Grand Rapids Specialty Food Company Gets It
By Jon Becker
Nobody on their death bed expresses regret that they didn’t spend more time poring over another boring report at the office. There’s a classically trained chef in Grand Rapids by the name of Steve Stallard who grasped the big picture long before most people do—if they ever do at all.
Chef Steve, whose top-notch training in the culinary arts has taken him around the world, was only 17 and in the historical region of Burgundy (known for its wines) when, surrounded by some of the finest drink and food you’ll find anywhere, he embraced a motto: Life is short, so you may as well be kind to yourself and eat well.
That philosophy continues to drive the founder of BLiS (Because Life is Short), a specialty food company that produces barrel-aged pantry items such as vinegars, Michigan Maple Syrups, soy sauce, fish sauce, caviar (domestic, wild caught), dry rubs and its signature hot pepper sauce. These carefully handcrafted items have tantalized and delighted even the most discerning of palates for about 18 years now—and the business and its talented team shows no signs of slowing down.
The secret to the BLiS Gourmet line starts with its ingredients. Only the finest will do, as the only thing burning in Chef Steve’s shop is his desire to handcraft unique, sustainable, naturally-sourced food ingredients. You combine that with the fact that all of BLiS’s items are produced in bourbon barrels (a tremendous one-of-a kind flavor enhancer) and it becomes crystal clear why their sauces, vinegars and marinades are used in some of the finest restaurants around the world. But you don’t have to be a renowned chef in a five-star restaurant to benefit from BLiS’s award-winning sauces, marinades and rubs. Their items can be easily used to improve dishes for cooks of all skill levels.
“The beauty of our barrel-aged system is that it layers in and implements flavors,” said Sarah Sherman, Vice President & Director of Operations. “You can take a small amount of a common food item and when you bourbon-barrel age it, the flavor is intensified. It really packs a punch.”
Sherman describes Stallard as a pioneer in the art of bourbon barrel aging, giving him unprecedented access to bourbon barrels that are over 20 years old.
“Steve started doing things in barrels,” Sherman said. “No one was aging back then. He used to pick up the barrels in his old pickup. He was the first person to do food products in barrels.”
Success breeds imitation and it wasn’t long before breweries got in on the action.
“They quickly realized that they could produce some really good tasting beer this way,” Sherman said. “We started selling barrels to Founders when they were starting out. We’re talking 2 to 4 barrels at a time, not truckloads. Now our barrels are used in breweries all over Michigan.”
These include Michigan brewers Transient Brewing Company and Watermark Brewing Company. In fact, Because Life is Short joined forces with Transient to co-release a collaborative beer brewed by BLiS production managers Eric Schmieder and Jason Richardson.
The company wants brewers to know that they have beautiful maple syrup and aged single use bourbon barrels for sale. Why go out of state to purchase brewing barrels, especially if you, like BLiS, are a Grand Rapids-based company? Breweries can age their own craft beers in Chef Steve’s coveted aged barrels.
“We’d rather see our local folks come to our warehouse and pick up barrels than pay outrageous shipping costs,” Sherman said.
BLiS has come a long way since its origins when its primary customer base was restaurants in Chicago. Today it has a national presence but primarily focuses its efforts on the restaurants, bars, breweries, specialty stores and home cooks it services in Michigan. The company also enjoys robust sales through its online store.
“Our pantry items are unique and take a certain amount of time and care to produce,” she said. For us, internally, we are huge on quality control. Everyone who works here has been a cook or chef. They have some sort of kitchen experience. It’s not going to make it to market if it’s not perfect. We don’t want to be on every store shelf in the country.”
She added: “We like small organic growth. A handful of new stores a month is great. A handful of new breweries is fine. We still do small batch things.”
BLiS’s two top sellers are its Bourbon Barrel Maple Syrup and its Blast Hot Sauce—which can be found on shelves at Meijer. But for the most part, specialty stores are where you’ll find their product lines. Or, check out their gourmet line of sauces and rubs at their website www.blisgourmet.com
We’re confident that, like Chef Steve, you’ll be amazed at the culinary treats that result from putting maple syrup in a barrel and allowing it to age for 6 months to 1 year.
“It really draws out the flavor of other ingredients used in cooking,” Sherman said.