CHICAGO — Melissa Yen will ship out a 300-case batch of her Jo Snow Syrups next month to a customer she never dreamed she would attract just two years into her business: Crate & Barrel.
The home furnishings retailer started selling Yen's gourmet syrups last spring in 85 stores and asked for more in the fall and again this spring.
Cherry-lime, one of the two flavored syrups this time around, will be exclusive to Crate & Barrel, created by Yen at the retailer's request to fit its Americana snow cone theme.
Jo Snow is one of a handful of small-batch food artisans in Chicago going big. New York-based retailer Dean & Deluca carries both More cupcakes and Rare Bird Preserves, and Williams-Sonoma added More cupcakes to its catalog in the fall.
Sales are going so well for Rothman that she shifted her Gold Coast shop at 1 E. Delaware Place to a 24-hour baking cycle and scrapped her initial goal of opening multiple More locations.
"We're not even considering that," she said. "Shipping has been a perfect way of getting national recognition and this huge share of the market."
The Cinderella story for Chicago's small food producers might be Vosges Haut-Chocolat. Owner Katrina Markoff began in 1998 with one Lincoln Park shop. She is up to eight locations in four states and is on the shelves at national retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Whole Foods and Cost Plus.
Such mass exposure comes with its challenges.
About two years ago, Williams-Sonoma tried wooing Rare Bird's Elizabeth Madden to add her seasonal preserves to their lineup. But after considering, among other things, the cost of shipping her products in keeping with the retailer's specifications, Madden declined.
"It was too much of a stretch for me," said Madden, who makes her preserves and jams in 30-jar batches out of an Oak Park kitchen. More manageable for her is supplying to Dean & Deluca's seven stores nationwide.
Rothman had to reconfigure packaging and shipping so that her cupcakes arrive looking and tasting as if you'd just walked into her shop and bought them — steps she took in preparation for the onslaught of orders that came with making Oprah's "O List" in December 2010.
"We've perfected it with flash-freezing," Rothman said. "That's the expensive part of the process — investing in the equipment."
Jo Snow's Yen, whose syrups caught the eye of a Crate & Barrel buyer at the Lincoln Square farmers market, said she was overwhelmed at first by the volume and product lead times, but has since figured out a rhythm.
Moving out of a shared kitchen on the South Side in January and into the kitchen at Milk & Honey, the Wicker Park cafe owned by a friend who's two miles from Yen's home, has helped.
"It's very manageable. I can produce a lot at one time, and my syrups have a shelf life," she said.
Yen has had to change the labels on her syrups slightly to fit the store's needs, but feels her brand is still intact. Staying on with Crate & Barrel isn't a sure thing, though. It's up to her to continue selling them on her syrups, which include a new, smaller 5-ounce bottle.
"Now that you have a taste of the big orders, once you know you can do it, you want more of that," Yen said.