A decade ago, Cori Deans was told by doctors that she’d likely have to be on meds for the rest of her life, and would have to manage her Crohn’s disease through diet and lifestyle. Instead, she turned to foods to improve her health, and in the process built a business that’s rapidly expanding across the East Coast.
Small Town Cultures, which specializes in small batch fermented foods, started with Deans learning about her own gut. “I was put on a diet that was low on fiber and a gnarly cocktail of immunosuppressant meds plus antibiotics and steroids. None of it really was helping or made sense to me.”
She started to research her condition, and found a book, Patient Heal Thyself, which offered an alternative approach. Within months of changing her diet to nutrient-dense whole foods and healthy fats, eating a variety of fermented foods (from containers of sauerkraut to bottles of kombucha), and eliminating as much possible stress from her lifestyle, she saw improvement.
“I realized that many autoimmune diseases may be caused by the fact that we’re eating dead food,” she says from her home in the Adirondacks. “Plus our vegetables are coming from soils that are dead, which doesn’t help, because they’re lacking in the good bacteria. Fermented foods, however, are the opposite of that. They’re full of life.”
Within months, Deans saw her symptoms disappear. Today, she can eat anything she wants, she says, and continues to be a fan of fermented vegetables. In fact, when she learned about the bacteria-rich properties of foods such as sauerkraut, she started to make it herself. “Many of the commercially available products are pasteurized and that means you’re not getting as many health benefits from it,” she explains.
So Deans began experimenting with her weekly veg box, which was sourced from a local CSA. The jars of fermented veg were helping her; but it was getting to be too much for her to eat by herself. At that point, she started giving it to family and friends. The positive feedback encouraged her to start a small side business in 2017, while continuing to work full-time as a massage therapist.
Soon enough though her fermented jars landed in the hands of a local food distributor who was doing a run to Cedar Run, a specialty market in her hometown of Keene, New York. He liked it, and within weeks, she was in a dozen stores.
Deans who had never managed a team, or run a business, says she has been learning on the job. “I went from doing everything myself to now having to look after a team.”
Plus, the tall clear jars of fermented green beans, purple cabbage, carrots, and more were being added to more shelves, forcing her to find a new, larger manufacturing facility, and rethink her offering.
“Before I was using ingredients that were being foraged, and I couldn’t keep up with that given the quantities I needed. Nor would it have been ethical to forage as much wild food.”
She turned to staples that grow mostly on nearby farms in upstate New York; barring lemons, all her ingredients come from the local food ecosystem, which Deans emphasizes is important. If these foods have not traveled great distances, or been treated in the process to keep them fresh, they’re likely to still have healthy colonies of bacteria on them, which is what helps the gut, she says. Hydroponic
vegetables, for example, don’t work for fermenting because they’ve not had a interaction with the soil, and microbes that live in it, she adds.
Small Town Cultures today employs 10 people and is in about 400 stores. It’ll soon expand to 40 more Whole Foods locations. In the process, Deans has raised $1 million in angel funding to steadily expand her business.
“My goal isn’t to just make more of the same fermented foods already on the market. I want to make them more appealing and affordable so that more people start having them daily. You just need a small bite or two for it to help your health. I suffered for 7 years with symptoms that improved within months.”
Deans is passionate about supporting a food ecosystem that nurtures human health. Even if someone’s not living with a chronic condition or an ailment, it’s a simple addition to the diet, practiced by many cultures for centuries, that’s worth reviving, she says.