Tucked away in a quiet office in the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Wendy Smith, president of SchoolHouse Kitchen, has jars on her mind. Round ones, in particular. Her products are about to shift shape. She shares, “We will be changing our beautiful square jars to beautiful round jars, so people will be able to get every little last drop out.” A lesson for the 38-year-old budding businesswoman, and good news for fans of SchoolHouse Kitchen’s award-winning line of good-to-the-last-drop condiments—an earthy chutney, a unique mustard with hard-to-place flavors, and a sharp vinaigrette—that do good.
It all began in her mother’s upstate kitchen more than 30 years ago, with a mysterious mixture called “SweetSmoothHot Mustard.” The recipe had been passed along to Patsy, Wendy’s mom, with the caveat that she make it for personal or charitable purposes only. Soon, remembers Wendy, “my mother was making 100 jars for the neighborhood hospital bazaar and it sold out in five minutes!” Patsy also sent jars to friends for Christmas, who asked, “Which charity should I send the check to?” After years of wowing the locals and armed with two other equally delectable secret recipes, in 2004 Patsy founded SchoolHouse Kitchen to fund learning organizations on a large scale.
Each of SchoolHouse Kitchen’s products quickly gained attention and awards, the Bardshar chutney snagging a silver medal finalist nod for the 2008 National Association for Specialty Food Trade outstanding condiment category. This acclaim prompted Patsy to tap Wendy, whose past pursuits include photography and private investigation, to grow the company. With her Brooklyn-based daughter at the helm, Patsy, now 70 years young, focuses on product development from her home upstate. Wendy isn’t always sure precisely what products are in development, though. She reveals, “My mother will send me a case of jars, labeled 1 through 12, and I don’t know what they are! It’s like when I was little at the kitchen table. I’d ask my mother, ‘What’s this?’ and she’d say, ‘Why don’t you try it and tell me?’” These days when Wendy receives samples, she rounds up friends in her Fort Greene apartment. “Everyone fills out little sheets on taste, texture, flavor and originality. I’ve gotten it down to four products I really like, two of which I want to have out by the end of the year, including another chutney-marmalade and a corn-and-vegetable offering.”
To date, the conscientious condiments, made at Morrisville State College’s state-of-the art, one-stop processing facility for small-scale food processors, have funded projects including the Boys & Girls Club and Jackie Robinson Park in upper Manhattan, among others, but Wendy wants to dramatically extend their philanthropic reach—just as a certain screen legend/salad-dressing creator has. “We’re hoping to emulate the Paul Newman model,” she explains. “He built a foundation on the other side of his business, and once they make money it goes right into the foundation. That’s how we’d eventually like to function.”
Before SchoolHouse Kitchen products are as well-known as Newman’s Lemonade, Wendy is spreading the word locally. Blue Apron, Little Piggy, Provisions, Stinky Bklyn, Spuyten Duyvil Grocery and others carry her spunky treats, and she’d like to expand into more markets and restaurants as well as Brooklyn Flea. “What’s great about Brooklyn,” Wendy notes, “is that I can walk up to folks who have small companies and introduce myself and say, ‘Hi! This is what I do, and I really like what you’re doing.’ Those are always conversations you can learn from.”