November 21, 2016
Pounding out a profitable quarter, launching a native sprouted hazelnut butter, unveiling an online store, hiring a full-time employee, then along comes a die-hard almond butter customer placing a multi-thousand dollar lifetime supply pre-order through credibles.co—these are are just some of the reasons to celebrate The Philosopher’s Stoneground, having moved to Santa Cruz over a year ago.
Straight up, sprouted nut butters taste sweeter and creamier than typical butters. Plus, the sprouting unleashes more nutrients and makes it easier to digest.
Straight up, sprouted nut butters taste sweeter and creamier than typical butters. Plus, the sprouting unleashes more nutrients and makes it easier to digest. Start mixing in chocolate with the sprouted almonds or keep it crunchy and you're golden. Take coconut butter on its own, too, or add chocolate with its Ostara Foods brand, and you can taste the smooth and the sweet in Santa Cruz.
The Philosopher’s Stoneground owner Tim Richards combines all this quality and flavor using an automated stone grinder (commonly used by chocolatiers, dear friend) which doesn’t overheat and oxidize the nuts the way metal-cutting machines often do, keeping all the goodness intact. Sourcing organic and dry-farmed nuts reach into the company’s ethos for regenerative agriculture. And in this interview Tim reveals how he is definitely grinding his own path forward in Santa Cruz.
How did you start your business?
The Philosopher’s Stoneground started in my home kitchen in Davis, CA. I had been making a sprouted almond butter since November 2012 when friends kept saying, “Ah, man, this the best sprouted almond butter ever—you gotta start a business.” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t so sure about that. Making nut butter was just something that I was doing for myself and my friends. But in March of 2013 a friend just shoved a wad of cash in my hands and says, "I want to buy your almond butter." So when I learned about the California Homemade Food Act (AB 1616), also known as the Cottage Food Law, which went into effect January 2013, I committed to get certified as the first cottage food operation in Yolo County… and we did. We officially launched on Earth Day, April 22, 2013.
So how long were you in your home kitchen?
We quickly outgrew the home kitchen, plus it just gets difficult to grow a business when your housemates wish to use the kitchen for regular meal prep. Through networking, a local restaurant owner reached out to offer extra space in the back to rent out as a commercial kitchen. So we moved in June 2013. It was a tiny little 6’ x 8’ room that used to be a walk-in freezer. It worked well for about nine months until April 2014 when the restaurant needed the space back to expand.
How did you learn about the good foods scene in Santa Cruz?
That’s a good question. My friend knew about the Annual Fungus Fair. And, if you’re in the food movement, you’re aware of the other nodes in the movement. When visiting a friend, she introduced me to Kathryn Lukas, owner of Farmhouse Culture, maker of incredible organic sauerkraut, kimchi, and probiotic beverages. I got to meet with Kathryn, and we became fast friends, sharing our love about how to grow our food businesses and support one another.
So, wait, then how did you move to Santa Cruz by way of Oakland and Berkeley?
We didn’t get a chance to move to Santa Cruz right away, so we moved the business to Oakland in May of 2014. I started working with Cocoa Logos, a long-time chocolate manufacturer who offered to co-pack (outsourcing packaging and scaling with similar brands and products) until August 2014. We then moved to Berkeley when we bought Ostara. Finally, we had a dedicated production facility that didn’t have to accommodate other people’s needs and schedules but... it was still less than 300 square feet. With a separate storage facility and a home office, I was spread out all over the East Bay. So we tried again to see if anything was available in Santa Cruz.
Sounds like you were spread thin?
Yeah, you could say that. I reached out again to Kathryn in 2015, and she said, “You know, we’re going to be moving our Santa Cruz facility.” So we started a dialogue. At the time, Farmhouse Culture’s space in the Sash Mill was ten times bigger than our production facility in Berkeley. It was a lot more space for a better rate per square foot, and it’s in Santa Cruz.
Because of our relationship, Kathryn chose The Philosopher’s Stoneground as her top choice as the successor to the lease. There were dozens of businesses that wanted to get into the space. On paper, we were a tiny business with only a year-and-half in operation and the landlord would probably have preferred another business to take over the lease. But because Kathryn was really a fan of what we were doing, she was insistent that we were the first pick. And we got the space in Santa Cruz!
Is that kind of support and community unique to Santa Cruz?
