Photos by Betty Liu
“When you get used to having a rusk, a cup of coffee is just not the same without one. It’s not complete,” says Mandy McKenzie, owner of Kiff Food. But how do you eat these twice-baked and not-easily-broken cookies? “You have to dunk and double dunk or triple dunk. Or you bite it and have a sip after. I think you have to have a hot drink with rusks,” she says. “It’s the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee.”
Mandy, a native South African, offers a little bit of South Africa in the sweets she makes and sells to gourmet stores in the greater Boston area: rusks, buttery, slightly sweet, hard and crunchy biscuits commonly eaten with a cup of coffee or tea; granola and crunchies, chewy, crispy oatmeal bars, similar to American granola bars. Both rusks and crunchies are so common in South Africa that Mandy says they are that country’s equivalent of American chocolate chip cookies.
Every South African has rusks, crunchies and granola, Mandy says. They are in every kitchen and in every cupboard. Describing crunchies as “a bowl of granola on the go,” she smiles and says, “There’s never a bad time to have a crunchie.”
Mandy shows me her recipe book, filled with handwritten and emailed recipes and notes shared among her family members. There is her gran’s chocolate cake recipe, the one Mandy made for her husband Stephen’s birthday, and her mother’s original Three Seed Rusk recipe, written in her mother’s hand, now faded and yellowed.
Because buttermilk rusks are the most common flavor in South Africa, Mandy adapted her mother’s Three Seed Rusk recipe to create her own Buttermilk Rusk recipe. She added chocolate to create two rusk flavors unique to the U.S.: chocolate chip and double chocolate. “What I love about my rusks is that I created them, and I’m not a famous chef,” she says.
The granola recipe she made up herself, using a base of olive oil and honey like her aunt used to do. Her Fruit & Nut Granola includes sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins and dried apricots, almonds and pecans. Chocolate replaces the raisins and dried apricots in her Chocolate Chip Granola. “I’ve sprinkled granola over salad,” she says. “It’s nice.”
For her Golden Syrup Crunchies, Mandy uses Lyle’s Golden Syrup, a British-made pure cane syrup. “You can’t make a crunchie taste like a crunchie unless you use Lyle’s,” she says. She also has a Peanut Butter Crunchie, but her favorite is the Honey Granola Crunchie, made with a base of her own granola.
Mandy moved with her husband, Stephen, and three boys to the Boston area in 2013. After years working in IT in both Cape Town and in London, she was getting ready to look for an IT job in Boston when her husband’s brother and his wife came to visit. “I had made a batch of rusks and a batch of granola,” she says. They were wowed by them, and told Mandy she should sell them. Soon after, a friend of Mandy’s suggested she try selling her products at a local farmers market. Mandy tried it, and “It was a massive hit,” she says. “I got the bug. I decided I really wanted to give this a go.”
Mandy found a name for her business by going back to her roots. One of the things she says she loves about Boston is her friends’ use of the phrase, “wicked awesome.” So it made sense to use a South African term that means “awesome or “cool” to describe her South African product made in Boston. “My default word for awesome is kiff,” she says. “People always laugh at me because I use kiff all the time.”
With a residential permit, Mandy developed her products in her own kitchen, adding cookies and fudge to her product line, and selling them privately and at farmers markets. After farmers market season was over, Mandy obtained her wholesale license and began marketing her products at retail stores. In October 2015, she met the owner of Duck Soup in Sudbury, Louise Mawhinney. “She was so helpful and kind to me,” Mandy says. Louise’s support gave Mandy the confidence to go to the next store, Red Barn Coffee Roaster. The next thing Mandy knew, she had an order for 360 packaged items to be delivered the following week. “So I baked 20 hours a day for five days,” Mandy says. Even with friends and family helping, “I was doing so much dough pressing and crunchie pressing that by Thanksgiving I was in a hand brace and needed surgery, but I got the order to her!” she says.
The size and demands of that order helped Mandy realize her home kitchen’s production limits as well as her own. “I took this on as a part-time thing. I wanted to do something and didn’t realize it would take over my life,” she says. So Mandy began looking for ways to bring back the balance in her life. in February, she began working with the staff at CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester, reducing her product line to just three, piloting those products, and scaling them from home-sized bake pans to huge commercial kitchen bake pans. “Everybody there is so helpful and interested,” she says.
With the addition of a professional delivery service, Mandy says she will be able to better use her time during the day to sell, take samples to clients, and do marketing and financing while still being involved in the baking. “I’ll monitor when production is on, and I’ll be there,” she says.
While the business has taught her a lot about herself, Mandy says her boys, Fin, 10, and twins Aiden and Shayla, 8, have learned a massive lesson as well. They’ve been supportive, helping out at farmers markets, learning about profit margins and price. They’ve even come up with some new rusk flavors which Mandy plans on testing.
Though Mandy never dreamed of owning a business herself, she loves every aspect of Kiff Food. “I’m so excited about what I do,” she says. “I love the packaging and seeing the final products and how pretty it looks. I love going to stores and meeting clients,” she says. “If I’ve had three hours of sleep. I am energized by this. I love it.” Mandy adds, “If I’ve failed as a business I haven’t failed at all. I’ve added value to my life. It’s been amazing. We had nothing to lose.”