Smiling Sarah Yancey of Smiling Hara Tempeh
By: Beth Browne
They say that when one door closes another opens. Sarah Yancey was working as a secretary for a plumbing company, in 2008, when she was laid off. With no idea what she was going to do, she bought a block of tempeh (pronounced “tem-pay”) and cooked it for her boyfriend, Chad. He said, “This is pretty good, but have you ever had the real thing?” Sarah hadn’t, but she soon learned that the real thing is so much better than store-bought tempeh.
Chad had a macrobiotic background and had studied at the renowned Kushi Institute (Center for Natural Healing) in Massachusetts. He told Sarah how tempeh could be made from beans other than soybeans, so they purchased garbanzo beans and made it the hard way. After soaking the beans, they rubbed off the hulls by hand. “It took forever,” Sarah says. Then they had to rig up a shoebox for the incubation process. When the tempeh was done, they had this beautiful fuzzy white cake which they fried right away and ate together in culinary bliss. Chad confessed that he had tried to start a business making tempeh, but he couldn’t get it off the ground. Apparently, the time was right for Sarah because she took the idea and ran with it.
Together, they settled on the name Smiling Hara meaning “Happy Belly” (Hara means belly in Japanese) because of all the probiotics in the final product. Sarah went on the Blue Ridge Food Ventures website to learn how to make the business legitimate with the government and then she distributed free samples at area restaurants. She says, “Most people were sold right away just by tasting it and because it’s local.” Before she knew it, they had thirty restaurant accounts.
Tempeh is unique among major traditional soy-foods in that it did not originate in China or Japan. Tempeh originated in today’s Indonesia, where the individual cakes are wrapped in banana leaves and left in the open air to incubate naturally. At Smiling Hara Tempeh, cooked beans are mixed with a little vinegar to balance the pH and then a live culture is added and thoroughly mixed in. The beans are put into individual bags for the incubation process. The mix must be kept at eighty-five degrees for thirty-six hours; the result is a soft white cake made of the culture surrounding the beans. Sarah says, “Our tempeh has the qualities of mushrooms because it’s basically mycelium that we’re growing on beans. These microscopic mushrooms are so phenomenal for your health because they have the ability to find cancer-causing agents in your body that they absorb and ingest. It’s super food, a super-protein.”
The fresh product is very different from the commonly available tempeh because it’s un-pasteurized, which preserves all the probiotics produced from the incubation process. Smiling Hara Tempeh is kept frozen to preserve all the beneficial bacteria without spoilage. Once frozen, it will keep for six months.
They started making twenty-pound batches, using the facilities at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a community commercial kitchen in nearby Candler, to meet the initial demand of Rosetta’s Kitchen, their first customer. The process wasn’t all smooth sailing at first. Sarah says, “In the beginning, we endured three-hundred pound losses at a time. The challenge at that point was keeping at it. We had to hold tight to our vision of success and persistence.” Now they are successfully making seven-hundred-pound batches and carefully figuring ways to make as much as a thousand pounds at a time.
Early on, Sarah connected with John McEntire of Peaceful Valley Farms in Old Fort, North Carolina. Mr. McEntire is renowned for organic corn, grown on his fifth generation family farm. Smiling Hara began purchasing all the beans they could from Mr. McEntire and, as a result, he has increased production. However, he can only supply a small portion of Smiling Hara’s growing demand. “We use only organic, USA-grown non-GMO beans, so we are continually looking for local growers,” says Sarah.
As the business grew, Sarah consulted with Leila Baukum of Great Eastern Sun (maker of Miso Master and other products) who gave her critical advice about selling the product on the retail market, specifically at Whole Foods Market and Earthfare. In a very short time, the advice paid off and Smiling Hara Tempeh landed on store shelves. Sarah started cooking demonstrations in the stores and won over many new customers with free samples.
Whole Foods Market has been very supportive of Sarah’s efforts. They recently awarded Smiling Hara Tempeh a low interest loan for expansion to meet the demand of supplying twenty-two stores all over the Southeast by April. Whole Foods will help by picking up the product and delivering via their distribution centers. “Our product is extremely different from what they’re currently offering,” Sarah says, feeling sure that the customers will be pleased with the freshness and high quality of her product.
