Fluffy, sugary, and animal-free.
June 25, 2012
In an 8,000-square-foot factory in Long Island City, right off of bustling Queens Boulevard, Sara Sohn makes marshmallows. Vegan marshmallows, to be exact. “It’s a good conversation starter,” says Sara, owner of Sweet & Sara, the vegan confection company she founded in 2007. “When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I make marshmallows, vegan marshmallows.’ Typically, the next question is: ‘What makes a vegan marshmallow different?’ Instead of gelatin (tendons, ligaments of animals), we use carrageenan, which is a seaweed,” explains Sara, who has been vegan for twenty years, living without meat, eggs or dairy products. “We were the first to create a vegan marshmallow. It has the look, the taste, elasticity, bounce, chew, and all of the properties of a [regular] one.”
But ignore, for a moment, Sara’s white bunny logo mounted on the face of her building, or the fact that her company churns out several thousand spongy treats—(all made by hand)—each week for distribution throughout the city, the country, and as far away as Australia. Despite her global success, Sara’s beginnings were far from sweet.After convincing her parents to hand over their life savings, she built her first commercial kitchen on 45th Street in Woodside. When construction was completed, all the money was gone. Then, a scandal erupted. (See two-part CNBC story here and here.) Sara’s first marshmallows used Emes Kosher-Jel, which was labeled and marketed as a vegetarian gelatin. “It’s a crazy story,” Sara recalls, “the whole Emes thing.” It turned out Emes lied and used animal bones in their gelatin. Sara felt sick when she heard the news. “Emes means ‘truth’ in Hebrew. They ran away and shut their business and were never found.” This left Sara with a commercial kitchen, no product, and even more determination to give marshmallows a vegan makeover. “It took ten months, over a hundred trials, and almost losing my sanity,” says Sara. “Never in a million years did I think it was going to be so difficult. Food scientists and experts in the hydrocolloid (gelatin and gums) industry told me there was a reason why vegan marshmallows didn’t exist: [reproducing the properties of gelatin in marshmallows] was impossible. But if you tell me I can’t do something, I am going to prove you wrong.” With time and a lot of tinkering, Sara was able to come up with the right combination of ingredients and parameters to match the consistency of a gelatin-based marshmallow. “And today, we offer a delicious product where no animals were harmed in the making.”
Since, Sweet & Sara—which boasts a huge customer base that’s not even vegan—has been profiled in numerous magazine and newspaper articles. Martha Stewart Weddings magazine listed her as one of the top three marshmallow vendors, but it was a segment on Food Network that really put her on the map.
On any given weekday, Sara, a Queens native—born and raised in Woodside—might greet you at the door, wearing two hair nets, a chef’s jacket and an apron smeared with chocolate and sticky sugar. Recently, on her day off, she took some time to chat with Open City about her path to inventing the first vegan marshmallow.
Open City: So, why marshmallows?
Sara Sohn: I had been vegan for so long and the two things I missed the most were made with marshmallows. Being Korean, I grew up with Choco-Pies (moon pies), a staple in every Korean household. And Rice Krispies Treats. I waited more than a decade, hoping someone would come out with a vegan marshmallow, but no one did. Enough was enough. Whatever it took, I was going to get my favorite childhood treats back.
OC: This type of vegan confection had never been done before. What was that process of invention like?
SS: I didn’t speak to my friends for ten months. I was depressed. I had just spent all this money and built this beautiful kitchen, and I was paying New York City commercial rent with zero product. I was spending 21 hours a day trying to create a formula! I was devastated and frustrated, and eventually, ready to throw in the towel. But when I envisioned telling my mother, I pictured her crying. I thought, let me try it one more time. And that last formula is the one we use today. It was the 115th trial.
OC: What is a typical day in the factory like?
