This is going to be a year of milestones, both personal and professional, for Laurie Crowell.
Along with marking her 20th wedding anniversary to husband Britt Crowell and her 50th birthday, she's going to toast the 25th anniversary of Golden Fig Fine Foods, her remarkable specialty foods company that produces an ever-growing catalog of vinegars, spices, infused sugars, fresh drink mixes and other temptations in a busy northeast Minneapolis kitchen. And as long as the calendar is out, 2021 is also the year that Crowell's retail shop, also stamped with the Golden Fig name, will celebrate its 15th birthday.
A born merchant, Crowell stocks her bustling St. Paul store with Golden Fig goodies, a discerning selection of premium products from regional food producers and nationally sourced noshes and food-related merchandise not found in other Twin Cities stores.
The chocolates and sweets assortments are reason enough to become a regular, but a fascinating corner of Crowell's friendly emporium serves as a kind of hyper-seasonal bodega. Depending upon the date, browsers might encounter just-picked sweet corn from an Afton farm, edible flowers from a northeast Minneapolis grower, chestnuts from Iowa, persimmons from California or apple cider doughnuts from Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake.
When she was in her early 20s, the Eau Claire, Wis., native received an invaluable on-the-job education during a three-year stint at the Barefoot Contessa, an epicurean destination in tony East Hampton, N.Y. Owner Ina Garten later parlayed her experience — and the Barefoot Contessa name — into a wildly popular cookbook and TV empire.
From a recent phone conversation conducted on a rare day off, here's Crowell on ...
Being inspired by Ina: "I'd worked in a grocery store, so I thought I could work at the Barefoot Contessa, a comparison that still slays me. But they hired me. It was such a great place. It shifted so much about how I thought about food. I'd had good food growing up, but I learned so much about food when I was in New York. Now it's mainstream, but 30 years ago, Ina was talking about the importance of knowing where your food comes from, and serving good-quality food — it didn't have to be fancy. I remember going back to Eau Claire, and I wanted to make a Caprese salad for my parents. I went to the grocery store and said, 'I'm looking for fresh basil,' and they said, 'We have that in the dried spice aisle.' And I thought, 'I can't live here.' New York ruined me, in the best way possible."
The Golden Fig name: "There was a little lunch place in East Hampton called the Golden Pear. It was so cool, I really loved it. Years later, I was trying to figure out names that I liked. I couldn't take their name, but I thought, 'What else do I like that's golden? And I immediately thought of figs. Jackie Onassis had been into the Barefoot Contessa and bought a thousand dollars in figs. Since I was this rube from Wisconsin, I didn't know what they were, so I asked her, and she said, 'Oh, they're wonderful.' That's the thing about the Barefoot Contessa, everyone [Tom Cruise, Lauren Bacall, Paul Simon, Donna Karan, Billy Joel] who shopped there was famous, but you just got used to it. It just became normal."
The creation of Golden Fig products: "It wasn't planned, it just happened. I was working in the office at Turtle Bread, and one day Harvey [McClain, Turtle Bread's owner] came in and said, 'There's a vinegar-making class at Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska, who wants to go?' I made a few vinegars, and he said, 'Those look good, would you make them for the shop?' I made a few, and they sold, and it snowballed from there. I realized that, 'Hey, I'm good at this, and people are interested in it.' I went to school for architecture and interior design. Vinegar-making was not on the curriculum. My dad always said, 'Those who can roll with it have the most interesting lives.' "
Expanding the product line: "I started thinking, 'What would go with these vinegars?' I created a salt blend and called it Sel de Cuisine. I was super lucky, I guess, because it's still my bestselling item, we ship it all over the world. It's fun to see where the products end up. I sell to Macy's, and Terrain. Lunds & Byerlys was one of my first accounts, and they've been a great partner for 25 years. I started out with five vinegars and the Sel de Cuisine, and now we have 150 different products. It's crazy. It's not that everything was thought out well in advance. I put my spin on things that I see. There are so few original ideas, they're all inspired by something else. My dad said that I should make something that he could sprinkle on lefse that wasn't just cinnamon sugar. Now we have 20 flavors of flavored sugars."
Selling Golden Fig products at the farmers market: "The St. Paul Farmers Market is amazing, I've been there for over 20 years. It's great to see what people are buying, and cooking and eating. It's the best focus group, every Saturday and Sunday."
Launching the store: "I noticed that, when the farmers market season ended, I couldn't find any of the products from my fellow vendors. So I started a Minnesota artisans market. I got all of my friends who had products and set it up for a weekend, in a space on Como Avenue in Minneapolis. There were probably 25 vendors, and we did something like $50,000 in sales, which was a huge amount. After the second year I felt that a store would be logical. I remember driving down Grand Avenue and seeing a For Lease sign and it totally reminded me of East Hampton. I feel lucky that I never thought, 'I don't think I can do that.' I don't know what my parents did to instill that confidence in me."
Focusing on seasonal foods: "It's something Ina said: 'When you only have something when it's in season, then it's special.' If you have it all the time, then people forget how great it is. Now everything is available all the time, but you should only eat it locally — or domestically — when it's in season. Eat as much of it as possible for that short period of time, because that's when it's the best. Like Kishu Mandarin oranges. They come along in February. They're little, and sweet, and delicious and fun. And then you look forward to them the next year."
Favorite local products: "I've always loved those cayenne shortbread cookies from Donna [Cavanaugh] at A Gourmet Thyme, they're a state treasure. She's a caterer, and when she'd make them for parties, people would say, 'Oh, you should sell them.' They're good with chèvre and dark chocolate; it's the flavor combination to beat all. And Sweet Science Ice Cream, it's the ice cream that will wreck you for all others. She [owner Ashlee Olds] uses high-quality, local ingredients. She doesn't cut corners. It's such a good product in the purest sense of the word. During the first two months of the pandemic we sold something like 650 pints of Sweet Science Ice Cream, which is ridiculous for a store our size."
Seeking out local producers: "About once a month, we try as a staff to go through the things that people have brought in. We evaluate in terms of ingredients, packaging and flavor, a whole host of criteria. It's often tricky, because people are bringing in things that they've worked hard at and they love. I don't want to sound like a snob, but ingredients-wise, we're super-sticklers: no artificial colors or flavors, no high-fructose corn syrup, no MSG. That takes a lot of products out. But people who come into the store are grateful that they don't have to read labels. We've done all that work for them."
The joys of working: "I've never not had a job. I was working at the liquor store in Pick 'n Save [supermarket] in Eau Claire when I was 15. Only in Wisconsin could you be 15 and work in a liquor store. I've had a long love affair with working, and I also love not being in debt. That's a recipe for a workaholic. But even when I'm working 100-plus hours a week — I'd say that I spend 80 percent of my time at the store, and 20 percent on the wholesale stuff — I still love it, and I feel fortunate that I can wake up every single day and work at something that I love."
Gratitude: "We just had the best season ever, sales numbers-wise. People have realized that it's important to buy local, and to know where your food comes from. I'm grateful to be busy when so many other businesses are struggling. In 2021, once a month we're going to donate a percentage of Saturday sales to a different organization. If you're lucky enough to be busy, you should be kind enough to share in that."
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib
Golden Fig, 794 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-602-0144, goldenfig.com