Small-Batch Food Stars


It must be something in the water. After all, how else do you explain the large and constantly expanding number of food entrepreneurs in Sacramento? The region is an incubator for all manner of homegrown food businesses, from small-batch whiskey distillers to artisanal beef jerky producers. Just call us the Silicon Valley of delicious startups. Meet our makers.

A Scientific Approach to Whiskey 

Like the lead character in the hit TV series “Breaking Bad,” Adam Stratton was once a high school science teacher with an interest in distillation. But unlike fictional meth cook Walter White, Stratton wanted to distill something legal: small-batch, handcrafted alcoholic spirits. In 2012, he started Amador Distillery in the Gold Rush town of Jackson after learning the basics of his craft from a guy who’d been to a three-day distilling school. The rest, he says, was trial and error: “My first batch of whiskey wasn’t very good, but I got better and better at it.” His secret sauce is Sierra snowmelt water, delivered by Jackson’s municipal water system straight from the Mokelumne River. “There’s no chlorine,” says Stratton, “and it has a little bit of hardness.” That local water, he believes, is akin to the limestone cave water used to make Kentucky bourbon.

Sratton bottles his products—80-proof vodka, rum, rye, bourbon and gin, all drinkable straight from the bottle—under the brand name Engine 49. He also makes two barrel-strength whiskeys that, at 120 proof, don’t taste watered down when you add bitters and crushed ice. His most unique product is his California Gold gin. Bright gold in color, it’s citrusy with a hint of mint that lingers nicely on the palate.

Stratton offers distillery tours and tastings by appointment. By law, he’s not allowed to sell his products directly to customers, but he’s hoping for the passage of a bill that would allow distilleries, like wineries, to sell out of their tasting rooms. Available at: BevMo!, Nugget Markets, Total Wine & More

A Very Modern Gin Maker 

As a hobbyist beer brewer, Greg Baughman dreamed of getting into the beer business. The region’s glut of microbreweries persuaded him to start a microdistillery instead. Located in Rancho Cordova, his Gold River Distillery is the first spirits distiller to open in Sacramento County since Prohibition. His inaugural product— Wheel House gin—hit the market last July. A contemporary, western-style gin, it’s made with juniper and other botanicals: coriander, anise seed, grains of paradise, orange peel and angelica. Last autumn, it was served at two notable events: the Tower Bridge Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner and The California Museum’s Hall of Fame gala.

Sacramento’s buy-local ethos helped Baughman get his gin into a number of local bars and restaurants, including Capital Dime, Hock Farm, Mulvaney’s B&L, Ruth’s Chris and The Porch, as well as major grocery stores and chains. By this summer, he expects to release a second product: Wheel House 916 vodka. Where did Baughman get the name Wheel House? “It’s a tip of the hat to the men who piloted the boats that transported moonshine up and down the river from Old Sac during Prohibition,” he explains. Available at: Save Mart, BevMo!, Total Wine & More

Martini Movers and Shakers 

A couple of years ago, bartender Josh Hunt from The Waterboy approached Craig Haarmeyer, the winemaker at Revolution Wines in midtown, with a problem. He wanted to make martinis using locally sourced ingredients. But while he was able to find the vodka (Bay Area brand St. George), there was no closely sourced dry vermouth. So the pair decided to team up and make their own. The process was simple: Haarmeyer set aside a barrel of white wine for a year to oxidize. Then, he and Hunt fortified the wine with brandy infused with botanicals such as sage, rosemary and ginseng. “It had a vermouth character before we even fortified it,” says Haarmeyer, who bottled the product under his St. Rey label. The pair produced 23 cases of the stuff, which they intend to start selling out of the winery’s midtown tasting room this summer. (A sweet vermouth will follow shortly after.) Local bars and restaurants have already expressed interest. “I like the way it tastes,” says Haarmeyer. 2831 S St.; (916) 444-7711;

A Taste for Preservation

Janet McDonald was living in a house surrounded by fruit trees when she had a classic Oprah aha moment: Figure out how to preserve the fruit and she’d have plenty of tasty stuff to give as Christmas presents. So she bought a case of Ball jars and, using the recipe on the box, taught herself to make jams and marmalades. She eventually got so good at making preserves that she now sells them under the name The Good Stuff. A restaurant interior designer by trade, McDonald makes her jams and marmalades the old-fashioned way: just fruit, sugar and, for flavor, a bit of lemon juice, some New Mexico red chilies or a splash of booze. But no added pectin. “It just takes a little longer,” she says.

