Esko residents Sean Ludlow and Kaylee Koscielak worked Monday, April 8, filling and labeling bottles of the bloody mary mix they developed a couple years ago.
The mix, Topside Bloody Mary Blend, was recently recognized at the 2019 Drunken Tomato Awards with a platinum medal in the "New Product" category and a gold medal in the "Spicy/Hot" category by a panel of judges from around the U.S.
The Topside Blend is just one of the products the couple are selling through their business, Farmhouse Pantry. They also make and can pickles and green beans.
The operation is still a relatively small-scale operation. They can do much of the work in the kitchen at the former AlBrook School in Saginaw.
However, since they introduced the Topside Blend, the couple have developed quite a following. Their distribution has grown from exclusively being sold at area farmers markets to selling in liquor and grocery stores from Cloquet to Duluth. It is even being used by some bars and restaurants on the Iron Range.
The couple weren't initially looking to sell bloody mary mix or pickles - Ludlow was just looking to stay on his new in-laws' good side.
Ludlow and Koscielak grew up near Lake Vermillion, but lost contact after he left for culinary school in Chicago and then to work in Boston. They reconnected after Ludlow returned to the area to help care for his grandparents.
Koscielak's father did a lot of gardening and Ludlow started enjoying his mother-in-law's homemade pickles - perhaps a little too much.
"I think I was starting to lose my popularity because I was eating all the pickles," he said.
Ludlow had also begun learning about canning and preserving foods from his mother-in-law.
Soon, he and Koscielak were looking to start selling the pickles commercially. Ludlow took some online courses in commercial canning from the University of Tennessee Extension and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The pair rented the industrial kitchen at AlBrook, now owned by Saginaw Power and Automation. They also began selling the pickles and beans at farmers markets in Duluth.
Before long, they were looking to add another product to their repertoire.
The couple sat down to eat with some friends and their friends ordered bloody marys with their food. Ludlow said he asked the server if they made their own bloody mix and was told that they didn't.
"I thought, 'Well, that's unfortunate," Ludlow said.
Ludlow's grandmother liked bloody marys, he said, and he and Koscielak started looking at his grandmother's recipe and tinkering with the mix. It wasn't long after the couple started selling the mix that retailers were asking them about stocking the Topside Blend in stores.
"It was the bloody mary mix that stood out," Koscielak said. "It sort of gained a life of its own and for some reason, sales increased a lot faster than anything else."
The recognition from the Drunken Tomato Awards was another boost. The couple hope the added exposure will lead to increased sales and a wider distribution.
"It's a product we're proud of," Ludlow said. "The flavor has a lot of character. There's a little bit of complexity in there - it's not just tomato."
Topside Bloody Blend is available at Cloquet liquor stores, as well as Super One and bars and restaurants from Cloquet to the Iron Range. Farmhouse Pantry's pickles and dilly beans - pickled green beans - are primarily sold at the Lincoln Park and Hillside farmers' markets in Duluth.