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Firefly Kitchens: Ethical growth, Food Justice, and Taking Control of our Health

August 2020:

Firefly Kitchens was set to celebrate a huge milestone this year: their 10 year anniversary. Though they haven’t been able to celebrate with events and promotions, in some ways, they have been able to revel in finding new grounding in the COVID era. Sales of their fermented foods have grown strongly since March as customers seek paths to stockpiling, not just food, but food that strengthens their body and immune system. Talking with them was a powerful reminder of what it takes to tackle unexpected growth, without letting it crush you: a strong team, connected leadership, and a passionate base.

Production in: Ballard

Interview with: Julie O'Brien (Founder) and Rachel Hynes (CFO & COO)

Let’s go back to January. Where was your business at and what were you planning for the year?

Julie: We were planning to celebrate our 10th anniversary, all year long. We wanted to celebrate that milestone by celebrating health. We had planned to do quarterly fermented happy hours and a big gut celebration in the Fall. We wanted to bring in doctors, nutritionists and the community – part education, part celebration. Because everybody wants to feel better.

We were also trying to grow into more stores. We're a food business, so we grow by selling more product. And, we were focused on gaining more efficiencies of scale. We had hired a broker to try to help us get out there, a little bit further and wider.

What did your market reach look like? Who was buying your product?

Rachel: We were up and down the West Coast and in British Columbia, in stores like Whole Foods, PCC, QFC and smaller natural food stores.

We were pretty saturated in the natural food stores, but were beginning to see growth into the more conventional stores, through their natural food sections.

Julie: It has been a long road to growth. We are a small business that is pioneering fermented foods and that has required us to educate consumers from the very beginning. It's not like we're making a cookie or candies or something with instant gratification. I mean, we're trying to educate people as to why they should spend eight or ten dollars on this jar of what some people think as rotten vegetables.

And, you have grown a lot, not just in customers but in products. What does your line look like now?

Rachel: Now we have eight different fermented jars. We also bottle and sell 3-5 of the different brines, which has seen growth - brine has been used for hundreds of years for healing ulcers and promoting gut health. We also have three different seasoning salts and a kimchi hot sauce made from pureed probiotics. We also had some smaller product lines that we were selling at the farmer's market, like kimcheese, which is basically cream cheese mixed with kimchi. There’s a way to get probiotics into every meal.

You were growing but also staying true to your community roots. So, what happened in March?

Rachel: On one side of our business, our orders from distributors doubled and tripled.

However, on the other side, the farmers markets shut down.

And, internally, we had to work through operations with our staff to make sure they felt comfortable coming to work.

It all happened over night.

That’s a lot to manage. On one hand, you’re having to lay folks off who would have covered the farmers markets. But, on the other hand, you’re growing. What do you think was driving the growth?

Julie: I would like to say that it's because people drew the connection between immunity and our food. But I really think that, initially, people were simply stocking up.

Rachel: I think it was a bit of both: people associate us with health and boosting their immunity. And there was a lot of panic shopping.

So, you were seeing panic buying on your product because of the immunity component.

Rachel: Yeah. Our online sales went up quite a bit, too, which came with a huge learning curve for us. We had talked for years about doing something more formal than shipping with flat-rate boxes. We had hoped to offer shipping via more sustainable routes – we wanted that service to align with who we are as a company. We’re still sorting through that.

Ethically, it was also difficult to figure out how to operate, while helping our staff feel safe. Ultimately, that was the biggest challenge. Sure, there were challenges in figuring out the manufacturing side, but that we can figure out.

Did anything shift for you on the manufacturing side to accommodate this growth in demand?

Rachel: A funny anecdote: Green Chef, which is the organic arm of Hello Fresh, reached out to us on a Monday and said, can we pick up a ton - literally two thousand pounds - of sauerkraut on Friday?

Julie: At this point, do we say no?

So did you do it?!

Rachel: We did.

You’ve mentioned the challenges in keeping your staff and operations safe. What did that process look like for you?

Rachel: We had already begun ramping up our production – the writing was on the wall pretty early on. But we weren't sure exactly where the product was going to go and what the demand would really look like. And the challenge was in figuring out what's safe and what's not safe. There wasn't really good guidance from the CDC but I was impressed with King County. Their regulations and recommendations were much more specific than what we were seeing from the CDC. Their guidance really helped us figure out how to reconfigure our line and processes.

We also worked really closely with our team to come up with a plan that they could get behind: How do we handle breaks? How do we reduce to a core staff? How do we keep our bubble small to keep them safe? Taking care of them was the first thing we needed to do. We needed to keep them on board and help them feel safe. We couldn’t have done any of it if we had to force them through it. Once they felt safe, we were able to move through the other decisions and processes.