McDonald sources organic produce from small local farms such as Soil Born, Oto Orchards and Good Humus. “I’m in awe of small farmers,” she says. “Their fruit inspires me.” She’s known for her modern twists on traditional jams and marmalades, such as margarita marmalade (made with lime and tequila), chili blueberry jam and fig orange brandy jam. “Classic flavors, but not too weird,” she says. Darrell Corti is a fan: Last year, the famously discerning grocer commissioned McDonald to make pickled watermelon rinds to sell at Corti Brothers during the holidays. Available at: Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Preservation & co., Corti Brothers, Newcastle Produce

Cookies by Mail

Three local women—Tule Yomogida, her sister Laura Katayama and her daughter Jennifer Szostak—run an innovative food business called Tule’s Cookies. Using family recipes, head baker Yomogida makes artisanal cookies from scratch with premium ingredients like Guittard chocolate. The innovation comes from the company’s unusual subscription business model: The women sell their products through three- and six-month cookie-of-the-month clubs. Subscribers receive two-dozen cookies by mail every 30 days, along with a small bag of Tule’s alfalfa honey granola. The cost: $60 for three months, $115 for six. Cookie varieties include apricot ribbons (a classic butter cookie layered with homemade apricot pineapple jam and bits of dried apricot and pineapple), fudge sandwich cookies and salted caramel chews. The company has subscribers as far away as New York, Texas and Alaska. Available at:

Bringing Jerky to a New Generation

As a kid, Ryan Dye occasionally tagged along when his uncles went hunting for deer, elk and wild game. But what really interested him was what came after the hunt: transforming meat into jerky. That childhood hobby turned into a business about a year ago, when Dye started Midtown Jerky.

To make his high-quality jerky, Dye marinates slices of beef (either top round or eye of round) in a mixture of sugar, soy sauce and spices, then dehydrates the meat at super-low heat for eight hours. The result: a low-carb, low-fat, high-protein snack popular with local gym rats and CrossFit athletes. “Jerky has gained a lot of momentum over the past few years,” says Dye. “It’s better than chips.”

Dye’s jerky comes in three flavors: sweet heat (made with crushed red chili flakes), sesame citrus and black pepper. Dye recently quit his job as a restaurant manager to devote himself to the jerky business full time. Among his customers: students at 400 local high schools, who buy 10,000 to 15,000 single-serve bags of his jerky every month. Available at: Preservation & co., Compton’s Market, Pacific Market, Midtown Farmers Market

Curry in a Jiff

By day, she sells advertising for Sacramento News & Review. But at night, Kelsi White heads over to a commercial kitchen in West Sac and starts her second job: making curry simmer sauces under the brand name Ocean Beach Foods Co. It all began because White, who loves Indian food, couldn’t find tikka masala sauce in a jar. So she made her own sauce—one so good that friends told her to put it in a jar and sell it. That was almost three years ago. Since then, she’s been spending all her spare time whipping up tikka masala and kerala coconut curry sauces, using locally grown tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and other ingredients. “It’s a full-blown business, not a hobby,” says White, who is now looking to hire her first employee. Her sauces are versatile: Add chicken, shrimp or vegetables for a main dish, use them to baste grilled meats or as a dipping sauce for bread. Available at: Preservation & co., Taylor’s Market, Davis and Sacramento co-ops

Keeping Athletes at Fighting Weight

Convenience food that’s good for you: Sounds like an oxymoron, no? Not to Richard Joseph and Adam Sakakihara, two food-industry veterans whose company, Fork Lifter Food Truck, delivers healthy heat-and-eat meals to athletes, dieters and people concerned about nutrition and fitness. They originally ran the business out of a food truck, serving lunch outside local gyms and business parks. But they ditched the truck after MMA fighter Josh Emmett—who’d asked them to come up with a diet plan for him—created a frenzy among local athletes when he began posting pics of the food on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Now, they prepare and deliver 600 to 1,000 meals a week to clients from Elk Grove to El Dorado Hills. Each under-800-calorie meal costs $11 and includes 5 ounces of protein (beef, chicken, pork or fish) and 4 ounces each of fresh vegetables and carbs such as brown rice, quinoa or whole-wheat pasta. Joseph and Sakakihara cook out of a rented commercial kitchen, using high-quality proteins and whatever’s freshest at the market. “It’s like Iron Chef,” says Joseph, who went to culinary school and worked as a sous chef at Berkeley’s Claremont Hotel.

Joseph and Sakakihara cleverly market their meals through “sponsored athletes” and trainers at local gyms who tell clients about the food. One 300-pound customer lost 60 pounds in four months. “He didn’t understand portion control,” says Joseph. Available at: