Sara Wong comes from a long line of food-centered folks. With an ancestry that includes roots in China, France and Ireland, her culinary experiences have run the gamut from ordinary to extraordinary.
Her grandfather owned a coffee and sandwich shop in Honolulu, where her father worked making pastries and other edibles. When her parents moved to the Brookfield area, her dad opened up a Cantonese American restaurant called The Lime House, where she spent time working during her youth.
And Wong has embarked upon her own share of culinary adventures. She cites her extensive travels to Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey and France as a big influence on her increasingly global palate.
"When I travel, I love to eat the local cuisine. When I went to Vietnam, I had to try dog," she says. "I’ve also eaten crickets. I’m up for trying anything."
Currently Wong is trying her hand at a completely different sort of adventure. She’s starting a food based business.
For the past year, Wong has invested her time and energy in learning how to can and preserve food through classes offered by the Milwaukee Parks and Recreation Department. Her instructor, Christina Ward is a Milwaukee County Master Food Preserver, teacher and owner of Kick Out the Jams, a small batch jam and jelly company.
"No one in my family canned while I was growing up," Wong says. "But, my mother made freezer jam, and I loved her jam. I knew I wanted to learn more about preserving foods so that I could continue that tradition."
Wong learned to preserve jams, jellies and pickles. But, it was mustard that really sparked her creativity.
"I always tell my classes that canning is alchemy ... part science and part art," Ward says. "And that once you learn the science that makes food safe … there's loads of room to develop flavor. And that's what Sara has done! She's taken the technique and technical know-how and is really exploring."
Although she was having fun, Wong didn’t necessarily expect to take her interest to the next level.
"I never had my sights on putting the food up for sale. In fact, I’m kind of selfish, I was planning to eat it all myself," Wong reflects. "But, the further I got into it, the more I saw that it was something I could do. People appreciate having homemade things made from scratch. When you make something, you put a piece of yourself in it."
As the wheels in her head began turning, Wong found herself contemplating products that she could make from ingredients available year round.
"I was drawn to the versatility of mustard – savory, sweet and everything in between," she says. "Not only can you eat it as a condiment, but it’s a great ingredient for making salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. It’s also great just eaten on pretzels."
So, she started experimenting with various ingredients, including flavored vinegars from Oro di Oliva, beer from Milwaukee Brewing Company and a variety of different sweeteners. She has also been testing various recipes and techniques to see if certain procedures impact the flavor of the mustard. For instance, what happens when you toast the mustard seeds before soaking them?
"My brother gave me some seed money to start my business," Wong tells me. "I’m using it to buy ingredients, get a tent and a table. My sister is in graphic design, so she’s helping me with the logo. Others are helping me to name products."
Wong feels strongly about supporting the local economy with her business decisions, so she’s hoping to stick to local for her ingredients. The mustard seeds, for instance, she’ll buy from The Spice House. And she’s been using honey harvested from the Walnut Way community to develop a honey mustard she plans to call "Bronzeville Buzz."
"I would love to connect with local, like-minded food businesses. I’d love to partner with a beer company like Milwaukee Brewing for my beer mustard, and really develop solid connections with Walnut Way to work with them for their honey."
Wong has applied for permits to sell at the farmer’s market this summer. She has also filed her business as a sole proprietorship.
"It’s kind of a confusing process," she admits. "You have different entities involved. You have the City of Milwaukee involved for the farmer’s market permit. You have the IRS involved…"
Wong bulked up her business knowledge by taking a class through Waukesha County Technical College with Rebecca Scarberry of Becky’s Blissful Bakery. And she credits Ward with giving her plenty of support and encouragement.
"I’ve really been amazed at how much support there is for individuals starting new food businesses here in Milwaukee," Wong says. "The market isn’t as hyper-competitive as I expected."
Wong’s next step will be taking her product to the market this summer and really listening to consumer feedback.
"If you like sweet, how sweet do you like it? If you like hot, how hot do you like it?" she explains. "I would like to learn more through selling at the market – find out what people like. I’d like to define the flavors that I’ll be offering as a core."
In the meantime, Wong is working on a wide variety of flavors to put out to market, including a maple mustard, honey mustard, spicy varieties as well as savory, curry and herbal mustards.
"I’m focusing on things I already know that my friends and family like," she says.
And Wong isn’t alone. Ward says that a movement that was once on the fringes of society is really taking off in Milwaukee. And it’s changing the way people look at the world of business.
"I come from the old punk DIY scene," Ward reflects. "We did things ourselves because we had to. Now, people are doing it for themselves by choice. When you begin exploring the ideas behind the local do-it-yourself movement, what we're really building is community. I think too, that's part of the reason more folks are taking the plunge and starting their micro-business. The passion these makers have for their products is incredible. We're on the verge of becoming mainstream, which I see as a very good thing!"
Business owners are also taking their businesses in very community-centered directions, and looking at different ways they can share their success with others.
Wong, who is a social worker for the Germantown School District, says that food security is a topic that weighs heavily on her conscience, and she’s likely to eventually funnel some of the money she’s making from her business back into the community.
"One of the thoughts I’ve had is that I want to find an organization to which I can donate some of the proceeds from my product," she explains. "I’m not doing this to get rich. I think everyone needs to have an activity where they’re creating something. I think it feeds your soul. The end product is part of you. There is satisfaction in challenging yourself to come up with and create something."
Milwaukee Mustard Company products will be sold exclusively at the Milwaukee Public Market Outdoor Urban Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the following Saturdays: June 8 and 22, July 13, Aug. 10 and 24, Sept. 14. Four-ounce jars of mustard will be available for approximately $5 per jar.
For more information about canning classes available through the Milwaukee Recreation Department, visit milwaukeerecreation.net.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.