So, I was wandering the Rochester Public Market in December 2007 and discovered some incredible biscotti! Yes,it was Caroline Ravines from "Biscotti for Everybotti." We bought several kinds -- but sent most off as holiday gifts and only tried the ginger. Wow. Since then she agreed to this interview! Hurrah! The food for thought is as wonderful as the biscotti themselves.
Bibliochef: I love the name "Biscotti for Everybotti!" Where did it come from and how did you come to be making and selling biscotti?
Caroline: My youngest son, Amos, came up with the name last year when he was 15. (He just turned 16 in December.) He and I were brainstorming about possible names for my biscotti business. I wanted a name that would convey the message that biscotti can be for every day and for everyone and not something exclusive that is only saved for special occasions or select people. Amos heard me kicking around names like "Every Day Biscotti" or "Biscotti for Everyday". This had been going on for a while, then one day he said "How about Biscotti for Everybotti"? This name struck a chord with me and I liked it right away. I like the playfulness of it and the way it makes people giggle. This lifts people's spirits and creates a joyful positive connotation upon first encounter with the product.
Sometimes Amos gets tired of me telling people that he came up with the name so I have toned down my excitement about his contribution a bit but I still like to give him credit for it.
Bibliochef: Am I right that you are also a student? (I have a vague memory of reading that somewhere.) How is that (if it is at all true!) related to your business?
Caroline: My answer to this question ties into the second part of your first question. In January 2006 I began as a doctoral student in the Warner School at the University of Rochester and began working towards a doctoral degree in Counseling. In October 2006 I was taking a class called Life Course Studies with Professor Paul Stein. As part of the class the students were asked to prepare a presentation on some aspect of Life Course Studies and tie it to the class readings. Another student in the class, Janice Resnick, and I teamed up to do presentations on life course studies of our mothers. My mother had passed away and Janice's mother is alive in her 80s. My mother was an avid journaler and had kept journals for about 70 years of her life. Originally, I am from Seattle, Washington. When my brother, Anthony, heard about the project I was working on about our mother he sent about 150 pounds of my mother's journals from Seattle to me here in Rochester. This has proved to be fascinating reading for me and has allowed me to get to know my mother, father and siblings during years before and after I was born. Janice was able to interview her mother in person. While Janice and I were working on the presentation together we discovered that we both loved to cook and we had gotten this love of cooking from our mothers.
Janice is from Italian descent and when I found out that she knew how to make biscotti, which is a traditional twice baked Italian cookie, I asked her to teach me how to make biscotti the next time we got together at my home to work on our presentation. She obliged and brought me some of her recipes. We talked as we baked and I was thrilled to learn how to make biscotti. Janice was a very good teacher and I was an eager student. After my initial lesson I began experimenting with my own variations of the recipes and creating new ones. I would bring the results to class with me for Janice and other students to sample and I solicited their feedback. This continued and my circle of volunteer samplers expanded. From the enthusiastic feedback I was getting I decided to see if I could sell my biscotti in cafes around town. Eventually I got my DBA (Doing Business As) in March of 2007 and my first customer was The Coffee Connection on South Avenue in the South Wedge neighborhood. This expanded to other cafes in the South Wedge and other parts of Rochester.
Many of the things I learned in my classes have helped me in starting up and maintaining my business such as creating a research study which is very similar to preparing a business plan. Both of these have a lot of trial and error which results in modifications along the way. As of this term I have withdrawn as a doctoral student at the Warner School. My energies are now focused on developing my baking business.
Bibliochef: Can you say what a general definition of a biscotti is? And describe how you go about making them?
Caroline: Biscotti is an Italian word for 'twice baked cookie'. The biscotti dough is first baked in a loaf shape, then cut into slices and baked once again until they are quite dry. Making biscotti is a labor intensive process but for me it is a labor of love. I enjoy the whole process.
This drying process makes them great for dunking in coffee, tea, milk, hot chocolate, apple cider etc....... The drying also gives them a long shelf life. I understand Christopher Columbus brought them aboard his ships for his crew because they keep so well.
Bibliochef: As I said in the opening, I bought several flavors from you at the Rochester Public Market –every last one of them for presents! But I must confess – not all of them reached their intended recipients. I ate most of the ginger ones. Wow. I loved them. I'd guess you used various forms of ginger in them! What other flavors do you make – and what's your favorite?
Caroline: I like them all and make them according to what tastes good to me but Ginger is my favorite. And you are right, I use both powdered ginger from Stuart's Spices that I find at the Rochester Public Market as well as organic sugared ginger that I get through the Abundance Food Co-op. I like promoting and supporting other local businesses with my business.
Some of the other year round flavors I make are Coconut using organic shredded coconut from the Abundance Food Co-op, Espresso Chocolate Chip using Fair Trade organic coffee from The Coffee Connection and Double Chocolate Chip.
