Hot new Steamboat startup brings cultural chic to the kitchen
December 17, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After decades of selling mass-produced goods to major retailers — everything from cosmetics to home accessories to stationary — the mother-and-daughter team of Jules Vertrees and Jacquie Lewis have created a new company, Verve Culture, which specializes in unique, artisan gifts you can't find in a cheap Chinese factory.
"We found in our research that consumers were moving away from just buying stuff for the sake of stuff," said Vertrees. "People want things that are interesting, inspiring and special rather than mass produced."
The switch to artisan crafts came after their company, Australia-Steamboat Connection, was acquired by one of the companies they were distributing for. And they say a year-long non-compete clause was the best thing that ever happened to them.
"That gave us time to re-examine trends," said Vertrees, an Australian who settled in Steamboat Springs more than two decades ago after her mother moved here. "The younger generation is wanting to spend their money on experiences like skydiving rather than buying crapola made in China."
The two realized that the cultural trend is to simplify households and buy unique things that give people an "authentic experience." After much research and travel, their first Verve Culture products are based out of Mexico and include a hand-made tortilla press, an artfully-carved molinillo (wooden whisk) and a juice press.
"We wanted to offer something beautiful and purposeful, and packaged in a way that told the story," said Lewis.
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The juicer is Vertrees' favorite item.
"In every little Mexican alleyway in the local markets, there are these guys pressing fresh juices," she said. "We met a number of artisans and worked with them to make the juicers more suitable for our market by refining the size and finish, while still retaining the intrinsic elements. We wanted to show it as a piece of art that can stand out on the kitchen counter."
"We wanted to make them gift-able," added Lewis.
After decades in retail, the mother-daughter duo had all the contacts they needed, but they were surprised how quickly the idea was snatched up.
"Our very first buyer flipped out. The first buyer was Nordstrom," Lewis said.
"We were presenting something new, and their research showed that that we were right on the mark," Vertrees added.
Verve Culture shipped its first big order in September and quickly became profitable.
While the juicers are hand-cast between Puebla and Vera Cruz, the tortilla presses are made outside Mexico City.
"You can buy tortilla presses made in China, but the Mexican tortilla press is all hand-cast, and the Verve touch was to make them with a red powder-coated finish," Lewis said. "All the packing and assembly is made in Mexico. It's truly supporting the local artisans in their areas."
Verve Culture goes beyond artisan projects with their packaging and personal touches. Inside the tortilla press box, you can find recipes for making homemade tortillas and tested recipes from the Verve owners' own kitchens and a serviette to wrap the tortillas in to keep them warm.
"Tortillas are the easiest thing in the world to make, and you'll never go back to store-bought tortillas," said Vertrees.
And all Verve Culture products include the history of the item.
And if you haven't heard of molinillos, used from Mexico down to South America for centuries, you might want to put this down for a future gift for the person who has everything.
"It's kind of an heirloom. A very traditional cultural item used to whip up hot chocolate," Vertrees said.
Verve employs an artisan and his sons to make the wooden whisks on an artisan's lathe for their company, and each molinillo, which is decorated with color from burning the wood and hand-carved, takes about 30 minutes to create. Verve packages the largest molinillo with authentic Mexican chocolate to create a hot chocolate gift box.
Lewis has already made the molinillo a part of her family legacy.
"I took one of these molinillos to my two grandsons. They stand on the chair and make hot chocolate with me," Lewis said. "Every time I visit, they yell 'Nana, let's make hot chocolate' and run and get the molinillo. It's becoming a family heirloom they'll keep forever."
Lewis and Vertrees will be focusing on Thailand as their next "culture" of interest. Soon, they'll travel to the far-off Asian country to seek a piece of Thai heritage that will make life in America just a little more interesting.
In the meantime, Verve Culture products can be found locally at The Homesteader in downtown Steamboat Springs, on their website at verveculture.com and at Nordstrom.