Tim and Laura Tuohy have a surprise home run with Kansas City Canning Co.
Laura and Tim Tuohy at BoysGrow farm, with whom they partner for produce
There’s a funny smell in the air when I enter the Kansas City Canning Co. test kitchen, a small building in the East Bottoms that was once a Town Topic. It’s an earthy, muddy scent that takes a few minutes for me to get acclimated to, though I notice the culprit right away: beets. Lots and lots of beets.
Tim Tuohy has been shaving beets for the last several hours. He sits on a barstool, plucking each bulbous vegetable from one of several crates and dropping the shorn, naked thing into a large tub. There are 200 pounds of beets before him — the crates piled alongside boxes of black-and-white KC Canning Co. labels, glass jars and lids — and Tuohy doesn’t have a plan for them yet.
“Our friends at BoysGrow couldn’t sell through them, so we took them off their hands,” Tuohy says. He looks ruefully at the stack of crates at his side and laughs to himself. “I’m almost regretting that now.”
This beet rescue is wholly in line with the core mission of KC Canning Co., founded by Tuohy and his wife, Laura, nearly two years ago. Thanks to canning — a food preservation tradition largely gone the way of the dodo bird — these beets will be given a second shot at life, able to be enjoyed well past their harvest date.
“If we don’t sell these beets tomorrow, we can sell them in six months,” Laura Tuohy says. “It helps limit food waste. This is how people used to have food year-round — it’s not normal to have a strawberry the size of a golf ball in February.”
For the Tuohys, food — and food preservation — has always been a common interest. Laura grew up in Kansas City with a grandmother who instilled the tradition of canning in her. “My grandma, right before she passed away, was eating blueberries that had been frozen for six years,” she tells me. When Laura met New Jersey-born Tim in New York in 2009, he was a middle school English teacher with keen interest in the culinary arts (he received his degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in 2011).
“When Tim and I moved to Astoria, Queens [in 2010], there was a sour cherry tree in our back yard,” Laura says. “It gave us just buckets and buckets of cherries, and we made a whole bunch of different things with it, and we started canning more at home. Tim had fun with recipe formulation, and we always had a really good time spitballing those ideas back and forth.”
While canning became a dedicated hobby for the Tuohys, they say it wasn’t until after moving back to Kansas City in 2013 — and following their wedding in the spring of 2014 — that they seriously considered it as a viable business venture.
“When we got married, we had this bourbon smash [cocktail] at our wedding that Tim had made with a clementine thyme marmalade,” Laura says. “It was a gift bag item, too, and it was such a hit. People were like, ‘You guys should sell that,’ and we were like, ‘Eh, we don’t know about that.’ Tim was working in restaurants at the time, and I was working as a therapist. But people kept asking! And we were like, ‘OK, well, the holidays are coming, so we’ll launch, and maybe my aunt will buy some jelly.’”
But when the Tuohys debuted the website for Kansas City Canning Co. in November 2014, they sold a little more than jars of jelly to family members. Soon, their canned creations started showing up at local restaurants and bars — thanks to the Tuohys’ line of shrubs, a vinegar- and fruit-based syrup — and retail shops.
“We were met with such a warm response,” Laura says. “Ever since then, it took on a life of its own.”
Today, KC Canning Co. products — including their best-selling clementine thyme marmalade — are sold in some 27 shops, the bulk located in Missouri and Kansas, with others in California, New York, Iowa and Virginia. You can also find KC Canning Co. products on the menu at 13 different area restaurants — including the cocktail lounge at Tom’s Town Distilling Co., where the entire food menu belongs to Tim Tuohy.
“The owners brought me on to plan the menu and get things started,” Tim says. Though he’s not at Tom’s Town on a regular basis, Tuohy says he’s still in touch. “When we switch the menu there in September, I’ll be back to do seasonal changes.”
Tim’s focus is on the canning business; he’s in the test kitchen “pretty much full-time,” he says, while Laura still holds down her day job as a clinical therapist — though most of her free time is spent with Tim, working in their space. Recipe development is as much a partnership as the business itself.
“Typically, when we’re thinking of a new project, we start with a huge list of what we know is seasonal and have access to,” Laura says. “We’ll take a list of a fruit or vegetable and name flavors or spices that we think would taste well with it. Like, ‘Does that sound good? Have you seen that before?’ We might start with the clementines, and we might try four or five different spices with them as a test run, and then from there decide what the final combination is going to be.”
Sometimes, recipe development is more off-the-cuff. Between our conversation, she turns to Tim, an idea in her voice.
“What are you doing with these beets?” she asks him. “A shrub? Some acid would be nice.”
“These are super sweet,” Tim replies.
“Could you do beets and sage?”
Tim pauses. “Juniper?”
“Oh, yeah, I like juniper better,” Laura says, pleased and excited. “Because it’s astringent so it’s nice to rule out some sweetness. Beets and juniper… and gin! Oh, boy.” She whirls back to face me, grinning: “That’s exactly how it works. You just saw it.”
While canning itself may be a habit Laura learned from her grandmother, the flavor combinations the Tuohys are drawn to are anything but traditional. There are three main lines of KC Canning Co. products — shrubs, pickles and jellies, and marmalades — and not a single one sounds dull. Take the pickled balsamic grapes, for example, or the Sriracha-pickled green beans. Savory not your thing? You might enjoy the vanilla bourbon peach preserves or the rosemary fig spread. Shrubs like Meyer lemon lavender or watermelon habanero can help make even the most inept home bartender a surprise talent. The Tuohys have some new products in mind for fall — a pickled bloody mary mix and a Missouri black garlic paste — that will continue to push palates.
