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Can Yams Take Manhattan?

Lisa Johnson of Norwich, owner of Yummy Yammy, left, prepares to pack her inventory of sweet potato salsa varieties into her car with employee Eleanor Reid of Hanover, right, to take to the Fancy Food Show in New York City Thursday, June 27, 2013. Johnson created the salsas at home while cooking for her family, developed the idea at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick and is now producing several flavors in Massachusetts. "They rock nutritionally," said Johnson of sweet potatoes, the inspiration for her salsas. "And, I love the color."
Valley News - James M. Patterson
jpatterson@vnews.com
photo@vnews.com

Lisa Johnson of Norwich, owner of Yummy Yammy, left, prepares to pack her inventory of sweet potato salsa varieties into her car with employee Eleanor Reid of Hanover, right, to take to the Fancy Food Show in New York City Thursday, June 27, 2013. Johnson created the salsas at home while cooking for her family, developed the idea at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick and is now producing several flavors in Massachusetts. "They rock nutritionally," said Johnson of sweet potatoes, the inspiration for her salsas. "And, I love the color." Valley News - James M. Patterson jpatterson@vnews.com photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

The demo booth was in the heart of the Lebanon Co-op, the centerpiece in the wine, cheese, hygiene and frozen food area. Its bright purple tablecloth, adorned with a happy orange logo, helped it stand out among a steady flow of customers. Free samples helped even more.

Over and over, people would come within range of Lisa Johnson’s voice, and she’d pounce, starting her pitch: Would you like to try our sweet potato salsa?

Their attention gained, she’d continue: Our business name is Yummy Yammy. We’re from Norwich. It’s like salsa, except without tomatoes. No fat. No sweeteners. Two hundred and fifty calories per jar, max. Three Mexican flavors. One Moroccan. One Tuscan.

And the capper:

“It’s like you’re traveling the world in a three-minute span,” she said.

By the time she pulled out that slogan early at last Wednesday’s demo, a pair of potential customers were chewing on salsa-dipped tortilla chips, nodding repeatedly, learning the taste and texture, their hands cupped under their mouths to catch errant bits.

That, Johnson would later say, is her favorite part: the moment right after a customer opens a new mental file for a strange new product, catalogues the taste and —

“I think it’s so good,” said Aileen Shawcross of Hanover, who tried the hottest Mexican option.

Those are the affirming moments, and they have come pretty often. Johnson has multiplied her specialty salsa output by a factor of nearly 50 in the five years since she first developed a recipe in her Norwich home. Now, she uses a contract packer in Lynn, Mass., and sells throughout New England. Over the weekend, she brought the Yummy Yammy booth to New York’s Fancy Food Show, where buyers and distributors search for something new from among 180,000 products.

On Sunday, the show’s first day, Johnson turned her exhibition space into a three-sided paean to sweet potato salsa. A big purple company banner stood in back. The purple tablecloth, covered in salsa jars, was draped atop a table to the left. A sampling station, with the product sitting on high purple cocktail tables, was to the right.

In an email Monday night, Johnson said the first two days saw Yummy Yammy make some sales to new stores and create a potential network for New York- and West Coast-based distribution. Possible bigger deals to big box stores, to Canadian companies and the military, for instance — aren’t set, but Johnson wrote that the experience was “validating and rewarding.”

It’s a good sign, considering the risk. She confided to spending as much as $8,000 for the show, which includes product, booth setup and lodging.

Sweet Beginnings

Her first products, put together in her kitchen, were yogurt and sour cream. Friends told her to keep her day job at White River Junction-based Vital Communities.

She did. She also stumbled upon a recipe for a sweet potato dip, which worked a lot better. It was a way to get her two daughters to eat sweet potatoes, a so-called nutritional superfood.

Things moved quickly. An exhausting nine-crockpot production setup in Johnson’s kitchen led to a 2011 move to the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, Vt. Ten cases a day became 35. By that year, she was selling to various Upper Valley markets that carry specialty food. Her reach expanded to Massachusetts and Connecticut. She began using the co-packer to remotely make the product, and more of it. Last month, she debuted Tuscan and Moroccan flavors and hired two part-time workers, her first official staff members.

She’s never made a profit. Maybe this is the year, she said.

“If you think about everything you’re risking,” she said during last Wednesday’s demo, “it can take your breath away.”

Other than a four- to six-month period last year when she went “dark” to rebrand, the business has continually moved forward. Tupperware containers of beta-Yammy distributed to friends in 2008 became a product sold at Dan and Whit’s, and then far beyond. The Fancy Food Show presents an opportunity to massively expand the audience. Yummy Yammy is not meant to be just a local project, she said, even as its headquarters remain in Vermont.

Johnson’s hopes for selling product far beyond the Upper Valley clashes with the risk, the sense of wading into unknown territories. But she has a way of quashing the worrisome feelings.

“There’s this opportunity to build something nationally,” she said at one point. “I think this can really help people.”

“There isn’t anything like it in the world,” she said at another.

She hopes that one day, the 12 feet of shelf space generally devoted to tomato-based salsas would be joined by four feet of sweet potato products. If there’s a sweet potatio revolution, she’d be OK with spearheading it.

But the uncertainty persists.

“There are moments when I think I’m out of my mind, and no one has ever done anything more stupid in the history of humanity,” she said.

‘Be Healthy
and Start Stuff’

Johnson, 49, and one of her employees, a rising senior at Oberlin College named Eleanor Reid, met in Norwich last Thursday to pack Johnson’s van for the trip to New York.

It went faster than expected, and soon the car (license plate: YUMYYAM) was full of jars and banners and hats and shirts, all bearing the Yummy Yammy logo.

Johnson and Reid went back into the house, passing the kitchen and its two refrigerators, ground zero for the sweet potato experiments, and walked into the company’s headquarters.

It’s a small room, and drawings from Johnson’s children cover the walls. Her laptop sits on an eye-level shelf. That, now, is the base of operations.

But there’s also the Mission Wall on the opposite end of the room, a paper-and-Post-It shrine listing Johnson’s various goals and guiding principles. In the middle, the mantra: “Be Healthy and Start Stuff.”

And below it, the mission, made explicit: “(To) help busy people eat better by delightfully bringing sweet potatoes to the nation.”

She reached over a mass of packing material and unassembled cardboard boxes and plucked a Post-It note off the wall. It read: “Be clear on product placement recommendations.”

She gave the note to Reid, who stuck it on a growing pile of finished goals.

On Thursday morning, following a press release blitz, Johnson received a note from a Dutch company interested, potentially, in picking up Yummy Yammy. She would have to figure out how to ship samples internationally.

That’s somewhat familiar territory for Johnson, who spent two decades working for several food co-ops in the Twin States.

“This is a big deal,” said Cindy Pierce of Hanover, a friend of Johnson’s who sampled the new flavors at the local demo. “This can be a turning point for this business. It’s a great product — it just needs exposure.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.