SS: Ten people work at the marshmallow factory. We make several thousand marshmallows and s’mores weekly. We make everything in small batches by hand—(no mass production or industrial equipment)—to ensure optimal and consistent quality each time. It takes three days to make a marshmallow; two days to make a s’more.
Our treats are found everywhere, so people assume we are millionaires and that we’re always on vacation and never at the factory. That’s far from the truth. We are a hard-working, family-owned, small business. No one in my family has been on vacation in ten years!
OC: How involved is your family in Sweet & Sara?
SS: My family is here with me every single day. My mom, after 20 years, retired as a manicurist to join my team. She is the hardest worker, period. She’s petite and 68 years old, but she will outwork you. If she’s not helping out in production, she’s packing s’mores, putting labels on the marshmallows, running downstairs to get the mail, or making coffee for the staff. Mom is my heart, the rock of the family. Dad fixes everything that’s broken. All the breakdowns and breakthroughs, he’s been at my side.
OC: What was is like when you first went vegan?
SS: Twenty years ago, nobody knew what a vegan was. It was hard. I started when I was thirteen and didn’t know anyone who was a vegan or vegetarian. There was no parental support. I do remember cheating when I first went vegan on Entenmann’s banana crunch cake. I ate the whole thing. Then, I interned at Farm Sanctuary when I was 16. We went undercover to a stockyard and saw a veal calf being auctioned off. I was devastated. It’s one thing to watch it on video and see pictures, but to see the actual day-old calf? One was crawling to me and tried to suckle my hand because he wanted milk. I fell to the floor and told the calf: “I promise I will never cheat on my vegan diet again.” And that was the end of it. I’ve never ever cheated since.
[But when I first went vegan], my parents thought I was going through a phase. I remember my dad saying, “You crazy. You. Crazy.” He’d point to his head and say, “You mental.” Yet, he, for ten years, drove me to every single [animal rights] protest. He’s helped me rescue pigeons. We lived by the 7 train, so birds fell off the train and I would bring them home. At first, my father would be screaming: “Get that dirty bird out of here!” Five minutes later, he’s making a birdbath.
OC: How has the vegan food scene in New York City changed since you went vegan two decades ago?
SS: The vegan food scene in general has changed tremendously, but we vegan New Yorkers are spoiled. Twenty years ago, the only dessert I could have was carob bars; the soymilk back then was brown. I remember crying as a kid, thinking, “Oh God, this is my life: having to truck out to Manhattan to get this brown crap.” Now, you can go downstairs in your pajamas and get vegan marshmallows at your local deli. Times have changed.
But there’s still a stigma attached to veganism. I spent years going to demos, protest events, and meetings. I’ve been leafleting and talking [about veganism] for 20 years, and no one will listen or give you the time of day. But it’s been through a marshmallow that I’ve been able to change the minds of people. Who is going to deny a marshmallow? It’s a fun food. A marshmallow can change a person’s whole outlook on veganism, so I’m lucky. I get to change the way people view vegan food.
Sara’s marshmallows can be found all over New York at Whole Foods, bodegas, delis, supermarkets, selected Duane Reade stores, vegan specialty shops, and Sunshine Cinema. Or pick some up at Sweet & Sara’s factory in Long Island City. For more information, click here.
Sara Sohn’s Top Five Vegan Spots in the City
Lula’s Sweet Apothecary
“I’ve trekked through rainstorms, blizzards and heat waves to get their ice cream. Best ice cream in the world, vegan or not.”
“Ranked as best doughnut in NYC by The Daily News, enough said. When they first opened, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
Cinnamon Snail Vegan Lunch Truck
“Some of the most creative, flavorful food I’ve had. And they have a huge following. I always find a line down the block; yup, they’re that good.”
“Vegan mecca. It’s also the place I take my non-veggie friends to. The seitan picatta and chimichurris will win over any meat-eater. Everything—from the food to service—is outstanding and pure perfection.”
Soy & Sake
“The most scrumptiously beautiful vegan sushi rolls!”