Some of the seasonal variations I have created during the past few months are; Pumpkin Spice, Cranberry Pecan, Cranberry Almond, Maple Pecan, Cranberry White Chocolate and Cranberry Pistachio. I am open to other flavor suggestions too.
Bibliochef: I know you make vegan biscotti as well. How did you come to do so? Is there much demand for vegan biscotti?
Caroline: Along with the theme of "Biscotti for Everybotti" I strive to respect various dietary preferences and requirements so I have educated myself about making vegan as well as gluten-free biscotti. Many of the cafes and restaurants that I sell to like to have these options available to their customers too. I consider the vegan diet as more of a philosophical lifestyle choice whereas gluten-free needs can be a serious health issue. When I was selling biscotti at the South Wedge Farmer's Market this last summer I would give away samples of biscotti which went very well with the coffee samples offered by The Coffee Connection. I loved the look on the faces of gluten-free customers who would stop by our table, we'd offer them samples of biscotti and they would say "No, I can't eat that.". We'd inquire as to why they couldn't and they'd say "I need gluten-free.". When we'd respond "We have gluten-free.", their faces would light up with such enthusiasm and appreciation. I wish I had a photograph for that initial expression on every person's face when they discovered we had gluten-free biscotti for them.
Bibliochef: The flavors I found at the market were all sort of sweet. And yet, I do know of savory biscotti – do you make any? If not, why not? If so, can you tell us something about those?
Caroline: I have made savory biscotti that go very well with soups and salads but most people are used to expecting biscotti to be sweet so there has not been much demand for these yet. As people become more familiar with savory biscotti I think there will be more demand for them.
Bibliochef: What do you use for ingredients? Do you use natural or organic products?
Caroline: I use mostly organic along with natural ingredients. Customers who care about the quality of the food they eat is the niche I am targeting. I say that my biscotti are goodies you can feel good about.
Bibliochef: In addition to making the biscotti, I assume you also do most of the marketing and pricing, etc. Can you tell us a bit about the experience of retailing something you make yourself?
Caroline: I make a good high quality product and I feel it can sell itself when people have the opportunity to try it. I need to be proactive about creating and/or seizing those opportunities. Let me know of local businesses that would be interested in having a Biscotti for Everybotti tasting event.
Bibliochef: I know you sold your biscotti at the Rochester Public Market on recent Sundays. Can you tell us where else you sell your products and something about those places? How did you choose them? Do you also sell on line?
Caroline: As mentioned earlier, my first customer was The Coffee Connection in the South Wedge neighborhood. Last winter a friend, Diane Garga, took me to The Coffee Connection and introduced me to Nancy who is the owner of the cafe. Nancy was open to trying samples of my biscotti and selling them in her cafe. I am impressed with what Nancy is doing with her efforts to break the drug cycle at both the grower and consumer ends. Also, Nancy and I both have Peruvian husbands and strong ties with Peru where much of her coffee comes from. Collaborating with her has been a good fit.
Nancy encouraged me to meet Joe Ferrara who was in the process of opening the New Health Cafe on Gregory and Ashland Street also in the South Wedge. I took him some samples which he enjoyed. Since he and I are targeting the same niche of customers, he became my second customer and began carrying my biscotti when his cafe opened, where they have been well received.
I've expanded beyond the South Wedge neighborhood to Bodhi's at Village Gate on Goodman Street, The George Eastman House Cafe on East Avenue, The Little Green Cafe which is part of Pilates Plus on Monroe Avenue across from Pittsford Plaza and The Abundance Food Co-op on Marshall Street. I am continually meeting new proprietors and this list will continue to expand.
Our website is in the works for on line business and I'll let you know when it is up. (Editorial note: The second I receive it, I will post it on my links!)
Bibliochef: Do you also bake – and/or sell – other products?
Caroline: So far I am focusing on variations of biscotti for my business. I love to bake and do create many other things for family and friends. Eventually I may branch out to other products for my business.
Bibliochef: And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I "speak" with! What's the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Caroline: The first meal that comes to mind is a meal prepared by my middle child, Eli, a few years back for my birthday when our family was living in Haifa Israel. At the time he was 16 and enrolled in a cooking school that he attended in the evening after his high school classes. He was excited about what he was learning there and sometimes he was able to bring his creations home after class.
I told him that my birthday wish was for him to create my birthday dinner that year. He granted my wish and took the execution of the meal very seriously. I loved everything about this meal which included shopping for the ingredients. One of our most memorable shopping adventures for this meal included going to an Arab neighborhood in Haifa called "The Wadi Nisnas" to buy the fish. A lot of our favorite eating took place in this neighborhood.
