Kale has gone from decorative garnish to super-vegetable of the decade. The ruffly cousin of cabbage and collards is having its moment in the sun. Its 15 minutes of fame. (A Vermont artist's popular "Eat More Kale" stickers and T-shirts attracted enough attention that a fast-food chicken restaurant filed a lawsuit claiming that the slogan was a rip-off. Whatever.) Everyone's trying to figure out how to eat more kale, which has a load of healthful properties, including lowering the risk for several types of cancer. Kale's an antioxidant, too. People are cramming it into smoothies, soups and frittatas. Late last year Larry Brownstein of Bethany had been trying to curb a junk-snack habit when he came across a snack that struck him as supremely tasty: kale chips. Enough other people seemed to share his opinion that he and a friend decided to start a business selling the crunchy leaves.
Brownstein, 49, will admit that he's not much of a cook. Brownstein's daughter, Nicole, was up at college in western Massachusetts when she introduced her father to kale chips -- leaves of the leafy green vegetable, seasoned and cooked in the oven (or dried in a dehydrator). Brownstein says he was unimpressed at first, but found himself craving kale in the days that followed. So he bought a dehydrator. Once he started making kale chips and giving them -- dozens and dozens of containers -- to eager friends, family and people in his workout group, he suspected he was onto something.
Brownstein, along with his workout buddy Tom Brophy (the two also play music together), started Tasty Kale back in April, and they've been selling their chips at about 15 stores around the state. (Learn more about where to buy Tasty Kale at tastykale.com.) The two started by renting the commercial kitchen at the Jewish Community Center in Woodbridge (where they also were participating in the center's "Largest Loser" program). And now they're getting ready to expand to a kitchen facility in West Haven.
Brownstein and Brophy started out with 16 one-ounce (one serving) containers at a couple farm stands. They sold out in a few weeks. Now they're producing 400 to 500 containers a week.
"We're going through about six to eight bushels of kale a week," says Brownstein.
They're making the chips in five different flavors, including za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture), spicy curry, garlic, Zing Zang (a mix of sweet and savory, with coconut maple syrup, paprika, garlic and lemon) and a sweet (maple syrup) variety. Brownstein says one of the wonders of kale is its versatility, and he's eager to try out new flavors like Mexican spices, Thai flavors and vinegar. The containers are marked with the "Connecticut Grown" label, because at least 51 percent of the kale they use is grown in this state. (The season in Connecticut lasts from aboutFather's Dayuntil mid-October, so that creates a little bit of a challenge for the Tasty Kale guys, but they're keen to support local farmers.) After getting some initial customer feedback they stopped using salt in most of the Tasty Kale products.
Brownstein and Brophy have a kind of missionary zeal about their project. So much so that they could be spreading the gospel of kale chips so successfully that snackers around the state will want to follow the Tasty Kale model and make their own kale chips.
As Brownstein points out, dehydrators were a popular gift item a few years back, and, like bread machines, treadmills and juicers, they sometimes symbolize our healthy and frugal ambitions rather than our actual habits. Meaning that there are a lot of unused dehydrators sitting in garages and basements. And Brownstein is trying to get people to donate dehydrators to area schools so that youngsters can learn about taking vegetables grown in the garden and turning them into healthy snacks.
"Right now, obesity is a huge issue," says Brownstein. "We just donated a dehydrator to a school in Oxford. We've been going around showing kids how to do it."
It's maybe a counterintuitive strategy for someone starting a new business -- teaching people how to make your product at home, giving away trade secrets -- but Brownstein is happy to talk about recipes and techniques. And, really, you'll find that you can't beat the crispiness of kale chips you make in your own kitchen.
"Things you know that your hand touched, that you make, always taste better," he says.
"I would love if people started making their own kale chips."
Visit tastykale.com for information about where to buy kale, plus more.