All about That Cabbage: Sash Sunday’s OlyKraut Has Riot Grrrl Roots
by Chelsea Robinson
Most women (myself included) have a complicated relationship with food. Sash Sunday, founder of OlyKraut, is trying to change that. She makes delicious and amazingly nutritious sauerkraut (and occasionally, pickles). It’s magical probiotic joyful heaven available at a farmer’s market or co-op near you. And happy guts make happy women (and men!). Sash not only makes this rad product locally and sustainably, but she makes it with an awesome team of women behind her. She’s running the kind of company that the amazing utopian society I imagine will happen once capitalism falls we’ll be lousy with. She gives a fuck. And that’s rad. I talked to her about her business model, her riot grrrl past, and the intersection of health and feminism.
How does your background in Riot Grrrl and it’s connections with DIY and feminism affect who you are today and how you run your business?
I was involved in Riot Grrrl when I was still in high school so I was still developing habits and forming who I was. I’m sure my tendency to make and do things myself over outsourcing was influenced by being a part of that culture. That tendency pushed me towards realizing I had to take responsibility for my own health and that led me to make sauerkraut in the first place, and from there — to start my own business, and continue to do so much of the process in house and by hand. The fact that my adolescence was steeped in feminism allowed a less cluttered vision that included starting my own business. The time I spent in San Francisco surrounded by women who were writers and business owners and completely independent gave me a unique perspective that turned out to be such a gift. It’s so much easier to accomplish things if you just assume it’s possible — even if it isn’t, because once you figure that out, it’s already happening.
Tell me a little more about the fermentation process and your staff. There’s a lot of talk about the health benefits of sauerkraut and other fermented products, can you give me the real scoop on it?
The fermentation process is so cool! Basically, we just chop up vegetables, add salt and the microbes do the rest. There are lactobacilli on everything and if you create the right environment, they can (and will) go to town. The Lactic Acid Producing Bacteria (LAB) in sauerkraut are halophilic, which means they can tolerate a lot of salt. When we add salt to the vegetables, the vegetables send the water out of their cells by osmosis and that provides the brine. Then you have a salty, anaerobic scenario — and that knocks out a lot of the microbes you might not want at your sauerkraut party. Then the LABs that are there start to metabolize up a storm, breaking down the sugars in the vegetables and making Lactic Acid and Carbon Dioxide. As they multiply and make more and more Lactic Acid, the whole thing becomes more and more acidic which knocks out any other pathogens that might have been able to hang in the salty, anaerobic environment. It is really safe and it’s basically how humans have survived a seasonal agricultural system for so long without poisoning ourselves. The health benefits are from the probiotics and the increased bio-availability of the nutrients in the vegetables as a result of being sort of cracked open, or “partially digested” (although that’s perhaps a less appetizing way to describe it) by the microbes. The microbes that are in sauerkraut are also found in healthy guts so it’s nice to keep a steady trickle heading down the hatch so if there are small fluctuations in your populations, there are always some good ones in line to set up shop. People take probiotics a lot, and that’s great, but there have been studies that show an extremely high number of viable probiotics in raw sauerkraut (higher than most supplements) and when they come in food, they are arriving accompanied by their own food source, so that makes it easier for them to stick around. Pre-biotics, or food for your probiotics, are just as important as the probiotics themselves and that means eating a lot of whole foods with complex carbohydrate chains. With sauerkraut, you know the microbes there like cabbage, so it’s a no-brainer. I personally, eat a little kraut or brine every day just for good measure, plus I really enjoy it! I have found that over the last ten years eating a lot of fermented foods, my immune system has improved SO MUCH! I generally feel pretty healthy and my crew tells me I have abnormally high energy levels.
Speaking of the crew — we have about 16 employees total, and a handful of them work at farmers markets in Seattle and Portland and the main group works in the kitchen in Olympia. We have a fantastic Office/Sales/Everything Manager (she can even drive a forklift) named Nein St Helens who’s been here for 2 ½ years and our Kitchen Manager, Aletheia Beall runs a very tight ship, Carley Mattern is our Master of Social Media and resident Wordsmith and has been here for over 3 years! Our Farmers Market and Events Coordinator is Iris Hilburger and although she started less than a year ago, has had a HUGE positive impact on how things are going and they are all completely awesome and I am so grateful for their contributions to OlyKraut. I founded the company with two other people who have both moved on to other adventures and I have a new partner, Shaula Massena, who came in last summer and has helped us accomplish a number of goals and might be moving towards being the CFO, if OlyKraut is ever so grand as to have such titles.
photo credit: J. Arthur Sunday
It’s super cool that you source locally and use recycled and sustainable packaging. Are you still based in Olympia? What makes you want to be involved in the Olympia community?