It is definitely happening in Santa Cruz. I’d say it’s happening in three places right now: Santa Cruz, Oakland, and Sonoma County—the three hubs for the grassroots good foods movement, if you will. Santa Cruz County has the highest concentration of organic farmland in the United States. Santa Cruz is really special in that respect.
People who are really into high-quality food, good farming practices, and just living in-tune with nature love Santa Cruz. We have this serious entrepreneurialism, but it’s also not all-career, all-the-time. People still take time to have a well-balanced lifestyle and live healthy. Being in Santa Cruz has been regenerative for me personally and also great for the business. I knew I needed to live here in Santa Cruz.
Did you work with the City of Santa Cruz (and this is a self-interested question, no doubt)?
Yeah, I reached out to J. and he was super helpful and accommodating right from the beginning. If a government employee is like this, I think this is a sign that I’m going to the right place. J. helped me with housing opportunities, seeking rental commercial kitchens, connecting me with the Small Business Development Center, loan options, he was just super helpful. I felt like anything that I could possibly need was in Santa Cruz and he could connect me to it. He was interested and had the time of day to actually be able to do it.
We help people pursue their passions. It’s not some bureaucratic form or process. For the whole City of Santa Cruz it’s all about figuring out how to get you a place for your business, a place to live, and we can help you make an impact on this place called Santa Cruz. It’s really gratifying.
I bet. For example, when navigating the move to the Sash Mill, J. quickly responded and made it clear all I really needed was a zoning permit and then he provided how you do it. I didn’t have to search through policies and forms and it was straightforward and easy.
What’s your vision for your company in Santa Cruz?
One of the reasons I started the business was to create a new type of agriculture, a type of agriculture that gives back more than it takes. Right now you agriculture is more like mining with the way it’s done—even certain organic practices can be depletive over time. So we’re really trying to help the movement for what’s being called regenerative agriculture. That’s agriculture that builds more soil than it takes. That’s agriculture that models nature by being more bio-diverse, more integrated with local ecosystems. That’s agriculture that is sequestering carbon in the agricultural system to help reverse climate change.
I see my company building a market for regenerative agriculture and that’s the grand vision I have and we’re making a lot of headway. Last year we got a grant from Lush Cosmetics who gets it because they want to be the first cosmetics company to source 100% of their products with regenerative sources. They provided a grant for The Philosopher’s Stoneground help to start an experimental, regenerative, dry-farmed almond orchard because almonds are one of their top five ingredients in their cosmetics.
I assisted in finding farmers and researching for the experimental orchard in Capay Valley in California, where dry-farmed almond practices began in California back in the Spanish Colonial Period. We’re basically trying to lead a renaissance of dry farming techniques for almonds. It’s exciting because we are a mission-driven, local food business. My goal is to make a business that regenerates agriculture by improving people’s lives.
When you’re not working on your business, what are you doing in Santa Cruz?
I’ve picked up mountain biking again plus trail running. I want to learn how to surf and I go to Divinitree Yoga at least once a week. I also like volunteering at local bio-dynamic farms to stay connected to the land.
Okay, gotta ask, so who’s your favorite philosopher, Tim?
I was always more into the literary philosophers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but I then discovered Aldo Leopold and his Sand County Almanac, especially his famous Land Ethic where he said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” So a lot of people have interpreted this as morally right or wrong. But my take is that Leopold was not a moral philosopher, he was an ecologist. He’s talking about what is ecologically beneficial and ecologically detrimental. We can totally change our industry and be good for our environment. And I’m laughing because my business is trying to prove my undergrad philosophy thesis. That’s how this business really is the philosopher’s stone that the alchemists searched for.
You’re in good company with Santa Cruzan Randall Grahm’s journey from philosophy at UC Santa Cruz to ground-breaking winemaking with Bonny Doon Vineyard.
This business has been a way to pull together all of my interests, pursuits, and beliefs in my life so far and turn it into an offering. It’s a practical manifestation of my philosophy, like I’m selling my philosophy in a jar of nut butter. Hey, look at this beautiful world where an agricultural food business can deliver something healthy and taste wonderful. Let’s make this world-changing enterprise disguised as a little nut butter company and spread it.
You can find out more about where to purchase The Philosopher’s Stoneground Sprouted and Ostara Coconut Butter locally, regionally, and online at the thephilosophersstoneground.com and ostarafoods.com.