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Treat Smarts

Snack-making entrepreneurs capitalize on gourmet trends

By David Templeton

MANEUVERING his van as closely as possible to the front door of Gold's Gym in downtown Santa Rosa, Bill Geist of Out to Lunch Foods stops the vehicle and leaps from the driver's seat. He pulls a tray of still-warm muffins from the side door of the van and, balancing the tray on one shoulder, propels himself around the corner and through the front door.

Across the exercise floor, buffed-up bodies are working out to the pounding music of the lifting and falling weights, but for one brief moment, the heads that attach to those appetite-building bodies all turn to watch Geist jostle his own burden up to the front counter.

"The Muffin Man!" greets the fellow behind the counter, as Geist unloads his wares next to the Power Bars and energy drinks. Of all the upscale, eat-and-run comestibles made in Out to Lunch's Petaluma kitchen, these health-conscious, fat-free muffins (Three-Berry and Apple-Cinnamon) are the undisputed bestsellers.

"The muffins are definitely our bread and butter," Geist affirms on his way back to the van.

And they are just the tip of a snack-food iceberg that includes the 3 1/2-year-old company's numerous other gourmet goodies, and extends out to the entire industry of high-end, upscale snack food manufacturers. Capitalizing on a growing trend toward healthier, classier num-nums, these innovative bakers and marketers are jostling for positions, hoping to ride that iceberg right into the increasingly eat-and-run world of the 21st century.

WORKING out of a small but well-appointed kitchen hidden beneath Copperfield's Book Store and Cafe in Petaluma, Geist and Out to Lunch's owner, Bethany Barsman, have just finished baking 450 fat-free muffins, along with numerous vegetarian focaccia breads, vegan burritos, and dozens of other grab-and-go items. Some will go into the shelves in the upstairs cafe, and the rest will be delivered to coffeehouses, restaurants, and shops throughout Sonoma County.

What began as a catering company (Barsman still caters several events a week) has rapidly grown into a full-fledged manufacturing and delivery operation, a circumstance Barsman and Geist find exhilarating, if somewhat exhausting.

"We knew the time was right for this kind of business," Barsman says during a much-deserved coffee break in the café. "The market for these kinds of products is just huge. Part of it is the whole 'health-conscious' thing, and part is the trend toward gourmet take-out. People are tired of potato chips. They want something good."

And they are willing to pay for it. One constant of the gourmet-goody industry is that these products are not cheap. Compare a buck-25 for a corn-bread and honey muffin at your corner espresso joint with 50 cents for a glazed doughnut from Winchell's or 60 for a bag of Ruffles. Then again, you get what you pay for.

"Money is tight, definitely," Barsman nods. "But people need a haven. They need a special little treat now and then, and I've seen that people will afford themselves that treat, if it's a really good treat. It makes you feel special."

DEBBIE DYAR agrees. As co-owner, with Celeste DeTessan, of Sonoma's Splendido Biscotti Co., Dyar has watched as demand for their assorted, easy-to-dip, espresso-friendly dessert items has grown, putting Splendido Biscotti into hundreds of shops and cafés throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

A sweet situation, certainly, not that gourmet snacks need be sweet. There are alternatives.

Take Splendido's new Savory Biscotti, a ground-breaking culinary innovation that Dyar and DeTessan unveiled to great acclaim at the giant San Francisco Food Show last January.

"We ran out the first day," she laughs, "far exceeding our expectations." The duo stayed up all that night baking biscotti for the following day of demonstrations, and received numerous orders from buyers for high-end specialty stores.

The savory biscotti--which are growing slowly in popularity, chiefly, Dyar believes, because people are uncertain how to eat them--look like traditional biscotti, only tomato red. Made with sun-dried tomatoes, pistachios, garlic, and six other herbs, they're designed to be eaten along with soups and salads.

"It's not a cookie," Dyar chuckles. "It's a different deal." Those who've picked them up have discovered a variety of uses for the spicy noshes. "They go great with a mango-tomato chutney," she suggests. "People eat them with brie, or along with steamed crab." Three new flavors will be unveiled soon, Dyar says. "We knew there was a market for this. Choices are so limited. People want something different."

SOMETHING GOOD. Something healthy. Something different. So what else do today's discerning consumers want? "We want snacks with attitude," insists one young man, tattooed and ear-pierced, standing in line at a busy downtown espresso bar. He declines to give his name but, when asked for an example, selects an severely rectangular cookie from the rack. "These are good," he bobs his head. "They have attitude." The unadorned label reads: 21st Century Pastry.

ATTITUDE! I love that!" says Phyllis Heagney of 21st Century in Guerneville. "That kind of fits us." Heagney and partners Steve Bernstein and Fred Dodge started up the decidedly non-run-of-the-mill company almost four years ago, and it has had the same overwhelming reception as their fellow snack-makers have described.

"We've had steady growth all along," Heagney affirms, "which supports the theory that people are moving toward a higher-end kind of product." As for the futuristic name, she says, "We feel like we have a pretty modern-looking product. It has clean lines. A spare look to it. Not fussy. Streamlined. Clean."

Health food stores have taken to the clean look and to the uncomplicated, chemical-free ingredients of the company's various sweet stuffs. In fact, 21st Century Pastry has found shelf space in gourmet-leaning establishments statewide.

"We do high-quality sugar," Heagney laughs. "Refined but real. People may resist the high price, but once they taste [our sweets], they're back for more."

In a world of budget cuts and corporate downsizing, of economic stress and dwindling resources, a world where giant stores can find grateful buyers for cheap but shoddy merchandise, why is it that people will gleefully spend one or two bucks for something that amounts to a cookie?

Well, according to Heagney, the gourmet snack industry is thriving for precisely those reasons.

"It's rough out there," she says. "People will cut back on what they spend. But they're not going to not go to a café and have a good dessert and a fine cup of coffee.

"It's a small luxury," she adds, "And one that people will continue to budget for."

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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