Katie Riehm and Her Sweet Theory of Food
As Baker/Doughnut Glazer/Product Developer of Sweet Theory Baking Co., Katie Riehm knows how to tantalize the tastebuds of her customers, who patiently wait in line for baked goodies. This small business owner has seen the evolution of the food culture in Jacksonville since she opened in 2012, and is enthusiastic about the growing support in the area for vegan bakeries, local products and the collaborative spirit of the culinary community.
How did you first become interested in food and food related issues?
My relationship with food began when my cousins opened Grassroots Natural Market in 2006. I was 21 at the time, working in restaurants, and my diet was 90% Morningstar Farms Veggie Sausage and Vodka. I was having a blast, but I was constantly run down and sick. I worked for them part-time, surrounded by organic produce and whole, natural foods. I began cooking more at home, mainly out of curiosity as I discovered new foods that I had never tried. That passion eventually led me to the Chef's training program at The Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in NYC, abandoning my Art History Degree at UNF.
How did Sweet Theory get its start? What has been the most beneficial advice you received as a start-up?
I had the idea (roughly) for Sweet Theory before I even moved to NYC. In the back of my mind I knew that was what I ultimately wanted to do with my training. I'm born and raised in Jacksonville, all of my family is here, so this was where it was going to happen. My favorite piece of advice, and what I say to anyone wanting to start a business, is that you have to stick to your vision. People will tell you that you have to do this or this will work best, but especially if you're doing something creative, you have to trust your instincts.
What set you down the Vegan path with your food business?
We opened in 2012, and there definitely seems to be an increase in the demand for vegan and allergy friendly baked goods. It's hard to gauge from everyday traffic who is here due to dietary preferences or restrictions, but as far as special orders go I definitely think it's primarily people ordering for allergy purposes vs. being vegan and needing a vegan cake. We do a lot of birthday cakes for children with food allergies. This is something that appears to be on the rise, which I strongly feel our modern farming practices and industrialized food system had a hand in. There's a lot of gluten-free backlash, I've had people leave long, angry rants on our Facebook page about how gluten allergies are fake, we're just following a trend and so on. What most people don't realize is that gluten is a highly inflammatory, difficult to digest protein. Wheat is also very different now from what our great grandparents consumed. You do not have to have an allergy to it to feel the benefits of eliminating it from your diet. I think the best way and only way ideally we should consume wheat flour is in the form of real sourdough bread, when the gluten is already partially broken down and more digestible, and the vitamins and minerals are more bio available. That being said, we have doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and biscuits chock full of gluten for those who gotta have it! Sorry for the rambling. That clearly is a subject that I could go on about for days!
What do you see as your greatest challenge as a small food business operator? What do you see as your greatest challenge in maintaining the quality of your products?
Our greatest challenge is keeping up with the demand. We are limited by our space, and I think it's difficult for people to understand that at times. We are making everything fresh in the mornings daily, and there's really only so much product we can get out (and we really do bust out a ton of product!). It would make sense to move into a larger location, or even open other locations to meet the demand, but I worry that would be when our quality could potentially slip. I'm a very hands-on owner, I'm present every morning to see and assist with product going out. In the nearly four years we've been open, I've missed 3 days total. Right now, I feel like we're at our best with quality and at the top of our game, I would like to maintain that for as long as humanly possible!
You also are actively involved in the small business local food movement. Are there things you think we need to be doing to promote more of that in our region? If so, what are they?
I am endlessly impressed with the changes that have taken place within the past five years in Jacksonville. The local food movement in this city has spread more quickly than I ever would have imagined possible. What has been working and what will strengthen the cause is ongoing education. People have to understand where their food is coming from, and why it's so important to purchase locally sourced foods and support local purveyors for the economical and environmental benefits.
We talk a lot about our food system -- an interrelated network of restaurants, farms, artisans, policy makers -- all working together to celebrate and strengthen our food resources and culture in the region. What are the greatest opportunities you see for our food system in the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years I hope to see the passion for local food culture in this city grow more rapidly than ever before. The rise in restaurants supporting local farmers and artisans in the community is huge, the fact that more restaurants are sourcing locally means less food being shipped countless miles, and in turn we as consumers get the benefit of enjoying foods made with fresh, local ingredients. On an individual level, the more people who shop and consume following the same principals, the more we can distance ourselves from our industrialized food system all together. I truly believe that is the direction we are heading in, and I am excited to see what that growth will mean for our existing farmers/artisans/restaurants, and the opportunity this creates for more people to engage and contribute to the local food scene.
What's your guilty pleasure when it comes to food? The one or two things you love to eat or drink, but rarely admit?
I'm not sure how guilty this is, but the Scallop Tartar and a Calibri from Orsay is hands down my favorite meal. Or beginning to a meal. I guess I feel guilty in that it's all I ever want, any day/everyday. I also eat more popcorn covered in nutritional yeast than any one person should ever consume in one sitting.
What's your favorite local restaurant?
Manatee Cafe in St. Augustine for lunch, Orsay for Happy Hour/Dinner.
What's your favorite product at the bakery?
My favorite thing at the bakery is easily the least exciting thing as far as everyone else is concerned... Our muffins. I love our muffins. It took a long time to perfect a gluten free muffin that was light, moist, with that perfectly crispy top. Throw in some organic berries and I'm all over it.
Want to try Katie's gluten-free, vegan and organic treats for yourself? Visit her at Sweet Theory Baking Co, 1243 King St, Jacksonville.