Sweet and Sara: A Bittersweet Tale

Posted by on Aug 2, 2013 in On The Street | 0 comments

Marshmallows: they’re usually a treat to be enjoyed with a steaming cup of hot cocoa, between crunchy graham crackers and ample slabs of almost-melted chocolate, or roasted over an open campfire. But traditional marshmallows contain gelatin, an animal-derived substance that had long prevented vegans like Sara Sohn from enjoying even a single bite of the fluffy confection.

The company is run out of a small 4th floor factory in LIC, Queens.

The company is run out of a 7,000 sq. ft. space on the 4th floor of a factory in LIC, Queens.

“It’s a whole nostalgic thing: the sensation that brings out the kid in all of us,” she said. “Marshmallows are edible bliss; they’re supposed to make you happy. And a lot of people were not happy for a long time because they couldn’t have their favorite childhood treat.”
“I remember when I first realized I couldn’t eat a marshmallow,” said Sohn, who follows a vegan diet, primarily for health and animal rights. Sohn, 34, was 19 when she realized just how much she wanted a marshmallow. “I thought, ‘It’s been 15 years since I’ve had a marshmallow,’”
That realization lead Sohn to create the first vegan marshmallow, a product that took her nearly a year to perfect. Now, Sohn’s vegan marshmallow company, Sweet and Sara, creates handmade products that are distributed internationally and in specialty chain stores such as Whole Foods. The Sweet and Sara factory operates out of a 7,000-square-foot location in Long Island City, where Sohn was interviewed.

Sohn often sleeps at the factory, pulling 20+ hour shifts at times, leading her to install a small bed across from her desk.

Sohn often sleeps at the factory, pulling 20+ hour shifts at times, leading her to install a small bed across from her desk.

Sohn’s product has received rave reviews from celebrities, stores and media outlets such as Food Network, Martha Stewart and the Rachel Ray Show. The product also allows Sohn to spread the word about animal activism and educate consumers about the vegan lifestyle.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I would be running a vegan marshmallow company for seven years now, I’ve never went to culinary school, I can barely cook rice without burning it, so to come up with a vegan marshmallow was pretty difficult,” Sohn said with a laugh.
It hasn’t all been a sweet life for Sohn. Sohn remembers her preteen years at birthday parties when her dietary restrictions prevented her from participating in many culinary activities. This often meant having to look on as kids devoured cookies, cake and pizza.

Sohn poses next to her current product lineup.

Sohn poses next to her current product lineup.

“It was really hard, because at that age you’re always being invited to birthday parties, and what do they always have? Pizza and birthday cake,” recalls Sohn. “So at thirteen, you know, nobody even knows what a vegan is, no one knows why Sara is in the corner not eating anything, she’s just bizarre. I was teased.”
The worst time of her life was during Sohn’s high school years in Brooklyn Tech, when even her teachers would poke fun at her dietary choice. Sohn recalls one incident when her biology teacher threatened to assign her a failing grade for refusing to participate in a laboratory exercise.
“I was a freshman and I thought, ‘Really, I’m going to fail a class because I don’t want to cut up a frog?’” said Sohn. “Since then, he would be really mean to me.”

“There was another really awful teacher who just hated me because I was the animal rights club governor,” said Sohn. “One mouse had escaped from one of science rooms and there was a big crowd. There was a girl holding the mouse by the tail and that teacher that didn’t like me said, ‘Why don’t you throw that mouse out the window?’”
Still, Sohn maintains that the negative comments and bullying has only strengthened her resolve and dedication to her cause.
“I’ve only gotten stronger with people who bully you or say negative things. I’ve always been good about speaking my mind. That’s one thing veganism has done for me. It’s made me such a stronger person, stronger woman.”
After graduating from New York University with a degree in political science, Sohn grew tired of her 9-to-5 job at a law firm when she realized how much she missed eating marshmallows as a child.
She began creating and selling her own vegan marshmallows on the side out of her home in Woodside, Queens using recipe books and a mixing bowl. In addition, Sohn did ample research on gelatin substitutes, which lead her to use carrageenan, which the vegan alternative to gelatin and is derived from red seaweed. Word traveled and soon enough, her marshmallows became so popular that she decided to quit her job. With the help of her parents, she rented a 600-square-foot commercial facility in Long Island City to expand the operation.

A selection of items from Sohn's vegan marshmallow line. Since the start of her company, Sohn has added a few new items to her original marshmallow lineup, and often showcases seasonal product offerings on her company's Facebook page.

A selection of items from Sohn’s vegan marshmallow line. Since the start of her company, Sohn has added a few new items to her original marshmallow lineup, and often showcases seasonal product offerings on her company’s Facebook page.

