Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
The moral of the Roots and Branches story could well be a warning: Be careful what you wish for. But it could also be a prediction: There’s always another version ahead of you.
Clark Mitchell and his wife left a successful business and pulled up stakes, travelled 700 miles to Asheville, established another successful business, and were living the dream. Then…
The journey to the Mitchell’s Roots And Branches began in 2001. “Just after 9/11,” Clark says. He had opened Be Green, a vegetarian restaurant in Belmar, New Jersey. “I was in no way qualified to open this restaurant,” he says. “Looking back, it seems insane. But it became wildly successful.”
Five years later, a friend introduced him to Ana Camarotti, a graduate student at Monmouth University. She soon became his business partner. “I kidnapped her from grad school,” he says. And the following year, 2007, they made the three-mile journey up the coast to Clark’s hometown, Asbury Park, where they opened Twisted Tree, another restaurant focusing on vegetarian fare.
(When he mentions Asbury Park, the automatic response is to ask if Bruce Springsteen ever dropped in. “Yep. A friend brought him in to meet me. He came back more than once,” Clark says. But with characteristic diffidence, he adds, “I wouldn’t say I know him.”)
Twisted Tree quickly sprouted into a popular destination, earning a review in The New York Times:
“The vegetarian Twisted Tree Cafe in Asbury Park forsakes meat without forgetting taste. Even carnivores should be able to appreciate the delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches served here.
“Although the menu is mainly vegetarian and vegan, some seafood choices, like a smoked salmon wrap, are also served ($8.50). The owner, Clark Mitchell, who opened the shop in January, says the menu reflects ‘exactly the way I eat.’ (The name comes from Mr. Mitchell’s avocation, bonsai.)”
Clark and Ana turned out to be an ambitious team unafraid of hard work. “We had a whole wholesale business out of this restaurant,” he remembers. “We would make vegan cupcakes, cookies, brownies, and muffins, and she would take them to farmers markets. We were also selling our baked goods to local health food stores. It was quite the operation.”
By this time they were married, and their business was thriving, but they began looking for something new—make that some place new. They were ready to leave for what Clark calls, “obvious New Jersey reasons. It’s hard to live there for a lot of reasons.” He had visited Asheville in the past, and he convinced Ana it would be a good place to open a vegetarian restaurant.
Moving On Up
They arrived in Asheville in 2010: “We still intended to open a café and we just thought we would ease into it.” They checked out the area farmers markets, and decided to sell baked goods as their way to “ease in.”
He says they attended as many as seven markets a week, giving them ample opportunities for sales.
They got the kitchen in their house officially certified and began selling baked goods at the various markets. “I made crackers on a whim,” Clark says. “I thought about it and decided I needed a product that has a little more shelf stability, something I don’t need to sell today. Crackers seemed to go with our product mix. And it just started taking off.”
The rapid popularity of the crackers moved their restaurant plans to a back burner—on a low simmer. Clark shakes his head and takes a sip from the thermos of tea that takes him through the day.
“With so much success of the crackers, I couldn’t stop it anymore.” He flashes a quick grin at the upside of the cracker business. “One of the reasons we’re not going to open a café now is I’ve become happy with having weekends and nights off—which you don’t get with a restaurant.”
They were still making their crackers in the kitchen of their two-bedroom house. They brought in a commercial dough mixer and three convection ovens, in effect turning their home into an impromptu cracker factory. Sales continued to increase, and they began selling wholesale to local stores.
“Our first client was West Village (Market and Deli) on Haywood Avenue in West Asheville. We started picking up more and more accounts locally, and I thought we were a local company, but then I realized we were very quickly becoming a regional cracker company.”
One of those early local clients was French Broad Co-Op on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville. The Co-Op’s outreach coordinator Claire Schwartz says they’ve carried Roots & Branches crackers since 2008. “We probably sell a case of each flavor at least once a month,” she says. She adds that they carry all five flavors and average about 100 sales a month. That volume “definitely gives it prime placement, and it’s not going anywhere.” She adds a personal note: “They’re lovely to work with!”
For Clark, the company’s growing pains were forcing him into a sales role rather than full-time baker.
“I like to put my crackers in a client’s hand,” he says. “I would load the van and drive to Charlotte and hit as many as 20 stores in a day. And I’d come away with 15 orders.”
The Way of the Cracker
By the end of 2011, the company had outgrown their house. The obvious growth strategy was to find a location they could turn into a full-fledged cracker-manufacturing facility.
