Susan Cartiglia’s Rawk Me set for its debut in stores

[caption id="attachment_24775" align="alignright" width="288" caption="Susan Cartiglia at the Downtown Market, Susan handing a costumer ice cream"][/caption]

SANTA ROSA – Vegan, gluten- and dairy-free organic ice “cream” may not seem to have a huge market, but Susan Cartiglia, the proprietor of Rawk Me, hopes to change that.

Ms. Cartiglia began selling her dessert at the Santa Rosa downtown market. Community Market and Oliver’s have expressed interest in her product, but it was when she was buying ingredients that she met the buyer for Whole Foods, which got the ball rolling.

Now Rawk Me is one of the locally produced items set to be featured in the new Whole Foods opening on Sept. 22 in Santa Rosa.

Whole Foods Market’s buyers, or “foragers” as they are called, make a point of having locally produced items in their stores. In Sonoma County, 125 locally based products are showcased, according to Harv Singh, the buyer for 32 stores in Northern California.

Through the downtown market Ms. Cartiglia has been selling 10 gallons a week and makes her coconut and nut-based product in a small commercial kitchen she rents in downtown Santa Rosa.

Currently, Mr. Singh said, she will be placed in the two Santa Rosa stores but as her capacity to produce increases, he expects to move her into more stores.

“The local buying is done straight through each store,” he said. “It gives the stores autonomy.”

Ms. Cartiglia is hopeful this will boost sales enough to expand.

“What I foresee happening as my product goes from two stores to more, is I will get my own kitchen,” she said.

From Fairfield County in Connecticut, 29-year-old Ms. Cartiglia has been vegetarian her whole life. While in graduate school for holistic nutrition, she met the man who she would become engaged to.

“He is from the town where Ben & Jerry’s is from,” she said. He came over to her house for dinner one night, and she recreated three of his favorite flavors for him.

“But they were raw vegan,” she said. “He tasted it and was like, ‘You have to make this and sell this.’”

She received her undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in Boston and her holistic health counseling certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City.

She started selling to a few health food stores on the East Coast, then moved to California. It was her first day out at the market when Oliver’s approached her.

“I was really ready for some sort of shift,” she said.

Once she gets her own kitchen, she said she would like to pair it with a cafe.

The challenges she faced have thus far been mostly technical.

“I didn’t know much about UPC codes,” she said. And she said it was hard to find American-made compostable pints with compostable ink without having to purchase mass quantities. But Mr. Singh said he is thrilled to have her and the other local producers involved in the store.

According to Mr. Singh, Whole Foods is not only committed to have locally sourced products in its stores, it helps finance the companies as well.

In the North Bay, 15 companies have been the recipients of $865,000 in loans to help build their businesses to the next level so Whole Foods can put the products in more of its locations.

Grindstone Bakery, Three Twins Ice Cream and Mateo Granados Catering are just a few of the companies who received loans from Whole Foods. In the case of Grindstone, it was that loan which enabled the bakery to expand and serve a larger market.

The first loans of this kind were made in 2007. Whole Foods said it wants to make at least $10 million in loans to help local and independent farmers and producers expand their businesses and bring more local products to market.

As for Ms. Cartiglia, she will continue making her ice cream and is thankful for the enthusiasm people have brought.

“The people at Whole Foods have been super supportive,” she said. “The people who brought me in will receive no incentive for this.”