Before commuting to her executive chef job in Greenwich, Connecticut, Leslie Woodward drives up to Midtown Kingston from her home in Westchester County to the Cornell Creative Arts Center (CCAC) several mornings a week. There she makes nut juices in an 800-square-foot rented space fitted out with stainless-steel counters, a commercial refrigerator, blenders, a water purifier, and other accoutrements.
One of seven artisan food and CBD companies located at the CCAC, Edenesque, as Woodward calls her company, opened last June. It produces 32-ounce bottles of variously flavored almond and cashew milks, which are sold directly to customers online and at local farmers’ markets and area health-food and retail stores.
Seven years ago, Woodward was working as a chef at the president’s house at Columbia University when she first pursued her interest in holistic nutrition by making cold-pressed juices. “If someone had an ailment I would the tailor the cold-pressed juice cleanse for their healing, and I’d include a nut milk at the end to keep them grounded,” Woodward said.
Woodward sold her juices at farmers’ markets in New York City and Westchester and Orange counties. Partly because the farmers’ market in Queens already had enough juice purveyors, Woodward began specializing in nut milks.
Besides wanting to sell a healthy, natural product, she had another impetus driving her business. She wanted to hire people disenfranchised from the mainstream community. That personal imperative that led her to ARC MidHudson’s Cornell Creative Arts Center, a 12,000-square-foot building refurbished both as an arts center and a business accelerator for food-products companies. CCAC’s goal is to integrate ARC clients with the community, through classes, workshops, other activities, and employment.
“My mission came first,” said Woodward. “I wanted to build something where I was helping others and uplifting the community.” She pays her employees $15 an hour from day one. ”I think we should be a little altruistic in how we create things. Let’s create a product that nourishes and you and look at how we are going to extend ourselves to uplift the community and impact employees’ lives.” Two of her three employees are ARC clients (in return for reasonable rent and grant-funded equipment, the CCAC requires companies to hire ARC clients).
Woodward has also hired people who were incarcerated. One was a man who had been in prison for 25 years and had been released from prison just a month before. “He was the most wonderful employee,” Woodward said. “He helped with production and getting the space in Kingston outfitted. Because of this job, he was able to save some money.”He has since moved to Syracuse, where he is now working for an artisanal tomato-sauce company.”
A food-production cluster
According to her website, edenesque.com, the company provides four hours of paid community service a month, supplemental insurance, and opportunities for education and professional advancement.
Prior to coming to Kingston, Woodward decided she wanted to sell wholesale (although as mentioned she continues to sell directly to consumers through her website) and closed her company for a year to pursue business opportunities and possible manufacturing spaces in the Hudson Valley. She worked with the Small Business Development Center in Ulster County to come up with a plan and connected with Galileo Technology Group, a consultancy based in New Windsor that operates ARC MidHudson’s business accelerators. She planned to rent space in Newburgh but after discovering the business accelerator there specializes in fashion companies was directed by Galileo to the food-production cluster in Kingston.
Despite the pandemic, her sales and marketing person has been active in targeting new retail markets for her product, including local health-food stores; Home Goods of Margaretville just signed on. She’s also seen a surge in online orders — currently people can order through the website by sending her an email, and she will be launching an online shopping cart soon. Sales have recently increased by 50 percent. “We’ve been out there pounding the pavement,” she said. “People want to support local businesses.”
Woodward is expanding the product line, and many ingredients are sourced locally. In addition to four flavors of almond milk, she is introducing cashew milk and oat milks, made from oats grown by a local farmer. She sources the honey used in the milks from Bee Hollow Farm and the maple syrup from Tree Juice, both located in the mid-Hudson region.
“The challenge has been how do you scale up and keep the nuances of your product,” Woodward said. She tried using a floor-sized commercial blender but went back to making her nut juices in smaller blenders because with the larger machine “the taste flattens out.”
A clean, honest product
A bottle costs $10. “Everything is organic and high-end,” she said, noting that each bottle has a shelf life of seven to ten days. The milks can be used in coffee or cereal or added to sweet and savory dishes for enhanced flavor and nutrition.
According to Woodward, nut milks are high in antioxidants, have a lot of protein and no refined sugars. Unlike some other nut milks, which substitute paste for nuts and have fillers, Edenesque’s products are “40 percent nuts. I make it the old-fashioned way. It’s a clean, honest product.”
Community service has long been important to Woodward, who grew up in Michigan and always loved to cook. While working in New York City, she created classes for the Food and Finance High School, and ran an after-school program centered on nutrition and health. While studying sociology at Columbia, she spent a year and a half visiting the Shinnecock nation on Long Island for an ethnographic study. Here in Kingston, once the city reopens she plans to join the Live Well Kingston Commission, which is dedicated to promoting healthy eating as well as streets, parks, and city programming conducive to physical activity and connecting people with a healthy environment.