Yet no sooner than two weeks into the beginning of her new business in 2004, Sohn encountered a huge setback.
“Eight years ago, there were other companies besides myself making ‘vegan’ marshmallows,” Sohn said. “We were supplied with carrageenan from a company called Emes.”
The Emes carrageenan, which was marketed as vegan, was actually an animal-based gelatin product. After Sohn called the company and played voicemail tag with their answering machine, Emes representatives assured Sohn their product was vegan. But their reassurance wasn’t enough for Sohn. She had the product sent to a lab to confirm the presence of animal tissue and it came back positive. She called the company repeatedly, but never got a direct answer. Ironically, the word “emes” means “truth” in Hebrew.
The findings resulted in a full-blown culinary scandal in the vegetarian and vegan community. Sohn consulted food scientists specializing in gelatin and carrageenan research for advice on creating a genuine vegan marshmallow product. She said they all gave her the same answer: it could not be done.
“I just thought ‘this is impossible’ after 10 months,” said Sohn. “If these food scientists can’t do it, then there’s no way for me to do it.”
Looking back today, Richard Ludescher, dean of environmental and biological sciences at Rutgers University, said that a vegan marshmallow wasn’t really impossible. But it wasn’t easy .
“If you think about it, a marshmallow is just sugar,” said Ludescher. “Primarily sugar and air. But if you add a hydrocolloid substance—a bonding ingredient—that’s what holds it together. Think of it this way: if you made a noodle casserole and you’ve got long noodles in the casserole, you got the meat in there and the cheese; it’s the noodles that hold it together.
“So she simply had to find something else besides gelatin to hold it together,” said Ludescher. “And that’s what’s she’s done.”
But after the Emes debacle, Sohn was already knee-deep in financial debt, credit card loans and failed recipes. She was about to throw in the towel when one final thought kept her going.
“I just thought about telling this to my parents,” said Sohn. “I didn’t know how to tell them and I just pictured my mother crying. And at that moment I said ‘OK, you know what, let me just try one more time.’”
Fortunately for Sohn, that one last try yielded the final formula that is the top-secret recipe Sweet and Sara uses to this day. Sohn said she literally screamed in her kitchen when she finally got the right formulation after many sleepless nights tinkering with ingredients. The recipe, said Sohn, is a trade secret she keeps under wraps for fear of competition.

With a truly vegan marshmallow product in hand, Sohn was once again busy with new orders. Sweet and Sara moved to their current 7,000-square-foot location in Long Island City.
Since then, Sweet and Sara products have received rave reviews from celebrities, stores and media outlets alike. Most recently, chain-retailer Duane Reade Inc. started stocking Sweet and Sara. The business partnership came in the form of a surprise phone call.
“I remember I picked up the phone and I thought it was a random bizarre call,” said Sohn. “I was about to hang up on the guy too when he said ‘Hey, I’m calling from Duane Reade.’ Then he told me they were interested in carrying our product and I looked at the caller ID and realized that he wasn’t joking.”
Landmark Theatres, a national movie theater chain, is another recent addition to the growing list of Sweet and Sara distributors. Taste was the ultimate deciding factor in adding Sohn’s product to their menu, said Damien Farley, director of concessions.
“We’re not just selling it to vegans,” said Farley. “It’s great for us to have vegan offerings, but if it tasted bad, we wouldn’t have carried it.”
Sohn’s marshmallows have the look, taste and feel of a traditional marshmallow. Julee George, 42, missed eating traditional marshmallows after three years of following a vegan diet.
“Because it hadn’t been that long since I switched to a vegan diet, I still had a taste for certain things, marshmallows being one of them. So I was excited because it tasted like a marshmallow,” said George. “It tasted like what I remembered a marshmallow to taste like.”
Of course, Sohn agrees with George and makes sure to have one of her own products once a day.
“I do have something everyday. It’s usually a piece of rocky road bark. I’m obsessed with the Rice Krispies,” said Sohn, eyeing a freshly made Sweet and Sara puffed rice treat. “A little piece of it every day is always a good thing, to remind myself of the genius that I am.”
Aside from high reviews for taste, Sohn’s treats have helped her spread a sweeter message in the form of animal activism. “I’ve tried my whole life to convert people to go vegan and eat less animal,” said Sohn. “I’ve done everything. But I’ve never converted more people than I have than through a marshmallow.”

Sources:

1. Sara Sohn, creator and owner of Sweet and Sara, LLC, sara@sweetandsara.com
2. Damien Farley, director of concessions, Landmark Theatres, damienf@landmarktheatres.com
3. Julee George, 42, hair stylist, (562) 307-6142
4. Richard Ludescher, Ph. D, dean of academic programs, school of environmental and biological programs, Rutgers University, (848) 932-3516

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