Jessica Kamzan
Julie O'Brien and Richard Climenhage, owners and founders of Firefly Kitchens, want to help people realize the health benefits of fermented foods.

Firefly Kitchens, bringing health through fermented foods

Jessica Kamzan, UW News Lab

Who would have imagined it? For the past two years, award-winning sauerkraut and kimchi have been quietly produced in the shadow of the Ballard Bridge.

Firefly Kitchens has mainstreamed the traditional fermentation process, producing award-winning kraut products from kimchi and classic sauerkraut to yin yang carrots and salsa viva.

Owners Julie O’Brien and Richard Climenhage opened Firefly Kitchens in January 2010. During the two years leading up to their opening they crafted over 20 recipes for fermented foods. The pair put in late nights in the borrowed space of a small catering business while they searched -- from churches to schools to town halls -- for a kitchen of their own.

The two transformed the Ballard space, which was originally a dot-com business filled with cubicles, into a functional kitchen and production facility, with large windows that allow plenty of sunlight in.

Climenhage, a former high-tech executive, became intrigued with fermented foods about 10 years ago after a nutritionist suggested he consume more fats and fermented food. It cured the chronic heart palpitations that he had endured for two years.

“Six weeks and two days after [changing my eating the palpitations were gone, never to return,” Climenhage said. “So I was sold. I started making my own sauerkraut and never looked back.”

O’Brien, who ran a branding and advertising business for 20 years, was introduced to the nutritional benefits of fermented food while studying to becoming a nutritional therapist. It wasn’t long, then, when the fermenting foodies met.

“It was just really clear that we had the same passion about food and desire to share what we know with others,” O’Brien said.

Since they collaborated in 2008, O’Brien and Climenhage said they are dedicated to spreading awareness about the positive health benefits they believe come from their foods.

They make the organic, traditionally fermented products using no heat, vinegar or sugar. Their process involves mixing thousands of pounds of shredded cabbage with spices -- such as garlic and ginger -- and sea salt in stainless steel tumble drums. Next, they pack the cabbage in addition to any other desired vegetables into an airtight container for four to eight weeks. During this time, lactic acid and other good bacteria grow, finalizing the fermentation process.

They say the lactic acid helps the stomach digest other foods. The good (dairy-free) bacteria help line the intestinal tract, enabling the body to get more nutrients out of food consumed. Also important are the nutrients in the fermented vegetables themselves such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C and other minerals, which make the product literally “health in a jar,” Climenhage said.

“There are people who just love sauerkraut and then there are people who eat it because it’s good for you (full of fiber, vitamin C, probiotics and enzymes). Some people don’t want to eat it three times a day, but you can use it as a snack, you can use it as a condiment on sandwich, you can use it as a whole side or you can throw it in your salad. We’re just trying to encourage people to incorporate it into their lives in different ways,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien and Climenhage still challenge preconceived notions about sauerkraut, including the conception that it’s mainly eaten on hot dogs. Others might have negative memories of being forced to eat it as a child.

The pair said they work hard to align their practices with their mission, which is to produce healthy food that is tasty, locally sourced when possible and created in a positive working environment.

Laura Shoemaker started working with Firefly Kitchens after visiting the Ballard Farmers Market and noticing how well received the products were.

“I thought to myself, this stuff sells itself and it’d be cool to get involved,” she said.

Now after a year, Shoemaker says she learns something new every time she comes to work.

Firefly Kitchens packages about 2,400 jars every other week and continues to grow.

“One hundred cases went out just this week. This is record breaking, and we hope that next week will be even better,” Climenhage said.

O’Brien and Climenhage make it a priority to buy locally, mainly from Nash’s Organic Produce and Full Circle Farm. When they cannot source locally, they make sure that whoever they work with shares similar values about nutrition and food responsibility.

Firefly Kitchens’ products are sold at the Ballard Farmers Market and in local stores including Central Co-Op, PCC, Whole Foods and beyond. Prices range from $7 to $12 per jar. Climenhage said their goal is to access more people in the market, by expanding to the same type of stores in Oregon, California and Canada.

O’Brien hopes to offer fermenting classes this year, in addition to the scheduled fermented food day class on Oct. 24 from 6:30-9 p.m. in honor of National Food Day. A fermentation class is planned for Nov. 3 from 8:30-10:30 a.m. A free open house will follow at 11 a.m. for those involved in the medical and nutrition fields.

In an effort to encourage recycling, Firefly Kitchens will donate 25 cents for every jar returned to the Ballard Food Bank. Jars may be dropped off at the Ballard Farmers Market or directly to Firefly Kitchens.

“This work is so much more soulful. … You know you can get behind the product because you know that what you’re selling is actually helping people feel better,” Climenhage said.

“It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” O’Brien added.

Firefly Kitchens won two consecutive Good Food Awards for its “tasty, authentic and responsibly produced” Yin Yang Carrots in 2011 and Cortido Sauerkraut in 2012.

For more information, including about fermenting classes,

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