Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Meet Your Makers: Melissa Yen of Jo Snow Syrups

Melissa Yen of Jo Snow Syrups was our very first interview for our blog known as "Meet Your Makers", started in early 2012. Nathan from our staff caught up with her again, and she's not only one of our favorite producers, she used to work at Provenance! Read on for some FYI and a few good recipes to try with her syrups:

PFW: So Melissa, you’ve mentioned on your website that you used to own a café and would get so bored with the flavored syrups that were available to you at the time. Hence you began creating your own as a means to break from the drab French Vanilla and Caramel flavored staples of coffee-shops across the country. What would you say you hope to accomplish with Jo Snow Syrups by creating fun and exciting flavors like Ginger Passion Fruit or Fig Vanilla Black Pepper?

MY: To inspire people, to take them out of their comfort zone, to shake things up! To share my passion! To make people lighten up & have fun!

PFW: Syrups can be sticky business (pun most certainly intended). Did you make your way into the creative sector of flavored syrups by way of your former café? Or was there some other ‘sweet’ way you managed to get into this area?

MY: I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that “joke”! Yes, Jo Snow Syrups was born out of the café. Once we sold the café I took 4 months off to “recover”, then set about figuring out what I wanted to do next. I have always wanted a food product. I get so excited when I see things I have never seen before. I love creative, well made, tasty artisan products. I was trying to figure out what I could make when I stepped back & realized, I HAD a food product that I knew how to make well, that people enjoyed, hence Jo Snow was born.

PFW: Before running Jo Snow Syrups did you have a dream to run such a fun, lighthearted business putting smiles on people’s faces? Having seen you and your team crush it at farmers markets here in Chicago it looks like you’ve wanted to do this for quite some time.

MY: Thanks. I am very lucky to have the staff I have. They are awesome! You know, the majority of teams’ names start with a C or a K. Kaicy, Kevin, Kaitlin, Kathy, Cory, Kelly! How fun is that! Funny, I have owned other small businesses & they are always a little bit "out of the norm”. I used to own a retail shop that sold fun somewhat-wacky stuff from artisan & other cultures. I’ll never forget this company that sold wood carvings modeling on the Balinese flying dragons that were so popular, except one of their creations was a Grandma holding a pie with wings. It cracked me up! I also used to items from Mexico. It started with “serious”stuff, silver, tin, carved masks, etc & then it turned into Mexican Wrestling masks & these cool vinyl publicity bags with chickens on them. I always seem to end up on the light hearted side of things. Again, people are so serious. I hope I can help them lighten up.

PFW: With a variety of flavors to choose from at Jo Snow, including Tangerine Lavender Honey, Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom, and Balsamic Black Walnut it’s clear to us at Provenance Food & Wine you’ve got a creative and imaginative streak in you. Would you say you’ve been this way since you were a kid? Did you ever think growing up you would one day be at the helm of such a successful and fun business catering to old and young alike?

MY: You know, I don’t know. I have always been drawn to “different” things, fashions, people, images, etc. I love to create. I have tried many different outlets. This one just is the one that seems to work!

PFW: We’re always talking at Provenance about certain ‘wow’ factors that come with being able to taste and experience such fantastic products. For me personally I remember trying REAL maple syrup for the first time and thinking, “Wow! So THIS is what maple syrup is supposed to taste like?!” Did you have a ‘wow’ moment while researching or working with syrups that made you think, “Wow, this is good. But I can make this great!”?

MY: I always start with an idea of flavor combos, but the finished product doesn’t always end up to be my original idea. I will make a syrup, taste it & see what it needs, what it is missing, what needs to be bumped up or toned down. Hibiscus Basil Orange Blossom started as Hibiscus Cilantro Lime…it didn’t quite work, so I started subbing out some of the flavors til I got to “Wow”!

PFW: No disrespect to the classic coffee-house syrups of old (i.e. Vanilla, Caramel, Hazelnut, etc) but after trying a few drops of your Café de Olla in my brew it’s easy to never look back. Where do you find the inspiration for the wonderfully broad flavor profile of your syrup portfolio?

MY: I often find my inspiration in other cultures. The Café de Olla is based on a Mexican coffee drink. The Cardamom Rose Water is based on a Turkish coffee. The Fig Vanilla Black Pepper is inspired by the Mediterranean. I just love the food & flavors of other cultures.

PFW: We can find you around local farmers markets this summer, totally decked out in classic Soda Jerk attire: paper-hat, suspenders, bow tie, etc. offering your delicious syrups in the form of snow cones. In what other ways do you make strides to expand your products to new customers who are looking for an alternative to the ‘high fructose corn syrup and food dye’ concoctions that come from big-box producers?

MY: It takes a certain person to appreciate my flavors & I love when I find that person. I sell to cafes, bars restaurants, retail stores. I do demos, tastings, collaborations & holiday shows to try to expand my audience. And somehow people seem to find me too!

PFW: Your syrups begin with a base of organic evaporated cane juice and from there you add a variety of natural herbs, spices, and extracts to create the complex and structured syrups we’re so lucky to carry at Provenance Food & Wine. Your all-natural approach to syrup-making is a major benefit to our customers seeking something without all the added sweeteners and phony flavors they may find elsewhere. What would you say is another great benefit you offer to customers who utilize Jo Snow Syrups?

MY: Versatility. Jo Snow Syrups are very versatile. They can be used in the obvious…cocktails, sodas, coffee, but it really gets interesting when people start making vinaigrettes with my syrups, or glazing quick breads with them or drizzling them on cheese.
Also, by buying Jo Snow you are supporting a small local business & I think you should feel good about that!

PFW: Having watched you and your team dominate at your booth on hot summer days at the farmers market it seems to me the most enjoyable part of the job would be the spinning shaved ice machine you use to create your flavored snow cones. Would you say this is in fact your favorite part of the job or is it found somewhere else for you?

MY: Funny, my team does most of the spinning! I love connecting with my customers. I truly love customer service. I love turning people on to a flavor they might have been “afraid” of. That moment when they tentatively try the fig vanilla black pepper with a look of doubt & then their face lights up & they say “boy, this is awesome”, that makes my day!

PFW: What would you say is the least favorite part of running Jo Snow Syrups?

MY: The heavy lifting! Those 50 pound bags of sugar are heavy!

PFW: Since summer is well underway, could you leave us and our customers with your favorite summertime cocktail that uses Jo Snow Syrups? Or several?

MY: Sure…the first two are courtesy of the fabulous Jenny Kessler at Masa Azul, refreshing, tasty & fun…just the way I like them! The third is courtesy of Sonja Kassenbaum at North Shore Distillery. Again…simple, delicious cocktail. The tangerine lavender honey syrup pairs so well with her Chamomile Citrus Vodka.

Kentucky Lemonade
1 oz Cherry Thyme syrup
1.5 oz Bourbon
Lemonade & Iced Tea
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake & strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with half iced tea and half lemonade. Garnish with a hand slapped sprig of thyme and optional cherry.
Use iced mint tea for a fun twist!

Rosemary’s Greyhound
1 oz Grapefruit Rosemary syrup
1.5 oz vodka
2 oz fresh grapefruit juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake & strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with grapefruit sparkling water. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Sunshine in a Glass
2 oz North Shore Distillery Chamomile Citrus Vodka
¾ oz Jo Snow Tangerine Lavender Honey syrup
½ oz fresh orange juice
½ oz fresh lemon juice
Shake ingredients with ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a swath of orange peel

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