August 3, 2011
Reader, we work with a TON of amazing, amazing clients at our design studio, many of whom are doing some really, really great things in the world. This is no secret—besides talking about what we’re having for lunch and what band we’re listening to of late, we feel like that’s our primary broken-record issue. But you know what, Reader? We’re totally proud of whom we work with. That’s right! WHOM!
The perfect example—Allison Rivers Samson, who runs Allison’s Gourmet, which not only makes the world a kinder place by only creating cruelty-free, vegan, gourmet treats, but makes our mouths crazy-happy by making DAMN GOOD, NEAR ADDICTIVE cruelty-free, vegan, gourmet treats.
Allison just announced a Tee and Tote Design Contest for her company—which we’re helping to judge, by the bye—and it gave us an excuse to sit down and talk with her about how she started the company, what’s in the works for the future, and vegan super powers.
Kindness of Ravens: Okay, first thing’s first—What made you want to get in the confectioner’s business anyway? I mean, we all loved Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder one, not the creepy Johnny Depp one), but we’re guessing it’s not all rainbows and chocolate rivers and weird, green-haired men with white pants and spray-tans.
Allison Rivers Samson:
It was an unwitting decision. In 1989, I went vegetarian after reading Fit for Life
by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. Even as a vegetarian, I had vegan leanings and bought every vegan sweet I could find in the store. At the time, that was about three things. they. were. awful.
So, having little experience in the kitchen, but a great need to satisfy my sweet tooth, I took matters into my own hands, substituting egg replacer for eggs and soy margarine for butter. I lived alone at the time and the baked goods began to amass quickly, so I brought them in to work with me. My co-workers were astonished at how good they were and urged, “You should sell these!” “Oh sure,” I quipped, as we each went back to our tasks.
A few years later, I discovered that baking soothed the stress of my new job working for the largest natural foods distributor on the west coast. Before long, vegan baking became an obsession. Suddenly, it was clear that I needed to eliminate the 9-to-5 interruption and went to cooking school to refine my skills.
KoR: It is true—the early vegan days for us too, back in early- and mid-nineties, were fraught with cringe-worthy carob and dry-as-dirt-desserts. Rough times. So, why or how did you go vegan in the first place?
A couple years after being vegetarian, I rescued a kitten from the Humane Society’s shelter. That landed my name on PETA’s mailing list and I started getting info about animal cruelty. I promptly made the switch after reading that and Diet for a New America
by John Robbins.
KoR: Man. You were a literary convert. So, when we started our design studio, it was a very gradual process as we slowly let go of our traditional 9-to-5’s to make sure this was something we’d be able to sustain. Was it a similar start for you or did you plunge right in?
ARS: A little of both. I had my first business in 1987 (a mail order chocolate business!) and fell in love with the mail order model. When that disintegrated due to not being in alignment with my vegan and organic values, I knew that whatever else I did, it would be mail order as well. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I started Allison’s Cookies ten years later and was able to employ the fabulousness of the up and coming internet!
KoR: We’ve heard of this “internet.” You can play Tetris on it, right? What advice would you have for anyone thinking of starting a business, especially in these cray-cray economic times?
ARS: Do your homework and find partners you can really trust. Collaboration is where it’s at!
KoR: Totally true. We’re learning that more and more. What was the first thing you started selling when the business got under way?
ARS: Originally, I offered various baked goods, including cakes, tarts, scones, muffins, etc, and delivered them all over Seattle. Since I lived on Vashon Island, which is accessible only by ferry, that quickly grew old. It was clear that shipping was the way to go and cookies were the perfect shippable item. At the time, there were only two other vegan cookies on the market (imagine that!) and they were sold only in stores and weren’t organic or fresh. My dream of another mail order business was realized!
KoR: Who DOESN’T love getting fun packages in the mail?! Do you ever get sick of sweets though? We imagine there’s a good bit of taste testing involved in new flavors. At the end of the day, do you just head home and, I don’t know, eat a big bowl of white rice with a side of bread?
ARS: Um, no, I never get sick of sweets. I am more of a taster than a gorger. My cravings tend to be a bit polar; they’re either for sweets or greens.
KoR: Do you have any interesting treats that you tried out but that never quite saw the light of day? Rosemary bubblegum fudge, maybe? Or sun-dried tomato caramels? You never considered the whole Harry Potter jellybean option, did you?
ARS: I don’t have any that wild, but when I started Allison’s Cookies, I offered only unusual flavors like Lavender Lemon, Cardamom Pecan, and Mint Chocolate Chip. People begged for regular chocolate chip and I finally could no longer deny their requests. Ah the classics.
KoR: The classics never get old—languages, literature, history, fudge…. Have you ever considered doing high-end candy bars? There are some decent vegan ones out there, but that still seems like such a relatively empty market. Especially since Clark Darks disappeared (RIP).
