?
A & K: We’re lucky to have a strong farming community and some of the best restaurants in the country which creates a very high quality food ecosystem and supportive consumers. We’ve learned that Seattlites really love their kale and other greens!
We’ve also learned that living in a tech-centric city means there are many early adopters willing to try your product but they also have fairly high table stakes on the experience of food delivery because of much larger tech-giants who have been doing it a while which is a hustle to compete with as a small company.
Are there any preferences your customer has that surprised you?
A: People love their fruit! Our fruit share was quite popular in the summer with the abundance of fresh berries and stone fruit. I love fruit too, but I guess I was surprised how much fruit people can go through! I’m curious what they do with it all….eat it fresh? Make a pie? Preserve it? All of the above?!
K: I’m always amazed at how much some people are able to cook and how many veggies they can eat in a week! It’s inspiring.
Now that winter is coming, how do you plan on pivoting the subscription model for customers?
A & K: Our goal is to help build a dynamic local food economy that reclaims land, heritage, and heirloom varieties in a system that could possibly be replicated in other major metropolitan areas. We don’t see a need to source fruit from outside of Washington when we can provide a fairly broad variety of items from the PNW and embrace this as a fun challenge. We might offer more preserved fruit or other kinds of pantry items or more meal-based curated bags during the winter. It’s our first winter, so we shall see how it goes!