Her name is Jess Messer, she comes from Vermont by way of Boston, and her small-batch sodas, preserves and pickles have quietly taken food trucks and hipster hangouts like Dépanneur Le Pick-Up and Alexandraplatz by storm.
After stints as a researcher at the Kennedy Library in Boston and in human rights advocacy, Messer and her husband decided to travel and raise their family abroad after the 2004 United States presidential election. Montreal didn't necessarily fit that description but the city was where Messer found herself after her husband was offered a good job opportunity. Then one day she started to pickle. And experiment with sodas. And jams. A childhood spent on a family farm and ten years spent in the restaurant industry kick-started (literally - a recent successful Kickstarter campaign has funded a much-needed expansion) Savouré, a "modern take on traditional pantry classics."
Messer's flavour combinations (think sumac apricot and strawberry switchel sodas, sweet green tomato pickles in orange blossom water and pear compote with sage and honey), made almost entirely with organic southern Quebec and northern Vermont ingredients, have been greeted warmly. In between pickling and bottling and tending to her booming one-woman business, Messer recently sat down to answer a few questions.
Your products are like the Instagram of pickles, preserves and sodas.
(laughing) I'll take that as a compliment! I'm really into that urban rustic aesthetic. I love old irons, antique furniture, things like that. It's something I've tried to incorporate into Savouré's packaging and products - without being too old-timey.
My daughter was born on election day 2004 and when the results came in my husband looked at me and said, "That's it, we're moving to France." We figured we would make a go of living abroad, raising the kids in a different environment. We had just become so disenfranchised with the United States at that point. Then my husband found a job in Vermont with a company that had an office in Montreal. The city's become like our gateway drug to international living.
And what was the genesis for Savouré?
I grew up on a farm, canning fruits and vegetables and so on, and spent years in the restaurant industry. And I just became very excited by this new food culture going on. I needed to break from my cerebral professional life and working with my hands was the way to do that.
Your Kickstarter video made a very compelling case.
Thanks. I figured the best approach was to be as authentic as possible. So we just turned the camera on and I tried to be myself.
And you met your target. How did you use the money?
Yeah, we raised over $20,000, which is amazing. I was basically able to outfit my entire production kitchen on Casgrain and Saint-Viateur [in Mile End]. The space was raw, I had to start from scratch - ventilation, wiring, a stock pot range, commercial freezer and refrigerator. 20k goes fast!
How about that bottling machine?
Not yet. Those machines are dominated and controlled by the big soda companies. There aren't many options for small-scale producers like myself. And I do want to keep it small. I want controlled growth. Too much, too fast isn't good - you really have to be strategic.
You do the smaller farmers' market circuit but food trucks as well?
Yes. I make the rounds at places like L'Autre Marché Angus, Marché Fermier St-Dominique and Marché Frontenac at Baldwin pool but my sodas are available at food trucks like Nomade and Gargantua. And Le Pick-Up has been great.
Your product line is very diverse. What's that decision process like?
I'm all over the map honestly. I go with what's in season, of course, so that now after a few years at some of the markets people are coming up to me and saying "Oh it's time for that chutney with ramps again!" But it's unpredictable. Luckily everyone's been very patient. The owner of Alexandraplatz was reticent at first, because my soda flavours change all the time, but now he's totally on board. And I'm selling out - I can't make stuff fast enough.
· Jess Messer on Kickstarter [Kickstarter]
· Savouré [Official Site]