“Tim would say he wants people to play with their food,” Laura tells me, glancing over her shoulder with a smile to her husband, who nods as he continues his beet work. “With taking a practice that’s antiquated, we want the flavors to challenge people in an approachable way. It’s a way for people to experience preserved food that is really unexpected, for them to start having a relationship with it in a new way.”
For the Tuohys, the vision behind KC Canning Co. is a bit deeper than fun flavor combinations. They like to think of canning as the next-level answer to the sustainable food trend, one that can reduce food waste and ultimately help boost agriculture.
“We’re in this resurgence of local sustainable food,” Laura says, “and food preservation is the ultimate local food, because you’re finding a way to make something last beyond its actual shelf life. There are other ways for people to be local and sustainable beyond buying fresh produce, and this is one of them. It fills an area where people are able to be local and sustainable in a time of year when that’s not available. Canning also drives local agriculture, because we can help farmers with surplus — like these beets.”
The ardent way Laura speaks about her canning philosophy almost has me offering to pick up a peeler and help Tim with his project. It’s easy to like these two: Laura is bubbly and sweet-faced with a welcoming manner — the kind of woman you’d want as your neighbor (and not just because she’d probably keep you well-fed). Tim lets her do most of the talking, though they both address the holistic approach they take to their business.
“There is a sense of nostalgia to it, because we grew up doing it with our loved ones,” Tim says. “Canning becomes a story. It’s bridging a gap between what some might consider a lost practice or lost art and introducing it in such a way that it gets people, at the very least, interested, and hopefully opening a line of communication about how they should be using their leftovers.”
Concerns about the balance of agriculture, food waste and ingredient sourcing are important to the Tuohys, who source as much of their ingredients locally as they can, and the rest of it responsibly.
“The day there’s a clementine tree in Kansas, I’ll be the first to buy every last fruit,” Laura says. “But that’s the thing about keeping it sustainable — sometimes, you won’t be able to get something that you really want to make. I could get certain goods from somewhere that might not have ethical labor practices or isn’t doing good for the economy, but that’s not who we are.”
And at the heart of their business, Laura says, that’s not what canning is about, either.
"Canning is about patience," she says. "You almost have to pace the work based on the growing season. That's the great thing about local produce — it's the law of the land. You might plan for something that didn't grow or didn't happen, and the only choice you have is to be flexible, and I think that's the beautiful thing about what we're doing — becaue it doesn't allow you to have regrets."
Not that any of the Tuohys’ products so far warrant any regrets. In fact, after winning a national Good Food Award for their apple caraway shrub in January, they should feel particularly validated in their practice.
“We were in the spirits category and up against major brands and competitors, and that was huge for us,” Laura says, “but even more significant to us is the support of the food community here. We love having that local support and collaborating with other local business.”
Humbled though the Tuohys are by their recent Good Food Award win (they’ll likely submit more products, they say, to more competitions) and the spotlight on their shrubs via Andrew Zimmern’s online store, the Tuohys are more concerned with maintaining and growing their local ties than building their national profile. They aren’t planning on turning their test kitchen into a retail space (though, Tim says, that doesn’t deter curious neighbors from dropping in during the day and asking him if he has a menu); they would never want to deter business from any of the local shops that carry their products.
“Our milestones are marked by the relationships that we create,” Laura says. “The largest positive influence has been the relationship with our farmers and our vendors and the community, because that allows us to keep going. Without those relationships, it would just be me and Tim going, ‘Well, I guess let’s make some pickles.’ We’ve been fortified by those relationships.”
Some of those relationships are pretty major, too: The fruit puree in the pear-apple-tarragon yogurt from Green Dirt Farm is provided by KC Canning Co. Boulevard Brewing uses the Tuohys’ clementine thyme marmalade in their Smokestack Series line, and the couple uses Boulevard hops in their cucumber “dilly” pickles.
The local focus, Laura says, helps with KC Canning Co.’s devotion to a broader story.
“Every region has its own cultural canning narrative,” Laura says. “For us, it’s a huge thing to be able to continue a Midwestern narrative of food and food preservation. Our memories are deeply rooted in food.
I remember Laura’s words a few nights later, as I’m enjoying a night on the deck with some friends. She sent me off from the test kitchen with a shopping bag full of KC Canning Co. products — including a jar of brand-new pickled shishito peppers that, Laura says, is still in development.
Her goodie bag has provided a veritable picnic: The Sriracha-pickled green beans are plucked out of the jar and eaten like candy; the half-ripe tomato relish is spread over crackers layered with manchego. My companions are highly impressed with my blood orange ginger shrub-and-gin cocktails (I neglect to mention my only effort was adding club soda and ice). The char on the pickled shishitos are counteracted playfully by nutmeg and allspice; the jar was passed around the table until there was nothing left in it.
As I glance at my satiated companions, I hear Laura’s voice in my head: “All you can hope for is that you’re part of someone’s story. That’s all we really want.”
Kansas City Canning Co. products are sold online at kansascitycanningco.com. For a full list of retailers, visit the website.