Throughout all of this, what has stood out to you or surprised you in terms of what your team has been able to do, the real capacity for your business, or the bigger value of your business really in the community?

Julie: I feel like this has totally solidified the whole reason we started Firefly. We have a product - that if everybody was eating it, they would be able to live a healthier life. It has felt really good to see that, in a pandemic, so many people are buying our product and even shipping it across the country. And, it’s been powerful to see companies step up to include our product in their meal boxes, as part of that growing awareness.

On top of that, every week I am so impressed with our team, with what they're able to accomplish. They are working hard, working together, and feeling good about what they’re doing.

Rachel: I think it’s created a whole new level of transparency too. I've gotten some feedback from the team recently that I wouldn't have expected to have gotten before – it might have been harder to give. I think that we've just gelled more. And we’ve built a greater culture of transparency and engagement.

You’ve mentioned that you’re hearing a lot more from your customers – what are they saying?

Rachel: So many folks are reaching out, just to say “we really miss seeing you at the farmer's market” or “we just wanted to say hi”. People are missing that contact they had with our business, before COVID. It's so nice to hear that people feel that connection to us. Because we feel that with them and we're missing it to.

Julie: We’ve been able to keep growing and keep growing organically because of those connections. We started off in the farmer's markets and we had people come up who said “this food is just like I grew up with or like the old country”. And then we'd have this whole other range of people whose naturopath had told them that this food would help improve their health. And then there was the other 80 or 90% of the people who just had no interest in it at all. It's been it's been really cool now to see how things have evolved over the past 10 years and how awareness has grown about these foods, by doctors, nutritionists, and the general population. People realize that their health matters and that they have some control over their health.

You’ve talked a lot about how important is it for you to grow on your own terms and in an ethical way. What is next for your company?

Rachel: We’ve been talking for years about joining 1% for the Planet. We’ve also been talking about providing health insurance for the staff. And it's like, well, shit, now's the time to go. So we started offering health insurance and just joined 1% for the Planet.

And we are developing our giving strategy. We’re going to work with staff to decide where we put resources. We’ve identified three areas that are really core to us: health, justice, and peace.

What does health justice mean to you? Julie: Everybody has the right to live a healthy life and to feel good. So often, people are suffering because they don't have access to either the health information they need or the food itself.

I learned about the power of fermented foods about 12 or 13 years ago when I was taking a nutrition course. And, I was shocked – I was a 40 year old health nut and I had never heard about these foods.

As part of our work moving forward, I want to make sure more people have access to these foods and to the education on what they can do for their health.

We’re really working hard to put together a real strategy to make sure we can get this food to more people and more communities.

Is there anything you wish the government understood about what’s happening with your business?

Rachel: I think I'm just scared that this is going be the collapse of our small business ecosystem.

We’re going to be ok, but we want to make sure we’re talking to other businesses, to see how we can help. Julie is talking to a couple of small businesses each week, to see what they’re doing, how they’ve been impacted, and where we can support them.

Julie: We talk so much about how small businesses are the backbone of the communities. But, where we actually experience that support, as a business, is from the community itself, not the government. If I can look back at one of the beautiful things that I think is going to come out of this, it’s that the small businesses will continue to support each other and then figure out a way to just deal more directly with the consumer.

Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!

  • If you haven't explored fermented foods recently, you're missing out. Check out their krauts, tonics, salts, and more.

  • Town Hall is hosting Julie, along with Dr Will DePaolo, on August 17th to discuss fermented foods and gut health. Tickets range from free to $15 - Join the livestream event.

Town Hall event description: How do fermented foods affect gut health?

In this livestreamed discussion, immunologist and microbiologist Dr. Will DePaolo and Firefly Kitchens founder Julie O’Brien sit down to answer this question with a nuanced conversation of immune health. Bacteria, yeasts, and mycelial fungi all help create fermented foods, and the result is so important that it often plays a role in national dietary requirements. Fermented foods have been shown to help improve lactose-intolerance, and can even have anti-diabetic properties. Sit in for an enlightening discussion on the hidden and life-changing medicinal probiotic power of fermented foods.

William DePaolo, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington, recipient of the Garvey Endowed Chair in Gastroenterology, and Director of CMiST, Center for Microbiome Sciences & Therapeutics. His research centers on multidisciplinary applications of microbiology, mucosal immunology, and cancer research to study complex human diseases.

In 2006, Julie O’Brien’s life was forever changed by cabbage and kraut when she encountered fermented foods while studying for a nutritional therapy program. The discovery of kraut led to the creation of Firefly Kitchens. Author of Fresh & Fermented, O’Brien has been infusing foods with her fresh ferments for more than a decade now.

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