Smiling Hara makes and sells only tempeh. The nearest competitor, a producer in Virginia, also makes tofu, but Sarah is committed to making only tempeh because she feels it’s a more healthful product. Tofu is highly processed, making it harder to digest than tempeh. Tempeh’s incubation process and retention of the whole bean give a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins, including vitamin B12, commonly missing from a vegetarian diet. And, she says, the nutty flavor of tempeh is unique and delicious.
Smiling Hara also makes soy-free tempeh from black beans and black-eyed peas. They are now experimenting with making tempeh sausage, adding spices and producing a tube shape that looks like sausage and is ready-to-eat. The regular tempeh soaks up flavor well and is great in recipes. (See next page for an intriguing recipe.)
They are committed to becoming a green company. They are working on eliminating plastic from their process because, Sarah says, “Plastic is such an evil thing in the landfill.” They composted the lost batches on the farm, returning all that waste to the soil.
From the beginning, they’ve been committed to creating a supportive workplace for their employees. “We took big risks and, instead of doing all the work ourselves and making all the profit, hired people that we really couldn’t afford. We had a community mind-set in sharing whatever wealth we had. Our employees actually make more money than we do.” Sarah laughs about this, but she says they know that “the only way we’ll be successful is if we include other people and inspire them to be leaders within our business.”
One of the benefits for Sarah of having her own business is that she makes her own rules and, now that her business is off the ground, she does much of her work from home. It’s great because she has a two-year-old son, Atticus, born at the same time as the business. She strapped him on to her back and returned to work in just two weeks post-partum. “He can be there with me, and I don’t have to find a babysitter. He just sits in my lap and cuddles with me while I’m writing emails or talking on the phone.”
Smiling Hara Tempeh can be found in delicious dishes at more than twenty area restaurants, including Rosetta’s Kitchen, Laughing Seed Café, and Heiwa Shokudu Japanese Restaurant and in the freezer section at GreenLife Grocery, Earthfare, and at Whole Foods Markets across the Southeast in April.
Visit Smiling Hara Tempeh online at: www.smilinghara.com.
Author Beth Browne writes because she just can’t stop herself. Her two kids wish she liked cooking as much as writing. In her spare time, she enjoys sailing with her salty mate, Eric, and blogging at: bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.
Photographer Alexis Culver lives in Asheville and photographs images in which we witness people and environments growing, light shifting, and life evolving with a concentration on biographic life events, happenings, friends, family, and travels. She received her BA from Warren Wilson College and MFA from Indiana University. She recently completed a three-month residency with photographer Paolo Ventura in Tuscany, Italy. You can see more of her photographs at: www.alexisculver.com
Buffalo Tempeh Wrap Recipe
Ingredients (for 2 big wraps):
• 2 large whole-wheat wraps
• 1 12-oz package Smiling Hara Tempeh
• 1/2-3/4 cup Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Wing Sauce (make sure it’s Buffalo Wing, not regular Frank’s)
• lettuce or spinach
• a few handfuls of crumbled blue cheese
• 1/2 cup yogurt (I used soy, but Greek or regular would taste best)
• 1 celery rib
• 2 Tbsp minced red onion
• small handful chopped fresh cilantro
• 1 Tbsp canola oil
Heat your grill to high (the oven would work if you don’t have a grill)
Rub the tempeh block with oil, a pinch of salt and pepper, and about 2 Tbsp of the buffalo sauce. Let sit for 5-10 minutes while the grill gets hot. In the meantime chop the onion, celery and cilantro and mix in
a bowl with the yogurt and some of the blue cheese to taste. Add salt if desired. Grill the tempeh block for 2 minutes or so on each side, until heated and just marked by the grill.
Slice the tempeh into 1/2 inch slices and toss in a bowl with remaining buffalo sauce. Spread the yogurt sauce on the wraps, top with lettuce or spinach. Add half the tempeh to each and sprinkle with remaining blue cheese, if desired (mine was a little too blue cheesy, so go easy on the cheesy). Fold in the sides, wrap up, and enter buffalo nirvana.