A Recipe for Vegan Success

Ellenka Baumrind of Springs has taken Ellie’s Country Delights from a gift for friends to a national cottage industry. Walker Hamilton

    Ellenka Baumrind of Springs, who started by handing out a few jars of her ratatouille to friends about eight years ago, never expected to make a business out of it.
    But Ellie’s Country Delights — all-natural vegan vegetable stew in original, spicy, and mushroom forms — has made the jump from kitchen to local markets, to now being offered in 400 Stop & Shop stores in the Northeast, and is a recent addition to the Whole Foods Market lineup as well. Ms. Baumrind has gone from an original run of about 360 jars in 2005 to over 50,000 jars in 2010.
    “Dad had an allotment in Harrow,” Ms. Baumrind said of her English upbringing. An allotment is a sort of ancient urban vegetable garden — rented out in Great Britain from as far back as Saxon times, taken over by the Church of England under Elizabeth I’s rule, and now governed by local or state offices.
    “It was a really metropolitan area, right next to the railroad tracks,” she said. “But he would make ratatouille. It was delicious and organic.”
    After years as an assistant equities trader at Goldman Sachs in London, Ms. Baumrind eventually migrated to the United States in 1998, and moved to East Hampton in 2003, where she fell in love with the produce at the farm stands.
    “The squash was huge, like back at home,” she said. She began experimenting again with the ratatouille of her childhood — a tomato-based squash stew with other vegetables and a European favorite — to give to friends.
    “I rode in a local barn, and had given out some of the stew there,” she said. “And people started asking me, ‘If we buy you the vegetables, can you make it for us?’ ”
    A business was born.
    “Making the stew takes about six hours,” she said, between cleaning, prepping, cooking, canning, and cleaning up afterward. It is vegan, gluten-free, and has multiple uses, Ms. Baumrind said, including as the base for pizza, a bruschetta, and “straight out of the jar, hot or cold.”
    Ms. Baumrind quickly learned that she needed to educate herself in both food manufacturing and owning a business. “I worked with the Cornell University Small Entrepreneurial Program in Syracuse,” she said, a program that specializes in small-scale specialty food production. “I was one of their first students who took what I had and created a shelf-stable product.”
    Fine-tuning her wares has been a constant growth experience, as has learning about the big world of supermarket selling. “Whole Foods approached me,” she said. “They loved the concept, but told me I needed to tweak my ingredients.”
    But learning to do that using all-natural products — rather than monosodium glutamate and other synthetic ingredients was “almost like chemistry,” she said. Her final outcome was the Ellie’s Country Delights in the aisles now, with a shelf life of two years.
    Ms. Baumrind was truly committed, and still is, to her product. “There’s nothing else like it out there,” she said, without a hint of conceit. There are items on the shelves like caponata, “but that’s prepared with aubergine,” she said, using the British term for eggplant.
    Locally, Ellie’s Country Delights can be found at Django’s Organics in Springs, and at the Hampton Marketplace in East Hampton and the Seafood Shop in Wainscott.
    “Hampton Market and the Seafood Shop were really supportive right from the beginning,” she said. Another gourmet retailer with several presences in the area, “who shall remain nameless,” she said, bluntly told her “no way.”
    “They were not interested in carrying local products,” she said.
    In 2009, Ms. Baumrind took part in a woman and minority-owned exposition held by Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets, a subsidiary of the Netherlands-based company, Royal Ahold. “There were 600 vendors there,” she said. “And the Stop & Shop people walked around and sampled everything.” Ellie’s Country Delights was chosen to be sold by the large chain.
    The goods are prepared in a professional kitchen in Brooklyn about twice a year, at a family-owned company with “50 years in the business,” Ms. Baumrind said. The preparations begin at 11:30 p.m. “Cooking begins at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, and goes all the way through to 8:30 that night.” Ms. Baumrind, although beyond cooking such large quantities of ratatouille herself, “is 100 percent there.”
    “It’s expensive to produce a quality product using only fresh vegetables,” she said. Her goal now is to partner with another food manufacturer.
    She said she is thankful for her success up until now. “There’s no turning back.” But, she admits, it’s a lot to handle.
    “I’ve done it for eight years,” Ms. Baumrind said. “I have so many ideas for new product lines but I need someone with more expertise. I’m really looking forward to partnering up.”
    Her company has a Web site, which also accepts orders, elliescountrydelights.com.