The T’ART of Living
Words by Andrea Pyenson / Photographs by Katie Noble
Among her friends, Linda Amir is the dessert person. For years, she brought her signature fresh fruit tarts to friends' houses; or she brought the mix to her friends' house on the Cape and baked the tart on-site. And for years, friends encouraged her to market her tarts. Finally she listened and two years ago T'ART, New England's first pre-packaged tart mix, was born.
"What really drove me was being a role model for my kids," Amir says. "My son, [Elan, now 23] kept asking me, 'Why haven't you done it?'" Maybe it was the "very full-time" marketing job she has at Fidelity that held her back. Or the fact that she had no background in starting a food company. But a little over two years ago Amir decided to find out, in her words, "if you really believe in something, is there a way, no matter how busy you are, to follow your dream?" She's learning that there is. But it's not easy. "When I was launching this product I operated on three to four hours of sleep for six months," she says.
Since January 2011, Amir has been selling packaged mixes for her T'ARTs (the name combines tart and art). Customers just add eggs, butter, and fresh or frozen fruit. The finished product is not a tart in the traditional sense of a flaky pastry crust with a filling. There is no separate crust and the consistency is more cake-like, similar to a French clafoutis. With fruit, it is perfect for dessert, brunch, or snacks with tea or coffee.
Amir produces the T'ART mix in her Brookline home. She has a residential kitchen license and a Massachusetts license that enables her to sell the product out of state, which she does via her website. Her manufacturing team, which includes her husband, Shimon, and sometimes their son, a recent college graduate who works for a small commercial real estate company, holds "production nights" about twice a month. They can turn out around 60 bags in an hour, and up to 300 bags per week. "It's really private time for us," she says, of the hours she and Shimon spend assembling mixes. "We just talk."
On a recent production morning, Linda lines up six cellophane bags on the kitchen's granite-topped center island. Maintaining a steady stream of conversation, she effortlessly scoops sugar, flour, baking powder and salt into the bags, never spilling a drop on the counter. As the bags are filled, she slides them across the counter. "The conveyor belt comes to my side," Shimon says with a smirk. He passes each bag through a sealer, then carries them to the dining room, where Elan takes over. He pops the mixes into the outer bags, which have been lined up in rows on the large dining room table, and folds the tops over. "I can do 100 in 40 minutes," he boasts.
To get her business started, Amir talked to as many people in the food industry as she could. One of her first decisions was to sell mixes instead of actual tarts because freshness is much less of a concern with a mix than with prepared pastry (the sealed bags can stay on shelves for one year), and storing ingredients for the mix is a lot easier than storing hundreds of tarts.
But deciding on and making the product was almost the least of Amir's challenges. She had to resolve packaging issues, including the interior and exterior bags, and label design. Aesthetics was one concern, but Amir also had to meet government-regulated food labeling requirements. An online search for a nutritional analyst led her to a woman in California who provided the necessary information for the mix ingredients and the T'ART as prepared with two large eggs, two cups of blueberries, a half-cup of butter, and a half-teaspoon of vanilla. She also taught Amir how the ingredients had to be listed on the label. Her services were expensive, the T'ART developer notes, but worth the investment.
Amir found the graphic designer who created the watercolor that enlivens the package labels through a woman at her synagogue. With their purple border, pop of color in the middle and lushly rendered fruits surrounding an abstract pastry, the attractive bags stands out on market shelves. "I was very conscious of letting people know that you could do this [make the tart] with any fruit," says Amir.
Once she had the product and packaging set, Amir literally went door-to-door to sell it – all the while maintaining her day job, which often stretched into the evenings. She started at the The Meat House in Brookline, near her home, arriving with two T'ARTs and bags of mix. She sold two cases (24 bags, at 12 bags per case) on the spot and was invited back later that day to do a tasting for customers.
Slowly, she branched out. She began to sell her mix at the former Dewar's market in Newton. In April 2011, she went to Russo's in Watertown. "Tony [Russo] loved it," she says. "He bought five cases. That was the launch." The mix sells very well at Russo's and the market continues to be very supportive. "It's those relationships that are special," she says.
Buoyed by that success, Amir approached Whole Foods. After trying numerous times to get through to the regional office, she spoke to someone at her local store. It took conversations with a couple of different buyers, and nearly two months to get into her first Whole Foods market. A year and a half later, it is sold in nearly a dozen of them, as well as a continually expanding roster of specialty food stores and supermarkets.
The mix is endlessly flexible. It is delicious with any fresh or frozen fruit, or combination of fruits. You can substitute sliced or cut up vegetables, as I did recently, using sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts for an appealing savory T'ART. I followed Amir's advice to add parmesan cheese to the dry ingredients before stirring in the eggs and butter, to cut the sweetness.
Amir estimates that she does four to six tastings nearly every weekend, noting that in a lot of stores the mix sells better when she is there to promote it. "When I do tastings, people come up to me and tell me how much they love the product," she notes. They also share their recipe ideas with her and some have even sent her photos of their creations, which she posts on her website. "It's those kinds of wows that inspire me to continue to do it."
The T'ART website (amourcreations.net) offers tips for customizing T'ARTs, as well as where it is sold.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com, and oneforthetable.com. She is co-author, with Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, of Wicked Good Barbecue and its upcoming sequel (April), Wicked Good Burgers. Andrea can be reached at email@example.com.