by Phil Dodd
MONTPELIER — Joe Buley, owner of soup maker Joe’s Kitchen, is scrambling to get his new production facility into full swing before frosty weather hits and soup sales shift into high gear.
“Sales will quadruple in mid-October and we’ll stay busy until April,” said Buley, whose company sells soup to accounts throughout Vermont as well as in Boston, Brooklyn and upstate New York. He recently signed agreements to supply soup to two University of Vermont dining halls.
One of Buley’s biggest accounts is Hunger Mountain Coop, which in soup season ladles out 150 gallons a week of Joe’s Kitchen soup to its deli customers, plus offers Joe’s soup — which uses local ingredients whenever possible — for sale at retail. The soup is also served locally at the North Branch Café.
Buley’s new manufacturing operation is within sight of the co-op. It’s located off Barre Street in an old gray building next to the railroad tracks that until three years ago was used as a tire warehouse. Buley and his landlord Steve Ribolini had to completely renovate the building, which had holes in the roof when Buley first saw it in February or March.
“Steve has been really phenomenal,” Buley said of his landlord Ribolini. “This project wouldn’t have happened without him.”
When Ribolini bought the parcel, it had several old or unused buildings. He tore down a couple of them and now rents part of the parcel to the co-op for employee parking, according to Buley. In addition to the Joe’s Kitchen building, Ribolini owns two other buildings nearby that could also be converted to new uses.
For Buley, the move into the Montpelier facility is a major upgrade for what has been a steadily growing business. Twelve years ago, the former chef and restaurant owner started farming on his Screamin’ Ridge Farm, located on Dillon Road in East Montpelier. He started selling soup about six years ago, and was often seen selling at the Montpelier Farmer’s Market.
According to his farm’s website — which touts “Culinary Supported Agriculture” — Buley’s cooking interest is a familial one: “Joe’s grandmother’s kitchen in East Randolph, Vermont is the inspiration for the wholesome, flavorful, value-added agricultural products from Joe’s Kitchen at Screamin’ Ridge Farm.” She was known for always having soup simmering on the stove, the site says.
After cooking up his own soup in various locations, in 2011 Buley became the first tenant at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield, a licensed food production facility renting space and storage to food entrepreneurs that opened. Now Buley is the hub’s first “graduate.”
“It’s great moving from cooking in 300 square feet to having a 1,600-square-foot commercial kitchen here in Montpelier,” Buley said. The new location has been licensed by the state and approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, and awaits a United States Department of Agriculture inspection so the firm can start making soups with meat in them at the new facility.
One stumbling block for the move to the new space was Montpelier’s idiosyncratic sprinkler requirement. Buley and Ribolini asked for a variance, but the wording of the city’s ordinance did not allow an exception for them, even though the building has a cement floor, cinder block walls and steel I-beams. Sprinklers were installed at
considerable expense; Ribolini said he hopes they will add to the long-term value of the building.
Buley’s purchase of new cooking and refrigeration equipment for the facility was aided by a capital grant from the state’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund, a grant that Buley matched with a loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
Including Buley, Joe’s Kitchen has six part-time employees, two of them scheduled to shift to full-time this winter. Buley’s daughter Olivia works for the business, and his wife Lauri pitches in the one day a week she is not working at her other job.
In addition to giving the company more space and being closer to his home, another benefit Buley sees from his move is that he may have an easier time hiring help. “Employees were hard to find in Waitsfield,” he said. “Here the commuter bus stops right on Barre Street.”
Joe’s soup comes in 25 different varieties, although not all are offered at the same time. Two of the company’s top soup sellers are Ginger Chicken Vegetable and Roasted Butternut Squash Thai Green Curry. About 80 percent of the company’s business involves wholesale sales of soup, which is shipped in three-quarter gallon plastic bags, with 20 percent being sold in containers at retail.
In the future, Buley plans to expand his product line to include sauces and spreads, which he said should help even out sales and production over the full year.
But with cold weather just around the corner, it is soup that will soon be simmering away at Joe’s new Montpelier commercial kitchen.