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The Only Local Guide To Food And Farms In Middle Tennessee - Spring 2017
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F eature Story

Of Produce and Passion Projects

three visions, one goal

By Eric D. S. Dorman
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M ore and more often, people are getting in touch with their passions and discovering that healthy, wholesome, tasty food is right up their alley. They aren’t doing it to make a killing. They’re doing it to make themselves and their customers happy. Thankfully, that approach seems to be working out for a few Middle Tennessee businesses: Twin Forks Farm, Nut Butter Nation and Southern City Flavors.

quote They aren’t doing it to make a killing. They’re doing it to make themselves and their customers happy...
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Twenty years ago, David Tannen dramatically changed the way he ate. He said goodbye to drive-throughs and processed food, became a vegetarian and resolved to start eating food in its whole form. In other words, he put down the Big Mac and picked up the carrot. For a lot of folks, that would be enough. They start eating healthier and they lose some weight, and that’s plenty.

For David, though, it stirred his affections for healthy living. He became an evangelist for eating well, a proselytizer for produce. He could not keep the good news to himself any longer. In fact, he gave up his city life, relocated to rural Tennessee and started an organic farm. Well, it was really just a garden at first. As he’ll tell you, the trappings of regular life still latched on fairly strong: mortgages, car payments, city jobs and so on. Nonetheless, Twin Forks Farm was born.

One day, everything changed. He’d been having some moderate success (garden now larger) selling his produce at farmers’ markets. But then he picked up Kiko Denzer’s How to Build an Earth Oven. He decided to start baking bread, and when he discovered that some of his friends and neighbors liked the bread, he thought, “Well, I’ll build a bigger oven.”

“We were very successful doing that,” David said. “But it got to be about 80 hours a week, and it was really killing me.”

However, David had been making granola with the ovens, as well, and decided that making granola would mean an easier lifestyle.

“More like 40 hours a week instead of 80,” David said. “It was a matter of having a life other than just baking—so we made the switch to just granola.”

Eventually, he decided to add roasted nuts (the Vinegar and Salt Sunflower Seeds are a particular hit). After some rebranding and reorganization, Twin Forks products are in 27 locations in and around Nashville. David and his wife are now retired from their corporate jobs and they devote their time and energy—their passion—to Twin Forks and to spreading the good news that healthy, whole food can also taste good. It may have taken David a while to find his calling in the food world, but he’s settling in nicely and his work is continuing to grow.

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For Memphis native Grant Ellis of Nut Butter Nation, though, the work was less of a process and more of an epiphany.

Nut Butter is the latest in Grant’s line of businesses. He’s had six or seven in the past several years. He actually keeps a running spreadsheet of ideas that pop into his head, just in case he ever wants to explore them in the future. Grant is a true entrepreneur, and as if his various ventures aren’t proof enough, he has the “Entry Level Entrepreneur” podcast to prove it.

But Nut Butter Nation—which is exactly what it sounds like: a peanut butter company—was a little bit of a different kind of idea for Grant.

“It sounds kind of crazy,” Grant said. “But I had a dream.”

And I know what you’re thinking: It’s not crazy to follow you dreams, Grant. It’s what being an American is all about. Follow your heart. Reach for the stars. Clichés and platitudes all around.

But no. Grant—like a modern seer—had a dream, an actual he-was-asleep sort of dream. Nut Butter Nation wasn’t on his spreadsheet. His subconscious, or some other force, gave him the idea one night during REM sleep.

“I was in a room and I was surrounded by almond butter—flavored, healthy almond butter,” Grant said. “And I thought in my sleep that it was kind of an interesting combination. Typically you get healthy or you get flavorful…there’s not a lot of in-between.”

He woke up and told his wife that he was thinking about starting an almond butter company.

“She knows me by now, and so she was like, ‘Whatever. Okay.’”

Within a week, they were testing recipes in their kitchen and trying different flavors.

As Grant was doing his research, however, it became apparent that 70 or 80 percent of the consumer market was still focused on peanut butter. Almond butter is much more expensive, and according to Grant, it just doesn’t taste as good when it’s flavored. Grant’s a good businessman, so he figured he’d drop the almonds and grab the peanuts, giving the people what they want.

Today, Nut Butter Nation has a traditional recipe and three others: brown sugar cinnamon, rainforest dark chocolate and honey vanilla. They’re in 30 states and 400 stores. They’re expecting that to be 1,000 stores by the end of the year.

Oh, and he had the dream in February 2015. Here you were thinking this was 15 years ago. Please. In any case, it looks like his dreams are coming true.

I didn’t realize that I needed sugar cinnamon peanut butter or vinegar and salt sunflower seeds, but now that I now they exist, I must have them.

Delicious granola and unique peanut butters are almost enough to sustain me. But in the end, sometimes I just need an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal. And that’s where Mike Weeks and Southern City Flavors come in.

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Mike started Southern City Flavors 20 years ago in Tennessee. Its genesis was he and few of his fraternity brothers entering chili contests 25 years ago. They ended up winning the Tennessee state championship three times. Eventually, they got tired of chili and moved to barbecue.

They developed their own sauce and won the state championship. They went on to win the top prize in the World Grand Championship.

“That’s where we decided to bottle it and become rich and famous,” Mike said. “Well, I got it bottled. Not sure about the rich and famous.”

All of this gave Mike a taste for the world of food. Enter, Southern City Flavors.

He ran the business as more of a hobby for about a decade, making and selling the products with a view to enhancing people’s home-cooking and table fellowship. Then, about 10 years ago, Mike decided that he wanted to expand Southern City Flavors and try out some new products. Five years ago, he bid adieu to the corporate world to focus on his passion.

“My goal was to work a little less, have more fun, travel more and play with my Southern City Flavors,” he said. “Hasn’t quite worked out that way. A lot of my friends say that I work more now than I ever did in the corporate world.”

Mike has continued to expand and grow and he’s breaking into new markets. In fact, he’s now a player in the high-end gift basket industry, and his products are available in a range of gift sets.

The latest phase of development has been a repackaging effort. Mike wants his packaging to reflect what’s inside: all-natural, delicious, family-dinner enhancers. It’s a more modern look, but the contents have the beautiful weight of tradition behind them.

“I make my stuff the way my grandmother used to make it. All natural. No by-products. It’s all made the way we made it 50 years ago, when I was a kid.”

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