Photography courtesy of Papa's Best Batch
The pandemic was not kind to the US food industry.
Between disruptions in the supply chain for small value-added producers, to essential social distancing measures, those who create food products and serve up handmade cooking were forced to scramble, rethink, and re-set their businesses.
The food business, even during periods of steady economic growth, operates on notoriously slender profit margins — between 3% and 10% — which means every year can be an adventure. Jody Apap, proprietor of Papa’s Best Batch, small batch smoker of meats, fish, jerkies, nuts, and cheeses in Red Hook, New York, recently sat down with us to tell us more about the challenges of running a complex food operation in our constantly evolving circumstances, and how he is facing summer days ahead.
NEW YORK MAKERS: There are so many elements to your business. Can you just give us a bird’s eye view of your operation?
JODY APAP: I spent the first part of my career working in construction. But my passion was always food. I loved cooking, experimenting with flavors, and serving people. I was never really a recipe follower, but, when I read a recipe, I could instantly visualize what it would taste like and how I would change it to add different flavors and elements. I also just loved being outdoors, and I had a stand of maple trees that I tapped. I realized I had enough to sell the extra. So in 2012, I began selling maple syrup at the farmer’s market on The Greig Farm in Red Hook. It’s a gorgeous place. They have so much going on there, and it’s really a community hub and a draw for tourists and families in the region. I really enjoyed the experience of talking to people and selling on the weekends. I looked at it as much as a social thing as a job. But I realized fairly quickly that I needed to have more on my table than maple syrup. There’s only so much syrup people can eat.
Jody Apap, founder of Papa's Best Batch
NYM: True. So how did you broaden Papa’s?
JA: I love experimenting, and I started playing with some of my smoked meat recipes. I started selling my jerky, and I had a flash of inspiration to smoke pistachios. Those really took off in a way I wasn’t anticipating, but it makes sense if you think about it. There are not a lot of smoked nuts on the market that don’t contain chemicals or liquid smoke. I actually smoke my pistachios and almonds, and I never add preservatives or chemicals. I believe in “smoking small” in every way. I wanted to expand that philosophy to encompass even more, so I decided to open a food truck on Greig Farm.
NYM: Tell me about your vision for smoking small. What’s on the menu?
JA: I spent months searching for the perfect Airstream trailer. In 2014, I found an incredible one that I knew could be transformed into my vision for a BBQ joint. I towed it back from Burlington, Vermont, then gutted the outer shell and built out a commercial kitchen. I started serving a wide variety of smoked dishes, from smoked deviled eggs, which are off the hook, to smoked salmon sandwiches and classic BBQ meats. That did so well, the nuts and jerky ended up on the back burner.
NYM: That’s a lot for one person.
JA: Actually a buddy of mine from college, Jonathan Korzen, came on board and really helped me take the business to the next level. I love to make the food, come up with concepts, and serve people, but I don’t enjoy selling. With Jonathan helping me out, I could really focus on the nuts again, in addition to the food truck. I also hired more people to help out with production, and, by 2017, we had successfully jumped through all of the labeling and licensing hoops for both the nuts and the jerky, and we were selling in 70 stores. Now, we’re nationwide and in 300 stores, with the focus, of course, remaining regional.
NYM: Do you make it all on Greig’s Farm?
JA: The nuts, yes; but the meat became too complicated, so I work with a co-packer north of Albany. I also opened another seasonal food truck, this time a mobile one.
NYM: Where can people find it?
JA: This year, we are booked at Opus 40 [sculpture park and museum in Saugerties]. I operate that truck myself on the weekends and a lot of Thursday’s, depending on what’s going on at Opus. Like I said, I love feeding people. And after this crazy year, it feels really good to welcome people back with smoked brisket sliders, smoked mac & cheese, and everything else. Last year was just insane for everyone in every way. I look at it as a complete wash because everything was changing so much every day, and obviously we were shut down for most of it and just trying to make everything work and keep people safe with our jerky and nuts business. Every day, I’m either at the farm or at Opus, and I’m seeing just an incredible amount of excitement and hope as we reopen and people can get out safely again.
NEW YORK MAKERS: What else can people find at Greig’s Farm these days?
JA: The farm is such a beautiful place, especially in the summer. It’s a pick your own fruit and vegetable farm and store, plus there’s my airstream, a farmer’s market that also has prepared food. And Abandoned Hard Cider just opened a tasting room, so that’s another amazing draw. There are picnic tables scattered everywhere, so groups of friends and family will come and spend the day, picking, shopping, and socializing.
NYM: What’s next for you?
JA: I’m hoping that Jonathan and I can find a distributor this year. We want to take the jerky and nuts to the next level.