Finding someone to buy the fish from required us to inquire at a number of vendors until someone yelled to someone else and eventually an older woman in a house dress appeared and opened her small fish store for us. Eli is fluent in Hebrew and was able to ask all the appropriate questions about the type of fish he was looking for. He wanted what is called Denise Fish which is a meaty white fish. He inspected it and poked it the way he had learned in his classes to determine its freshness before we bought it.
The first course of my memorable birthday meal was Blanched Asparagus with Coconut Cream Sauce. This was followed by the Stuffed Denise Fish that was cooked including the head and propped up in its belly by a small potato. Dessert was Apple Streudel and Chocolate Mousse. It was all delicious and very lovingly prepared and served. Love is the best ingredient in any meal. It brings happy tears to my eyes as I recount this memory. Eli is now a student of the Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. He was home during the winter holidays and just left yesterday to return to his studies.
Bibliochef: Wow. I get it why that meal was special. What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why? (These could be about food generally or about biscotti!)
Caroline: I like to listen to music while I am cooking and working in the kitchen. When I want the energy to get a lot done I listen to Aretha Franklin, especially "Who's Zoomin Who?". When I want to feel inner strength I listen to Bonnie Raitt. Her latest CD "Souls Alike" really strikes a cord with me about the challenges our family has faced in moving to the United States a couple of years ago.
Recently I read the book Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl which I enjoyed. Before that I read Heat by Bill Buford. (Editorial side note: For a Cooking with Ideas review of Heat, click here!) Before that was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I love the "Fine Cooking" magazine and always find something I'd like to cook in it. I enjoy the book What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke.
As far as the film medium, there is a movie originally in German called "Mostly Martha" about a female chef. An American version of this film was recently released. (Editorial note: I think this is where to click for information.) I enjoyed the first television season of "Kitchen Confidential" in 2005 and am sorry it did not continue. I would much prefer it over the numerous crime TV shows that are currently on the air which I find unwatchable. I have enjoyed Anthony Bourdain's series about his worldwide travels and encounters with international cuisines.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Caroline: Thanksgiving Food is my true comfort food; turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, wild rice etc...................
I also love Peruvian Beans and Rice with Fried Onions and Tomatoes.
I find hearty soups very comforting too.
My mother was a wonderful cook. Once her six children were grown and Julia Child came on the scene she became much more adventurous with her cooking. I loved her cooking and her love came through in each dish she prepared.
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes? (If not, maybe go for a Rochester example?)
Caroline: I really like my own cooking and don't go out to eat very often. When I do go to a restaurant I like to order food I wouldn't tend to make myself. For a special treat our family likes to go for Dim Sum at the Cantonese House which is in the Winn-Jeff Plaza on Winton.
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Caroline: Two questions come to mind:
What prompted you to become an entreprenuer?Well, the depressed job market of Rochester has not been welcoming to a woman in her fifties who has been out of the U.S.A. job market for about twenty years. I got frustrated and discouraged with my job search and decided I needed to create a job rather than look for one. I have received much more encouragement and support for pursuing the route of entreprenuership than I did in the mainstream job market or as a doctoral student.
Who has helped you along the way to this point? Here's my answer: I have been very blessed with many wonderful people in my life beginning with my parents and siblings, my husband and our children and loving friends who have become like family. My mother instilled in me a love of cooking and I have enjoyed baking since I was a child. My husband has been supportive in more ways than I can innumerate. Janice Resnick first taught me how to make biscotti. Diane Garga introduced me to my first biscotti customer, Nancy of The Coffee Connection. Diane's husband, Julius, went with me to the Federal Building and introduced me to the SBA, Small Business Association. (Editorial Comment: For the Small Business Association, click here. For Rochester's Small Business Council click here.) Dash Douglas accompanied me to my first meetings with SBA counselors. Kathy of The Coffee Connection gave me the contact info of George Gotscik of the South Wedge Planning Committee who has been instrumental in guiding many of the new businesses in the South Wedge. He has been a wealth of information, encouragement and reality checks. My daughter, Grace, has accompanied me to meetings and added her enthusiasm. She has also helped sell biscotti at the South Wedge Farmers Market and the Rochester Festival of Food. Chris and Vicki Hartman of the South Wedge Farmers Market have been wonderful to work with. My mother-in-law has created many beautiful ceramics that I love displaying my biscotti on. Jennifer Posey of Hedonist Chocolates has been fun to collaborate with. My loyal and enthusiastic customers keep me going. Wendy Heppel has been good to talk things over with. My friend Taraneh Vargha helped develop my business logo. The workshops through SCORE in the Federal Building have been very informative and helpful. There have been more people along the way who have been valuable sources of encouragement and support but I want to make the point that it would have been near impossible to get as far as I have without the support of many people in my life.
Bibliochef: Wow. Thanks for the chat and the inspiration to all of us 50-somethings (and younger -- and older)! I look forward to more biscotti!