From the outside and to the uninitiated, the building they landed on, in Swannanoa, appears anonymous, perhaps even deserted. Only a small replica of a street sign, Cracker Way, gives any hint of the occupants. But inside the factory, the activity presents a very different image: A busy and efficient business, turning gobs of dough into flavored crackers.
Clark begins his day before 7AM, mixing 25-pound balls of dough into the raw material that, by the end of the day, will become 600 boxes of crackers. He says they use about 400 pounds of dough every day. Even sitting at his desk, his hands-on role is apparent from the smudges of flour that dot his jacket. He mixes all five flavors, using sea salt and olive oil, the ingredient that, he says, “sets us apart. We don’t use the cheaper saffron or canola oil.”
More expensive ingredients usually dictate a higher retail price. But, Clark adds quickly, “We’re competitive.” A quick survey of area supermarkets reveals Roots & Branches at the high end of the cracker market, but fully in line with other artisan crackers. At Earth Fare, Roots & Branches were priced at $5.29 for a seven-ounce package, while Organic Triscuit Olive Oil was $5.79, and Breton Gluten Free was $5.79 for 4.2 ounces. At Fresh Market, Roots & Branches was selling for $5.49; Stonewall Kitchen and Rainbow Crisps were $5.99
There Are No Droids Here To Look For
The manufacturing process resembles an old-fashioned assembly line, pre-robotics/artificial intelligence. In the production facility, manager Teri Lee Condron presides over as many as eight employees, stationed along a series of long tables set end-to-end and side-by-side. The dough balls are cut into smaller globs, about the size of small, thick pies, which are then pounded and kneaded into a thinner, more workable shape. At one end of the tables is a device called a “sheeter,” which pulverizes them into strips that stretch nearly five feet. The long, thin strips slide out of the sheeter, and along the smooth, flour-coated tables where workers wait with hand-held cutters, much like pizza slicers.
The workers trim the dough to fit a baking tray and then cut it into 42 cracker-size squares. They work with a speed developed by months, even years, of repetition: Five cuts across, six down; it takes less than ten seconds. They slide the full sheet onto a baking tray and put it in one of five convection ovens. Twenty minutes later, a tray of crackers is ready to be packaged.
The line appears to run with maximum efficiency, and as Clark points out, “One of the things we’re the best at is getting things out of here. Moving product out the door.” But in a product line dominated by major food companies, Roots & Branches remains a tiny producer. “I always joke that Nabisco makes more crackers by 9:30 on a Monday than we make all year,” he says. So, yes, in the grand scheme of things, Roots & Branches is a small player. But in the specialty artisan market, the company clearly occupies a prominent niche.
Clark credits his manager, Condron, with much of their production efficiency, saying, “Without Teri Lee, I’d sell (the company) in a minute.” (She returns the accolade: “I love Clark and Ana. They’ve been such a blessing to me.”) Condron started at Roots & Branches eight years ago. “I had a bunch of little kids and needed some extra money and got offered a part-time job,” she reminisces. “It was kind of serendipity, I guess.” Back then, she and Mitchells were still working out of the family house. “Originally, we rolled these crackers with a rolling pin (instead of the sheeter). That was difficult for me to get the hang of.” But now, “it’s like a well-oiled machine.”
But getting to that “well-oiled” status took a lot of work—and patience. Condron has to train each new employee. “Nobody’s ever made crackers before!” she says, laughing at the idea. “Nobody ever comes here and says, ‘I do this all the time. I’m a cracker pro.’” That meant spending time at what she describes as being the hardest part: “For a long time, it was a constant cycle of training. For me, that’s the most difficult to accommodate.”
Condron moved into the management slot a year and a half ago, when Ana gave birth to the Mitchells’ son, Kai. Ana is no longer involved in the day-to-day manufacturing process.
For all its success, Roots & Branches remains very much a mom-and-pop company—with family ties. Ana’s brother, Sergio, packages the crackers, scooping a bunch into a plastic bag sitting on a scale. He adds a cracker or two to assure the weight is correct, runs the bag through a sealing device, and places it in one of six open boxes that wait in their shipping cartons. And Clark’s sister, Marnie Lister, does the photography, artwork, and internet presentation. Clark has high praise for her work on the company’s website and Instagram account.
The Whole Package
While Condron runs the production line, Clark is chained to his desk, processing orders, keeping track of inventory, and attending to those CEO duties that drag him away from baking. The desk is cluttered with random papers and a trophy he won last year for his fantasy football picks. (He predicts another victory this year.)
