Mary Song’s years of harrowing work schedules and desire to benefit her own health through thoughtful eating led her to launch Healthy Gourmet Kitchen in 2015 in New York state’s Capital District. (Glenville, New York, is about half an hour from The Savory Pantry’s Saratoga Store.)
In Mary’s Healthy Gourmet Kitchen, easy meals meet healthful, cost-effective, delicious, global inspirations. From appetizers to mains to desserts, these starter kits are filled with quality veggies, spices, and herbs that have even those who don’t consider themselves cooks saying her products “make me feel like a real chef.”
Mary shared, “I’ve spent a lot of my life working and understand the challenges of wanting a meal on the table for your family while you’re trying to hold everything together. More recently, I have become interested in avoiding the aches of joints and pains of aging through what I eat, and steer away from artificial flavorings, colorings, and preservatives. The trouble is, they’re everywhere! Reading labels is time consuming and items I’ve trusted in the past change their recipes to include ingredients they didn’t used to without warning, which is frustrating and disappointing. I wanted to create something that solved these issues for customers, and was trustworthy and transparent.”
“Our products contain food (being veggies or beans or pastas), spices, and herbs. That’s it! We fresh-grind a lot of the spices, and use a variety. It’s expensive for families to stock a high-quality spice pantry and keep fresh herbs on hand, and certain spices aren’t widely available, so we want to help with that. We dry many of our herbs ourselves, and you can see them straight through the packaging. That’s intentional because we want everything we do to really speak to what is inside—products that are tasty, understandable, cost- and time-effective, and nutritionally sound.”
Take a peek through the packaging of the Cuban Black Bean Soup, for example, and see the gorgeous colors and layers of flavor you’ll soon be enjoying. Read the label and rest assured that the ingredients are free of gluten, have no added MSG, salt, or sugar, and are Non-GMO and vegan. This is a recipe that will work for practically everyone!
Where does Mary glean inspiration for her recipes?
“I lived and worked in the Middle East with a very eclectic and international mix of people. Europeans, Canadians, South Americans, Lebanese . . . we were all living together in a compound. Many of the women didn’t work, and people didn’t have families or their families weren’t with them, so we sort of entertained each other and became a close-knit community. I learned to make Vietnamese desserts, phylo dough from scratch, Lebanese za'atar and hummus. Presentation of the food was important, fish was served whole but decorated with edible garnishes, vegetables were elaborately carved . . . so they offered taste but also visual pleasure. Spices were added to every dish, nothing was bland.”
“Aside from that period of my life, I travel a lot. The Tuscan Bean Soup was inspired by Tuscan Ribollita eaten on a trip to Italy. The Cuban Black Bean was inspired by trip a to Cuba in 2015. My husband is Italian, and his mother is a phenomenal cook, so her cooking influences me. You’ll also find nods to French cooking, some of which comes from taking a short course at Le Cordon Bleu. Overall, I look to the people I’ve known and places I’ve visited. From there, I experiment and see if I can make something delicious using those flavor profiles.”
From New York farmers markets to an ever-expanding commercial kitchen, Healthy Gourmet Kitchen has grown tremendously quickly.
“We started in a shared-use kitchen, renting space by the day. It was an inexpensive way to start and test the waters. The space was in a basement, so we were going up and down stairs, carrying everything in and out with us each rental day. Needless to say, this involved lots of physical labor. About a year ago, we moved into a 1,000-square-foot kitchen and were thinking, Wow, this is so much room, how will we ever use it all? But things have grown so quickly that now we’re trying to use every inch available, including making creative use of vertical space.”
“It’s been fun and exciting to grow. There’s no one really to teach you the things you need to know, and people have said that its crazy to do it the way we’ve done it (one pepper here, two bay leaves here, all by hand), but we do it . . . and it works for us. For example, one of our major challenges was how to bag the spices without getting the sides of the bags messy and allow the artistic layering to show. We had some stainless-steel piping made especially for this application so that we could fill the bags more easily. This allows for ‘light automation.’ If the mix is very precise, though, we still do each bag individually. That’s pretty hard when we’re measuring 600 lbs of beans!”
Who is the “we” of Healthy Gourmet Kitchen?
“I’m the driving force, but I also depend on part-time employees. I thought I would keep this business small and it’s just really, really growing. We’re already looking to move into a larger space because we need more storage and workspace. We have no meeting room. We are truly a bootstrapping startup, funding organic growth through revenue.”
“It’s hard to believe that this all started at a really small winter farmer’s market. After that was successful, I applied to five summer markets and thought it was a long shot, but I was accepted at all of them! I had to quickly learn how to do an outdoor farmers market. People who knew my professional life prior to this thought I was sort of taking a step down, but in my view, it’s quite the opposite.”
“My previous career involved large-scale computer applications. I started an internet business that was acquired and became HomeAway. Then I had a successful marketing business that was also acquired. Prior to that, I worked for a hospital in the Middle East, I developed pharmacy labels that were printed in Arabic and English—sounds simple, but it was the first time the hospital was allowed to print in Arabic for political reasons. Huge benefit to patients many of whom lived in villages where maybe one person read Arabic and unlikely anyone read English. While it was important work, I didn't get to directly see those who were benefiting from my work. Always before, there were intermediaries between me and those my work was impacting.”
“In Healthy Gourmet Kitchen, I feel like I’ve created a more meaningful and wholesome workplace. This is a step up for me regardless of what some may think. Technologies can cause us to lose connections with our neighbors, and farmers markets help reestablish and strengthen those community ties. Farmers markets are still my favorite ways to sell because I get immediate, first-hand feedback and am in personal touch with customers. Those preparing meals at home can tell us what they need and we can create new products. This spills over a bit into the website, where customers can review products. I’m so proud to think I’m helping families get good food on their tables. Younger people that don’t know how to cook have some training wheels. They feel good about what they’ve prepared for themselves and those they’re feeding, and they come back and try something different.”
“I love that the phone number is on the packaging and if someone calls, it goes straight to me. Customers know where to find us, and this goes back to transparency.”
How does Mary like to cook when she’s at home?
“When I need a quick meal, I just pull out one of our starters. We save all our bones when we eat, so I might make our Split Pea Soup with ham bone for Sunday lunch. The Bolognese is so simple and fast. I also crave the Chicken Marengo, which is sort of a French version of Cacciatore, and the Star Anise and Ginger. My son’s favorite is Moroccan Red Lentil Soup. The Cuban Black Bean is a staff favorite, and we eat our products at meetings.”
It’s wonderful to know that the woman behind this great company who herself works so hard is able to relish some of the ease lent by her own creations. And I know a few of us at The Savory Pantry who’ll be keeping warm this winter, celebrating our health, and watching our guests dip with confidence at our Super Bowl parties thanks to Mary’s hard work and thoughtful efforts.