Some kids like hanging out at their grandparents’ house, hoping to get spoiled with lots of extra candy and treats. For RJ Marvin, it was something different: He was after the eggplant caponata and other preserved vegetables in his Sicilian grandmother’s pantry. Same thing for his wife, Lindsay: She loved the way her Irish grandmother steeped a proper cup of tea. These foodies are now the proprietors of Barrel + Brine, making classic pickled and fermented foods (including caponata and some riffs on tea) in a hip, contemporary way.
From those earliest days, RJ formed opinions about fermentation and pickled foods. “I learned to understand flavor components,” he said. “I grew up eating preserved foods.”
He took this to the next level and earned a culinary arts degree from SUNY Erie in 2003, and then joined the kitchen staff at a country club in Chautauqua County. Another opportunity lured him to back to Western New York: He was named the head of fermentation for Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora.
At home, Lindsay was perfecting her home-brewed kombucha. “It became an obsession,” she said. RJ and Lindsay knew they were entrepreneurs at heart, so they formed Barrel + Brine in 2015. The new venture allows RJ to dive into what he loves best: using locally grown fresh veggies to create delicious, gut-healthy naturally preserved foods. “This is what we love,” he said, “using food from local farmers.”
They started small and smart, making pickled foods and brewing Lindsay’s kombucha in a 700-square-foot space on Buffalo’s West Side. Late in 2018, they relocated to a spacious new location at 155 Chandler St. in Black Rock, in a historic building refurbished by Rocco Termini. Formerly the site of Linde Air Manufacturing, it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Barrel + Brine is one of several tenants in the multi-use structure and occupies 4,000 square feet of retail, kitchen, and dining space.
“It’s big,” sighed RJ with excitement and trepidation in his voice, “it’s a big square with a beautiful courtyard.”
The extra-large space is also rife with opportunity. “We’re going to have a tap room and a café and we’ll focus on breakfast and lunch for the office tenants and the public, too,” said RJ. “We’ll offer a lot of small plates, with interesting but approachable food that all highlight preserved foods.”
RJ is also thinking of adding a “killer Sunday brunch with a particular style of hearty brunch food to help you get over the night before.”
The café’s anticipated open date is later in April. “We’re excited about the café,” RJ said. “We build great relationships with our customers, and the café will help us connect with our customers even more. Seeing the space take shape is the biggest success that we’ve had so far.”
For now, the couple is focusing on their food and drink while continuing to feed the success of their wholesale and retail sales. Wegmans, Whole Foods, Lexington Co-Op, Elm Street Bakery, and the East Aurora Co-Op are among the places that carry a selection of Barrel + Brine’s pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Local cafés like Root and Bloom Café and Tipico Coffee sell Lindsay’s kombucha, too.
Buffalo foodies are hungry for this product, said RJ. “When we opened in December of 2015, there was a big line out the door.” The wholesale side has grown so much that that the couple recently started working with a distributor to bring their products to other upstate cities like Ithaca and Albany. “We’re taking our time with it and not trying to grow too fast,” RJ said.
Even though they are branching out, Buffalo is still a priority for RJ and Lindsay. “Buffalo is our home, we’ve lived here for 15 years,” RJ said. “Buffalo has a lot of chefs and farmers working together and paving the way for what we do. We’re part of that now, and we want to help people understand why knowing where their food comes from is important.”
The Marvins were semi-finalists in the Ignite Buffalo competition, which awarded them $50,000 and the opportunity to attend business-relevant classes and workshops to further feed their growth. The prize also comes with a mentor relationship through M&T Bank. The Marvins also find inspiration and advice from the local network of foodies and food professionals who want to help and see fellow foodies succeed.
For a couple in their 30s, connecting with their food and drink heritage and sharing it with customers is an exciting combination of traditional values and entrepreneurial enthusiasm. “We were so DIY (do it yourself), we did everything on our own,” RJ said. “We did go to the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State for some advice, but we didn’t take out any loans, and we have no investors. We didn’t even write a business plan at first.”
Lindsay eventually left her job in retail management to join RJ in the business full time, and she hasn’t looked back. “The thing that makes the craziness of owning your own business worth it is being creative, and the ability to make the decisions,” she said.
So far, Barrel + Brine pickles--from the traditional bread and butter style to Bloody Mary mix and Fire and Ice (which include Fresno chilies)--are becoming kitchen mainstays. Kimchi is the biggest selling product, along with being the most complicated to make, and the most challenging product to help people like. “Kombucha has stigma to it, too,” Lindsay said. “It’s not all the same, and ours it not like a commercial brand. We just try to make it delicious stuff that is good for you, and we have fun doing it.”
And that’s the most surprising, delectable part about preserved and fermented food: It’s all good for you, and good for our regional economy, too. Fresh, local ingredients that are expertly mixed to breed naturally occurring probiotics and other nutrients combine to promote good gut health for consumers and a robust and growing local food economy.
RJ still likes making his grandmother’s eggplant caponata. “We always have a jar of it for special occasions,” he said. “Every time I make it, it makes me think of my family and being home.”