ARS: You just never know what I’m devising in the factory of my mind–it really is like Willy Wonka in there!!
KoR: How about other plans for expansion or new products that you can talk about right now?
ARS: I am currently working on some new products that we will begin offering in the fall. It’s top secret though so I can’t divulge anything just yet, but stay tuned!
KoR: Understood and will do! Do you have any plans to distribute to stores at all or are you content with the on-line model? We were just in Lula’s and they could use some AG caramels at that joint!
ARS: We have offered our goodies in some stores in the past, but I find that they do best when we have control over their care and handling. I’m a bit of a perfectionist (you probably knew that), so it’s critical to me that people experience our top-quality goods as they’re meant to be. That said, our caramels can handle a little more than our baked goods, so feel free to start a petition that Lula’s carry our caramels! 😉
As soon as we’re done with this game of Tetris, we’ll get on that. And the design contest
—how’d that come about? We’re psyched to judge it, but were you just looking to spice things up a bit?
ARS: We’re honored to have raven + crow as one of our all-star judges! Frankly, contests are fun. I’d always thought it would be interesting to have one and spicing things up is what I do best, so here we are.
KoR: Submissions due September 15th, folks! Okay, vegan quick-fire-round!!! Cat or dog person?
ARS: Mostly cat. Dogs are a bit too slobbery, smelly, and like to roll in gross things. Admittedly, the other day I was horrified to watch–trainwreck-style–one of our resident felines eat a mouse from nose to tail. The crunching of bones made for a great teaching moment to explain to our “4 -3/4” year old (her quote) that the fact that we are disgusted by that act is clear evidence that we are NOT carnivores. Not that she doubted, of course, as she munched on raw kale she had just picked from our huge veganic garden.
KoR: Maybe I shouldn’t have lined up my lunchtime with this interview…. Favorite cookbook?
ARS: The one I’m writing, even though it’s taking forever!
KoR: If you need taste testers…. Favorite veg-friendly restaurant?
KoR: Aw, yeah, we love that place. You gotta hit up New York some time though. I think we got ‘em beat. Now, we realize it may be like choosing your favorite child, but, favorite AG treat?
ARS: Ha! That’s exactly what I call it (choosing my favorite child). Frankly, it depends on the day and what’s in front of me. Every product we offer is a favorite of mine, otherwise I wouldn’t offer it. In fact, each was inspired by a personal craving. Since we switched our baked goods to be wheat-free, I’m thrilled to get to eat our cookies and brownies again. And our caramels and toffee are always a favorite. As I said, I truly do love everything.
KoR: Yeah, I never would have guessed that those cookies were wheat-free, honestly. If you had your choice of super-powers, you’d choose…?
ARS: Well, I already have a couple of super powers: I’m a Super-Smeller and a Super-Taster, which is probably why I don’t hear so well. Either that or it was the whole standing next to amps at grunge concerts in the late 80s. I lived in Seattle for 17 years and was lucky enough to be there during the grunge scene and saw all the hot bands at tiny venues before they “made it.” I think I’m digressing here. Um, my super power choice would be the ability to manifest an idea in a timeframe of my choosing. I have soooo many ideas that I would love to bring to life, alas my time is so full that I can’t do it all.
KoR: As a comic book fan, I think I can say with confidence that that’s a new one. Dream veganization? As in, the recipe/meal/anything you’ve had that you’d love to somehow make vegan?
Gosh, I hate to sound (fill in the blank with uppity synonym), but whatever I crave, I get in the kitchen and create. I’m always looking for requests for my “Veganize It!”
column in VegNews Magazine
though, so if you have some, dish!
KoR: I’m personally still working on the perfect BBQ pulled pork substitute. Recipe race! Favorite way to spend your likely scant free time though?
ARS: Napping! I also love to play in my veganic garden that I’m absolutely enamored with this year, get massages (although this happens far too infrequently), visit vegan eateries wherever I might be traveling, and create in the kitchen. This list is by no means in order of preference!
KoR: Alright, all good past-times. In closing, if you were an element on the periodic table, you’d be….?
ARS: Damn! I knew I should’ve been a better chemistry student, I just didn’t know THIS was the reason why! Actually, I’ve often joked that if I was taught fractions and chemistry through baking, my interest in both would have soared. Can I turn the question around since you’re obviously more of a science nerd than I, and ask which you’d be?
KoR: Oh we’re definitely Cr – Crowmium. Get it? Clever, eh?
Interested in entering the Tee and Tote Design Contest? Visit Allison’s contest mini-site, where you can find out about all the fabulous prizes (confection-based and cash-based), find out more about the designs, and upload your own! Remember—deadline’s September 15th. And you know how these end-of-summer days rush by. Get on it, Reader!