He points to the wall opposite his desk, which is stacked with nearly 100 cases of crackers, each case marked with a flavor: olive oil, sesame seed, black pepper, rosemary, herb garden. “They’re all going out today,” he says. “Tomorrow, that wall will be empty.”
The destination of those crackers could be anywhere from Asheville to Seattle. Clark’s goal to become a regional company was soon dwarfed by the popularity of his crackers, expanding Roots & Branches into a national market. He credits some of the growth upon an unexpected factor: The packaging. “When we switched over to a box, we just took off.”
The boxes followed a long line of previous packaging efforts. “We started with a plastic bag with a twist tie and we would stick labels on them. And then the labels got fancier. And then we went to sort of a paper coffee bag with a window. The box was a game changer.”
To some it may seem dubious that a prosaic matter such as packaging would have such an effect, but Clark is ready with an explanation. “First off, they’re professional. They’ve got UPC codes and they’re store ready. And they’re shippable. So, suddenly, we were shipping them all over the place. We were selling at Earth Fare, Fresh Market, Whole Foods. We started going into big distributors.”
One of those distributors is The Aniata Cheese Co. in California. That company’s sales rep Jonathan McDowell says they have represented Roots & Branches since 2014. “They have something new to offer in the market,” he says. “The size, flavor, packaging, and their story checked all the boxes. Their flavor profile is neither overpowering nor underwhelming. We probably sell 50 to 60 cases of each flavor a month.”
“There’s always a new challenge”: The Reveal
But with that success came a problem. Roots & Branches was beginning to become a victim of its own success. Clark points across the office at a standing metal cabinet covered with paperwork hanging by magnets. “Those are all orders. A couple of them are pretty big—five or six pallets. And there’s probably another 15 I haven’t written out yet.”
He lets out a long breath. In late November he was facing a crunch that would overwhelm his artisan hands-on production process. “Our holiday orders are exceeding our capacity by about 25 percent. It sounds like a great problem, but it’s actually very stressful because we’re not making our holiday order this year.” It was a critical problem that could be summed up as: Too much of a good thing.
He could not see any way to increase production to meet his growing demand. Add a second shift? Out of the question. “I would have to clone Teri Lee and myself,” he says. The other option is essentially to reinvent Roots & Branches as a large-scale cracker company. “It would mean moving to a bigger space, investing in larger, more sophisticated equipment, and industrializing our manufacturing process. We’d have to look at the way we process our crackers, with people standing around a table, and just throw it away.” Starting over, with bigger, better, faster—and more expensive—equipment would essentially transform his beloved mom-and-pop company into a big impersonal corporation.
And, despite the success, despite the popularity of his crackers, Roots & Branches remains a tiny entity in comparison to the more familiar brands. To illustrate the situation, under the category of popular cracker brands, Wikipedia lists no fewer than 25 options, including Carr’s, Ry-Krisp, Triscuit, and Wheat Thins. Roots & Branches is not listed.
“We’re just big enough to need more of everything,” Clark says, “but we’re low on the pecking order. We have no leverage with our suppliers.” His words quicken as he considers the obstacles. “There is a reason there are not 40 small cracker companies,” he says. “Like, every city has 15 bakers, three coffee roasters, and you can kind of scale up those businesses easily.” But, by his estimation, not a cracker company.
And there is another significant consideration. “I don’t like being a CEO. I don’t like sitting at a desk,” he says. “It’s not my skill set.” He refers to the Peter Principle—but instead of rising to a level of incompetence, he refers to a level of misery. “I’ve reached my level of misery. Am I the guy to take this to the next level? I think I’m not. I’ve got to get my hands back in dough.”
He considers what next steps he must take, and what direction he should go. “Are we going to pump the money in to upgrade to where we need to be? We’re holding ourselves back intentionally.”
He has thought about the situation for months, conferring with Ana, and trying to decide on the best path forward. “We’ve reached a crossroads,” he says. It has led them in an unexpected direction. “We’ve been talking to a broker, and we’ve just listed the cracker business for sale.”
He points to Roots & Branches’ other products, soups and breads, that they still sell at farmers markets, suggesting they could be part of his next venture, but he also hints at the possibility that he could strike out in an entirely new direction.
But at age 50 can Clark simply walk away from this company that he started in his kitchen, nurtured to a regional status and is now a player—if even a relatively small player—in the national market?
“I might be a little overconfident in my ability,” he says. “But there’s always another version ahead of you. There’s always a new challenge.”
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