MONTPELIER — The 2017 pepper harvest can’t come soon enough for a growing Montpelier business.
The new home of the Butterfly Bakery, a commercial bakery and hot sauce manufacturing facility, is quietly coming together on Gallison Hill Road after being located in Hardwick. The exhaust hood was installed on the roof on Thursday, the final equipment will be in position by the beginning of next week, and the first batch of hot sauce should be sending steam up from the kettles in short order.
The bright, airy 3,000-square-foot space promises much-needed elbow room for the business that has grown exponentially since it was born in Claire Georges’ kitchen. Georges, 36, of Montpelier, wanted a way to combine her love of baking with filling a need she saw for all-natural vegan baked goods made with whole grains and free of refined sugar.
Georges did not leave college with a culinary degree, but when her background in computer programming did not deliver the lifestyle she wanted, Claire moved to Vermont to try something new.
What followed were years of working part-time for someone else while renting space to bake in area restaurants and commercial bakeries in the middle of the night. She worked from 4:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. two days a week to do the baking, distributed her baked goods on Wednesdays, sold them at the Montpelier Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and worked another two days for someone else.
Then, in 2011, market sales slumped and she needed to find additional sources of income.
On Saturday evenings, after the farmer’s market closed, she would trade her unsold baked goods for unsold vegetables from local farmers. In her spare time, she worked on recipe development. One farmer gave her 30 dozen eggs, so she made lemon curd. It was wonderful, she said, but not shelf-stable.
“I decided to make specials to attract people to my booth. I liked making specials with the excesses of the market, like herbs, eggs and chili peppers. When we were dating, my husband made a batch of hot sauce that inspired me to try making a batch to sell at the market. The shelf stability of hot sauce meant that I could make a batch and sell it over several weeks. I wanted to start selling it regularly, but didn’t want to step on the toes of another local hot sauce maker. Fortunately, he decided to just focus on the Burlington Farmers Market, which gave me room to experiment in Montpelier.”
She developed some hot sauce flavors, which sold out fast.
In 2013, her bakery intern’s partner was growing peppers for fun, and heard that she was making hot sauce. He asked if Georges wanted his leftover peppers, and gave her 800 pounds.
In 2014, she contracted with Dog River Farm for the 800 pounds she thought she needed, but as she started to set up wholesale accounts, she realized that was not nearly enough. That year, she was not able to acquire enough peppers to meet the demand. “I realized I was going to have to start contracting ahead.”
This year, with three or four months to go before the new crop of peppers is ready, Georges has already used 4,800 pounds. Vermont is not a big pepper-producing state, because warmer states have longer growing seasons. Florida, for example, can keep planting and harvesting peppers from February to November, producing one abundant crop after another very cheaply.
This year, however, she has contracted with 10 Vermont farms for nearly 17,000 pounds of peppers (7,300 green jalapeños, 6,150 pounds of red jalapeños, 3,000 pounds of red/orange habaneros plus about 500 pounds of other varieties).
George Gross, of Dog River Farm in Berlin, says, “it is nice to be hyper-local; to know that the vendor a few stalls down from me in the market is relying on my product to produce her very customized and individualized product.”
This year, he has four beds, each 600 feet long, with two pepper plants every foot, dedicated to insuring the minimum amount of peppers the Butterfly Bakery has ordered. The red jalapeños Georges uses require more care to grow to their maximum heat in Vermont’s short season. However, when the weather cooperates, they are spectacular peppers and are ideally suited for the hot, wet summers in Vermont, she said. Floating covers increase the soil temperature by 15 degrees when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. If he has an abundant year, Gross knows he can sell any overflow the bakery doesn’t need to Whole Foods. He calls their symbiotic relationship with Butterfly Bakery unique.
Pepper sauces with enticing names (Garlic Jalapeño, Rum Cask, Sriracha Maple Sugar Shack, Heady Pepper, Vermont Habs, and Cilantro Onion) are flying off the shelves.
Georges now has an allocation from The Alchemist to purchase Heady Topper beer for her Heady Pepper sauce, and contracts for small batches of artisanal sauces.
Along the way, Georges had help from many sources that she credits with giving her a hand up: The Vermont Food Venture Center, The Vermont Community Loan Fund, and Community Capital of Vermont. To give back, she supplies local charities with cases of her goods for their fundraising efforts.
Although her Mighty Tasty Granola remains her top selling product, and her Raspberry Almond cookies are number two, the tons of peppers she has ready to process in the next few weeks will become sauce that is already committed to her vendors.
Buy Butterfly Bakery products at natural or independent food stores in and near Vermont, or online at butterflybakeryvt.com.