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Culinary entrepreneur hunts down unusual flavors to satisfy both restaurant chefs and creative home cooks
Story by Laura Onstot, with photo by Ryan Clark of MarxFood.com
JUSTIN MARX, BS ’00, starts picking through the latest ingredients, liquors and foods waiting on the shelves of his Seattle store. His fingers brush across rhubarb sauce, orange blossom champagne, pepper jelly and barbecue bitters. It’s not your typical assortment of culinary accoutrements.
“For this retail shop, we’re focusing on two main areas—one is finding new and interesting flavor profiles and ingredients, things that surprise even jaded chefs,” Marx explains. “And then also, for the more mainstream items, we’re trying to find the best of everything. The best pasta, the best ketchup, the best oils and vinegars.”
To that end, Marx travels from Seattle farmers markets to green pastures in New Zealand, expanding the items on the shelves of his tiny, modern loft on a busy street between downtown Seattle and Fishermen’s Terminal to the north.
The items he looks over on this day are headed to an eight-person tasting panel that will give a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or neutral. The verdict must be a near-unanimous positive review for the product to make it into the inventory of ingredients. “Somewhere around 5 percent ends up passing,” Marx says.
Marx’s foray into bringing rare ingredients to the masses is the culmination of a family food-importing business, Marx Imports, based out of New Jersey that dates back to 1895. Marx himself started out working at the family slaughterhouse at age 11.
Since then, through his own business, Marx Foods, the family business has exploded online, and in the last year, expanded into supplying your home kitchen, where those barbecue bitters may someday end up. “It’s changed, obviously, so much over the years.”
Marx’s part of the family journey—and the westward expansion—involved a slight detour to Washington, D.C., for law school. A business law class at UB inspired the industry jump. (“The professor blew our minds,” he recalls.) But then love led him to the west coast and eventually back into food.
Marx Foods began with a desk and computer in his apartment. He challenged chefs: “Give me your mission-impossible sourcing,” a food item they just couldn’t seem to find. Requests came in for rare oregano, Colombian chilies and anchovy oil. Marx confesses that most of the time getting those items means tapping into his family’s vast network of import connections—a good business move, if not quite as romantic as donning a fedora and heading to the jungle to track down a rare spice.
In addition to expanding his family’s business online and getting into unusual foods like wild boar, Marx is trying to make importing foods eco-friendly. “One of my biggest pet peeves is green-washing,” he says of the practice of feigning eco-friendliness while pursuing actions that can be environmentally destructive.
Shipping beef from as far away as New Zealand hardly passes muster in locavore-minded Seattle, as Marx readily acknowledges. “That is a line we’ve definitely had a hard time navigating.”
Take the New Zealand beef—yes it travels far, but “they are the best,” he says. He reconciles the conflict in part by the condition of the cows: “[New Zealanders] love their animals and they also really love the land,” he says. And to top it off Marx Foods buys carbon offsets for shipping the meat home.
“We have a lot of local products and we’re working really hard at finding them,” Marx says. “But they have to pass the panel.”
Never one to rest, Marx is expanding the company’s domain to include monthly subscriptions and gifts. But the secret to his success, Marx says, isn’t rapid growth, it’s growing the business right: “It’s all about the little nuts-and-bolts things.”
Well that, and perfect flavor.
40 elderflower heads
6 cups of sugar
6 cups of boiling water
1 1⁄2 oz of citric acid
Cut flowers off flower heads. Then add flowers to a metal container. Wash the lemons and cut in very thin slices. Add the lemon slices to the container. Then add sugar and citric acid on top and pour over nearly boiling water. Cover the container with a clean kitchen towel or lid and put in a cool place for three-four days. Stir once in a while to ensure sugar is mixed with the liquid. Add a piece of cheese cloth to a sieve and pour liquid through. Then add to thoroughly cleaned and sterilized bottles and keep refrigerated. The finished elderflower cordial is served mixed 1 to 6 with sparkling water. The cordial can also be frozen.
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