Annoyed at myself for being five minutes late to our 1:00 lunch meeting, I finally called her. “I’ve been circling for 20 minutes looking for parking and I’m still searching,” I said, embarrassed because being late sucks almost as badly as trying to find parking in Little Italy.
“I’m sending out good thoughts for you right now — positive vibes that you’ll find a spot. See you soon!” she said. Yeah, that’s cool, I thought to myself as I hung up, but shoot them vibes over with a turbo ray gun, wouldya? And, then, the clouds parted and a single, focused beam of sunlight shone upon the miraculously empty space immediately to my right less than a block from our meeting place. Okay, no clouds, no ray of sunlight, but how the hell did that parking spot appear off my right bumper as I was talking with her? Interesting.
A few minutes later I was seated across the table from food and restaurant industry consultant Carolyn Kates, owner of Your Product Hub, at one of her clients, CafÃ© Gratitude, in their Little Italy, San Diego location. She informed me it’s a plant based restaurant, not willing to call themselves vegan because of their use of honey. So began an afternoon of education on some of the ins and outs of a couple of segments of the the local food industry about which I had little previous knowledge — plant based food and Carolyn.
The concept of CafÃ© Gratitude is pretty straightforward in the plant based world and in keeping with the general direction that many top San Diego restaurants are aspiring to (in terms of fresh, locally sourced ingredients). They utilize 100% organic, plant-based ingredients to offer a wide variety of gourmet meal options, using local sources to the extent possible. I let Carolyn do the ordering for the two of us, first because she knows the menu and second, frankly, because reading the menu here requires knowledge of a bunch of ingredients and ingredient combinations that I do not possess. In fact, if there is one aspect that might be considered daunting on a first visit here without a guide, that would be it.
The cafÃ© itself is full of energy, vibrant and bright. The interior space is loud with conversation, not the place to have a quiet, intimate meal — there is an outdoor patio that might be more suitable for that. Service is attentive and the servers are knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu — easily able to answer questions about the offerings and alleviate any of the pre-conceived anxiety about ordering. The ordering process is representative of their theme. Each meal is named after an affirming adjective and patrons are encouraged to begin their order by stating, “I Am” followed by the name of the course — Delighted, Joyful, Excited, Remarkable, and so on.
The food is unique. Of the different items we tried, and I can’t even begin to remember their names or many of the ingredients, they were flavorful, full of contrasting and complimentary textures, hearty and filling. There was no sense that the chef was trying to make the ingredients anything other than what they were, (in other words, not trying to make tofu taste like bacon), but rather that these were unique dishes and flavor profiles that were recognizable enough to fit into familiar broad food categories that most people would be able to reference and thus, comfortable.
But, I wasn’t here for the food. Having only met Carolyn a week or so prior to this meeting while she was organizing a hugely successful fundraising event for a local farmer in North County, I was captivated by the speed and efficiency with which she birthed the event as well as the turn out and participation of supporters, public and chefs for the event. The event and venue were packed to capacity, yet everything was organized and presented in a way that kept things intimate and comfortable. I had to know more about the person that accomplished this.
So, here we were, sitting down to share a lunch – although, sitting with Carolyn is more appropriately equated to syncing your wavelength to hers, as she never seems completely at rest, but rather continuously oscillating at different energy frequencies, the lowest of which would likely power a small town. It became clear shortly into the lunch that Carolyn is straightforward, definite and organized, though she also has an enigmatic aura about her that is more commonly found in those of an artistic bent, exuding spirituality, compassion and creativity. Couple those traits with an energy and drive to accomplish anything she sets her mind to and…let’s just say she wouldn’t be the last one picked for any kind of team I was putting together.
By her own definition, Carolyn is “a stranger in a strange land.” She considers herself an industry outsider, a self perception borne of her hearkening from a Connecticut family containing three orthopedic surgeons. Carolyn herself parlayed a biochemistry degree into a 25 year career in the hospice industry as a nurse practitioner, obtaining a Master’s degree from Emory University in nursing, oncology and thanatology. Throughout her career she consulted on and established hospice facilities nationwide, culminating in the sale of her last hospice venture about 12 years ago in San Diego, her new “forever” home.