We are still based in Olympia and probably will be for a long time. I grew up in this town and did move away to San Francisco when I was 19 and believed I would never be back, but you know how things go… some say it’s the water, but by 2001, I was back in Olympia and I have found that it’s a really nice place to live — especially for someone who cares about food. We have a great local food co-op, tons of local organic farms, and a surprising number of small food businesses in this community. It’s nicely positioned between Seattle and Portland and I spend a lot of time in both cities. I have even made peace with the weather.
As for the local produce — we buy from local farms as much as possible, we can now get cabbage from June to about January from Washington Farms. In 2009, we purchased 1400 lbs of local produce and last year in 2014, we purchased 60,000 lbs of local produce! It’s really exciting to think about how some of those farms have actually been able to grow as we can buy more. We buy from farms from Sequim to Centralia and even one over around Twisp — all are organic and taking good care of our air, soil, and water and hiring people right here in our state. That is a huge reason that I do this. And yes, we use glass packaging and never ferment in plastic. Fermenting in food grade plastic is supposed to be fine, but I swear I can taste plastic in water or food that has sat in it, and our product is acidic and needs to ferment for several weeks, so I just figure, I’d rather keep it cleaner so I want to keep eating it. We take the jars back and reuse them when we can, but we do have to buy a lot of jars and lids. We send the organic produce boxes back to the farms for re-use and do delivery runs with other businesses to save fuel as we all deliver our products around the state. It’s a process, we are always attempting to do things better, and sometimes it’s more challenging than others.
How do you feel that feminism and food and community connect?
Yikes, this is a big question. Women have been relegated to the kitchen historically, and many first wave feminists turned their backs on the kitchen on principle. It seems that backlash has successfully made that stereotype less meaningful but it’s a process. Body issues and diet culture are another way women have been pushed away from a healthy relationship with food and I see plenty of work yet to be done on that front. Food is such a huge part of health, and if we want to take responsibility for our bodies and our health, we need to feed it well and we need to embrace food! I’m, personally, overwhelmed when I think about tackling the misogyny of the world but at a personal and even community level, I have the same philosophy that I apply to changing the food system. I try to see where my particular talents can have the biggest impact and I focus my energies there. I think the fact that OlyKraut is another woman-owned business in my community is meaningful and the women who have management positions at OlyKraut are shaping our culture and developing their own skills. I also think that the classes we teach or support and the conversations I have daily, regarding the healthfulness of raw fermented vegetables are helping to strengthen the people in our community because it’s very hard to take care of the world if we can’t take care of ourselves.
What have you learned about business since starting OlyKraut?
How has running OlyKraut shaped who you are? Pretty much everything I know about business, I’ve learned since starting OlyKraut. I have made the best of some early business planning tools I got at The Evergreen State College, Enterprise for Equity, and I recently got my MBA in Sustainable Systems at Pinchot University, formally BGI. It seems like being really clear on where you want to go while also knowing when to adapt to new information is the magic recipe I’ve been working on since getting this going. There are so many aspects to running a business that it is really important to be able to find awesome people to help you, and give them the power to make decisions (and mistakes) so that you don’t have to do everything forever because that’s impossible. So find smart folks and give them responsibility and trust them. Sometimes things will still go wrong, but they would have gone more wrong if you were still trying to do everything yourself. I think I’ve just about learned that.
You’ve done so many different things! What made you finally settle on krauting full time?
I think I just got to the point where I was able to ask myself what I really wanted to be doing with my time and how I wanted to be impacting the world. I see all kinds of issues in the world and no individual can solve them all so it makes sense to find where you can have the biggest impact and it helps if it’s doing something you enjoy. I care a lot about health and I would love to see a food system that supports healthy people and a healthy environment. I also love making and sharing food, experimenting with fermentation and being responsible for my own health and helping others to do the same! I realized that I could create a business that makes delicious, healing food for the community while directly supporting the kind of farms that are taking the best care of our resources. As we grow, so does that system. That’s also why we work so hard to collaborate with other small, food businesses to solve problems in more sustainable and affordable ways. This enables each of us to have more success without having to adapt to a large system designed for and by a very different, purely profit driven sort of set.