Katie Key: Sweet Mama’s Raw Food for the Soul

katie-keyKatie Key casts a bespoke informality over her caterer’s kitchen, where she mixes a repertoire of vegan ‘raw food for the soul,’ the tagline of her young business, Sweet Mama’s. Cheesecakes made without cheese and homemade pies made without butter, eggs or sugar have environmental power. Power being the magic word. In addition to being healthy for individuals—raw food is full of powerful live enzymes and the antioxidant equivalent to a handful of power bars. Eating a less processed diet is also less polluting for the planet. Bill Clinton, Jessica Biel, Ellen Degeneres and Alicia Silverstone are only some of the power royals biting into the raw food vegan diet like the one served up by Ms. Key. So good is it for both you and the environment we have a new term for it: aspiration eating. Ms. Key’s business is definitely mission based: “I want to change the culture of food.” The focus, though, is on impeccably fresh food and good taste, vegetarian without the dust of cliche. It’s not handfuls of crunchy, flavorless bean sprouts.

Ms. Key, a 20-something young woman who moved fromBuffalo,NYtoBrooklyn, studied inHarlem, and wound up in Beacon initially to work with low-income teens, then found herself laid off. Unemployment changed the silhouette of her life. She turned her passion—raw, healthy food—into a vocation, training with Raw Soul, a successful health-food restaurant inHarlem, before launching Sweet Mama’s with a loan from Community Capital NY. Young soft Thai coconut and cashews replace butter and eggs, imbuing food with rich, buttery flavor and thickness. Sweet Mama’s now employs two full-time, and wholesales raw food desserts to natural food stores and restaurants inManhattanand in theHudsonValley. Ms. Key also runs a weekly delivery service, making soups, salad and entrees like kelp noodle pad Thai or hemp nuggets available for fitness gurus on 100% raw food diets as well as to nurses and teachers who mix her raw food menu into their weekly non-veggie diet for a bite of healthier fare. She is still working with teens—running cooking classes at the Boys & Girls Club inNewburgh—to give low income and minority children the ingredients they need for a healthier life.

Sweet Mama’s and Ms. Key can be reached at 646.318.1655 or sweetmamasny@gmail.com for gourmet organic desserts and savories that are handmade, raw, vegan, soy free, gluten free and dairy free—as five-star as any fare found at Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Jean Jacques. Ms. Key, about to dig into her role as a partner in Ground Works, a women’s farming cooperative, where she grows the local raspberries and strawberries which top most of her pies, shares her recipe for venture capitalism:

Was it love at first bite? My Aunt Gwen went to the Creative Health Institute 30 years ago. She’s now 75. She asked my father and me to spend a week with her after surgery, when she was recovering from an illness. We did a watermelon juice and wheat grass cleanse for a week. Raw food runs in the family. It’s not unusual for a relative to call and say ‘did you have your Rejuvelac today. We drink Rejuvelac instead of water, a fermented sprouted grain beverage. You put wheat, quinoa or barley in water and ferment it for three days. All the live enzymes are complete proteins. It’s a living beverage. Now I make it available to natural food stores and to individual customers on a weekly basis.

How did you get your business off the ground?
I’m a black woman in my 20s in business for myself. Remarkably. I had no role models, except possibly Oprah and writers and activists like Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde. I met a woman in town who made raw chocolate desserts and I worked with her part-time and watched her business evolve into a raw restaurant and smoothie bar. It was a crazy experience. Resources were not a barrier for her. It’s always been a barrier for me. I’ve always had low paying jobs. I saw how simple it was to open a restaurant, to get the licenses and obtain the permits, if you have capital. As I watched the process unfold, I figured I could do it. From every bad thing that happens comes opportunity. First I was unemployed. Then I got hit by a car. The $3000 I got as a settlement was the exact amount of the cost of the three-month cooking class at Raw Soul. A loan from Community Capital (NY) made it possible for me to start my business. The license was $400. Just to install and hook up my industrial refrigerator was $1000. The loan covered my initial inventory, ingredients, and the logo and branding of the company.

The ingredients of success?
Cooperative economics. I hope that’s where the economy is going. It’s where I’m going. I am part of Ground Works, a woman’s farming cooperative inHamburg,NY, to grow my own local raspberries and strawberries which top most of my pies. My business is based on working collaboratively in partnership with other businesses, sharing contacts and resources. Cut-throat sales practices are the opposite of what I want to do as a business owner and as a woman. Literally it’s using walnuts and raisins blended with cashew and coconut oil to make an alternative vegan cheesecake crust, and soft young Thai coconut instead of white sugar, and blended cashews instead of butter and eggs, which have a rich, buttery flavor and the thickness you need. Chocolate cheesecake is made with raw cacao powder—the cocoa bean before it’s roasted—and carob powder, rich sources of antioxidants. Out of season I use organic wholesale distributors. In season, I use produce from local farmers.

How did your business evolve?
I purchased the wholesale dessert business from the raw food restaurant Raw Soul inHarlem, taking over that business and adding my own gifts and interests.

What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Jump start the day with a green smoothie for breakfast—an omega green wheat grass powder mixed with fruit like bananas or apples, or celery, red pepper and kale. It’s really energizing. That you have to have a passion for what you do. I love creating exciting dishes with raw food, food that is enzyme rich—enzymes are the life force of the body.

What’s next? A website, under construction by a talented friend and nearly finished, which will enable customers to place weekly orders. After school programs. Dinner and brunch parties to teach families and individuals how to cook and learn to love a raw food diet. A leadership role in National Association of Cooperatives. I’m hiring a graduate of Raw Soul’s cooking classes to work in the kitchen, to give me more time for marketing and sales.

Sweet Mama’s products can be found at the following stores: In the Hudson Vallley—Nature’s Pantry of Newburgh, Homespun@Home of Beacon, Earthgoods of New Paltz, Sunflower Natural Market and Press+Blend of Woodstock. In Manhattan, Westerly Natural Market, Integral Yoga Natural Foods, Uptown Juice Bar, LiveLive & Organic.