This past April, with the pandemic in its nascent stage and Americans blissfully unaware of the devastation ahead, I received an email from Midgi notifying me that she launched a new enterprise: Taste Alaska! The subscription box service operated on the philosophy, “If you can’t come to us, we’ll come to you.” The boxes, also available as one-offs, contain a changing inventory of Alaskan food items, like reindeer sausage and smoked salmon. In every mix are visitor guides from different parts of the state and a Native Alaskan Ulu knife.
Taste Alaska! is one of the newer examples of a growing number of companies that act simultaneously as curators, agents and advocates for small artisanal businesses, affording everyone the opportunity to shop like a local, even when they aren’t. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses. In New York, a report by the Partnership for New York City projected a third of the 230,000 small businesses could close. If ever there was a time to shop independent, this is it.
And beyond the opportunity to help, there is the payoff. Buying from small makers — be it in your own city or another — is sure to yield more original, memorable items than something off the shelf in the nearest big-box store. Moreover, in addition to providing a sense of discovering something new, the way travel would, gifts from far-off places offer the giftee a pleasant reminder of traveling. When the pandemic started, I wrote a story for these pages about the joys of collecting souvenirs. I spoke to Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.” He explained that joy we get from travel — or any special occasion — comes on both sides of the actual experience, both in anticipation and memory. Part of the joy of these offerings is the thought of traveling again.
In early 2013, Michigan native Cory Wright moved back to his hometown, outside Detroit, after several years managing a restaurant in Manhattan. He had gotten used to geeking out, he says, with the chefs about local farms. But back in Michigan, the locavore movement hadn’t quite caught on yet. So he launched Mitten Crate to spotlight the region’s native agriculture and creative producers.
“Now people are not only trying to support local, but they go out of their way to buy local products,” said Wright, whose email signature title is “Chief Gifting Guru.” Today, Mitten Crate offers an assortment of food from regional producers. You can order curated packages themed around beer, regional snacks, men’s grooming and more, or mix-and-match your own with items like the top-selling Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee, Michigan-shaped gummies, cookbooks, jams, spice rubs, drinkware and plenty more.
With all the Scandinavian stereotypes that dominate Minnesota’s public image, it can be easy to forget that Minnesota is home to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the only American Indian tribe in the United States that grows and harvests its own wild rice on its land, or that Minneapolis is known as “Mill City” because it was once a hub for the grain industry (see: Kellogg’s and Post’s origin story), or that Minnesota’s nickname is the Bread and Butter State because of its dairy farms (Land O’Lakes started there.) That’s what Katie Sterns aimed to showcase when she started You Betcha! Box in 2017. The packages are designed around specific themes — happy hour; movie-night snacks; items from makers and chefs who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) — and each one includes information cards for each product, ensuring you get to know the actual makers.
“It’s about embracing what makes a place unique. Food is part of our culture — of every culture. It’s so tied to place,” Sterns said. “People are understanding the importance of supporting local supply chains.”
Researching this article, I discovered a loose network of these career locavores. Sterns told me about Sam Davidson, who co-founded Batch Nashville in 2013 as a subscription service to showcase Nashville-made items and has since branched out to a brick-and-mortar store (which shuttered in March) and non-subscription gift boxes. Today the company sources from more than 400 small businesses and makers, including ones in Austin, Charleston, Seattle and elsewhere, for other city-focused gift boxes.
“Basically, we’re batching things together and taking the guesswork out of it,” Davidson said. “I’ve always loved things made locally, and I know how hard it is to discover new items. You really have to find them in person. We take the guesswork out of it.”
Then Wright asked if I had reached out to Erin Zwigart, who founded Georgia Crafted in 2013. She sources more than 250 Georgia-made products and explains her role as “the voice of local artisans.” Zwigart has scouted most of the items from farmers markets and she gets recommendations from Georgia Grown, a small-farm-focused division of the state’s Department of Agriculture. There’s snacky stuff, such as Southern Straws cheese straws and salted caramel peach spread (both all-time bestsellers), beef jerky, honey, and treats made with the state’s famous pecans and peanuts. There is also bath and body products and home goods, like candles and cutting boards. Customers can pick and choose based on budgets and personal preferences.
John Hassmann has been the voice of local products since 1986, when he and his wife, Sharon, took over A Taste of Kentucky. (They launched their online store in 2017.) The Louisville retailer specializes in all the things that make Kentucky Kentucky — bourbon, the Derby, country cooking. Kentucky saw 1.7 million tourists come to the state in 2019 for distillery visits, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. Given the popularity of the destination, it’s little wonder that his business continues to thrive while tourism pauses. Hassmann jokes — kind of — that Dec. 25 is actually his company’s second Christmas of the year, with the Derby being the first on the calendar. Regardless of which season, though, his most popular items are the bourbon balls made with different brands of the local hooch and official commemorative julep glasses.
These gifting companies do more than support individual makers and artisans. They capture the overall energy of a creative scene, the entrepreneurs who give a city its distinctive vibe. To communicate that effectively, these gift-business owners take on a community organizer-type role. That has made Inger McDowell-Hartye well-equipped to create and run With Love, From PDX. She has sourced more than 100 locally made products over the years, including pantry items, Portland-roasted coffee, handmade soaps and candles.
“Small businesses are the heart and soul of community. And gifting is similar to organizing. You’re working with people, engaging folks in different ways,” said McDowell-Hartye, who has been a community organizer for 22 years. (It’s still her day job.) “When you’re curating products, you talk to people about their story. As an organizer, you show up and learn to meet people where they are, you learn their story. I want to tell you about every maker who has an item in the gift box.”