So, what if we were to break the personalities of the world down into two
categories, very much simplified and not meant to be exclusionary, but for definition’s sake only, and say the world was composed of artists and scientists (the left brain, right brain thing)? Chefs and restaurateurs, as creators of art with every dining room they design, table they set and meal they produce are clearly in one category. There we can understand better that Carolyn’s analytical approach to an industry replete with artists would be considered the exception rather than the rule, thus her perception of being an outsider, despite the extended resume that follows.
The sale of her last hospice facility wasn’t the end – rather the beginning for Carolyn. Always dreaming of pursuing a career in the food world, she briefly considered culinary school. Instead, in keeping with her fundamental nature, she chose a more organic route and began a 10 year career with Whole Foods Market (WFM). There, she progressed through many levels of the retail food world, working in the bakery and prepared foods departments, being a back up sign maker (is that really a thing?), a marketing assistant and eventually becoming a Local Product Specialist. While she had gained valuable experience working through the various positions she held at WFM, it was the as the Local Product Specialist where she eventually honed the skills and formed the relationships that would propel her to her current day capacity.
In this position, Carolyn met with local farmers, ranchers, vendors, chefs and other artisans connected to the food world in order to source and develop food products for distribution at WFM as well as organizing collaborative food events such as Taste of Baja, which had her wrangling many local chefs and purveyors to participate. Among her duties, she was responsible for getting the raw product from the community onto WFM’s shelves, giving her unique in-depth experience in every facet of that portion of the process of getting food from the land into our bellies, from sourcing, packaging and branding to pricing and distribution.
Parting ways with WFM after 10 years, Carolyn has now launched career number three, which, right now, right here, is pretty much the perfect right place, right time scenario for the San Diego food scene and, more importantly, those behind the scene. Carolyn’s business of about eight months, Your Product Hub, focuses on helping small farms, vendors and food artisans develop their product, distribution, branding and accomplish the myriad of tasks (including completing 53 page applications for some of the grocery chains) to ensure a concrete presence on store shelves and chef’s pantries and coolers.
Her approach is energized. It is direct and no-nonsense. It is, as her company mission states, “Breaking down barriers” not only in getting her clients to market, but also in changing the direction, mission and focus of her clients as needed. In fact, her greatest challenges often lie in re-educating and re-directing her new clients efforts – sometimes talking them out of a course of action, sometimes defining a path to success that requires a different gear and a different level of “work” for these already hard working artisans. And, yet, this is all communicated with a sense of compassion, with as much love for the people as she has for the purity of the product and the land that produces it.
The San Diego food scene is on the cusp of becoming a recognized player on a national, if not global scale. Currently not even worthy of a visit by the Michelin Guide evaluators (two or three whole different rants there), we are home to many innovative chefs serving inspired, avante-garde cuisine. And, yet, as in any pursuit, there are plateaus that must be conquered, traditions that must be changed and old guard cliques that must be dismantled in order to proceed to the next level of success.
As painful as it might be, looking at any conundrum, issue, or, in this case, industry with an outsider’s perspective and frank, honest feedback is the quickest, most efficient route possible to addressing shortcomings and paving paths. It is not soothing, easy on the ego or comfortable. For, an outsider, by nature, will not care much for the feelings or efforts of those involved, but for the results obtained. Carolyn Kates, with her analytical mind and artist’s soul appears to be exactly where the universe wants her and our food scene needs her, cracking the whip with love, pushing her clients to their limits while massaging their bruised backs and egos and sending out positive vibes. Breaking down barriers, indeed – the real winners in this whole deal, should she accomplish her mission, will be us – the people eating and enjoying the food that she helps bring to market. Cheers, my friends!