Wake Robin Fermented Foods operates in the centuries-old Hildebrandt Building not far from the West Side Market.
It’s re-purposed factory space that’s become a hub for artists as well as food entrepreneurs like Pat Murray.
He’s a newly retired physician who spent most of his working life caring for elderly and indigent patients at nearby Metro Health Medical Center.
For the last three years, instead of strokes and spinal cord injuries, he’s been dealing with fermented cucumbers, carrots, and cabbage.
“My partner in all this had this strong interest in fermented food.”
Pat Murray’s business partner is his daughter Molly.
“We seem to work well together. We’ve certainly learned a lot about each other.”
She says they’re also learning how to make the best use of local, organic vegetables in their pickles and several kinds of sauerkraut.
“One we call “Ruby Rueben,” which is kind of an Eastern European blend of vegetables and spices. It’s purple. It’s from the beets.”
Wake Robin also makes the national dish of Korea, the spicy pickled cabbage known as kimchi.
“It’s just really fun experimenting, says Molly. “Observation, and recording, and changing your techniques.”
When we visited she was making a mushroom broth infusion. The mushrooms themselves will be composted.
“We filter out the mushrooms and just add the broth to the kimchi.”
Finished kimchi in pint and quart jars chills in Wake Robin’s walk-in cooler and three refrigerators.
Meanwhile tons of cabbage ferments in 37 bright blue barrels taking up most of the production space.
“They’re 200 pounds each and the thing on the top is an airlock. As gas is produced in the fermentation process, it flows out, but no oxygen or any other air can flow in. So it basically keeps the environment inside anaerobic, which makes sure that molds and yeasts aren’t growing inside.”
The vegetables age in the barrels in a cold process that can take up to eight weeks.
“The Japanese word for this type of food is ‘tsukemono,’ which means to alter without the use of heat.”
Labels on Wake Robin Fermented Foods safety seals say there’s live bacteria inside.
“They may have continued to ferment and created gas in there, “says Molly. “That sometimes creates fizzing or bubbling when you open it. And so we wouldn’t want the customers to be afraid so we let them know that that’s to be expected.”
Molly Murray is a former restaurant server and cook who learned about fermentation when she worked on an organic farm.
She saw it then as a way to prevent waste and preserve the harvest. But now thinks fermented food is also good for what ailed her.
“I was starting to have some digestive issues and learned about this as a way to address that.”
Fermented food contains probiotics, microorganisms often called “friendly” or “good” bacteria.
“There’s live healthy bacteria and helpful enzymes in our products, “ says Molly. “We don’t make any claims about what that will do for anyone, but it’s helped me.”
Wake Robin’s fermented products may be an acquired taste. The flavors are very strong.
“They’re pretty acidic. Your mouth is going to notice that pretty immediately. They are salty. They are a condiment; they’re not a salad. So especially people who can’t have a lot of salt should be aware of that.”
Molly’s doctor dad admits nutrition’s not his field of expertise, but he sees fermented food as a healthy choice in an urban environment.
“It’s a way to consume vegetables that are locally created all-year round. And vegetables are good for us.”
But his primary goal is creating jobs.
“An important component of people’s health is having work.”
The doctor learned that from his patients at Metro, Cleveland’s non-profit safety-net hospital.
“A lot of people who I cared for, that’s what they were missing in their life. I was just curious whether you could build a small local business and provide some work.”
So far, only four people are working at Wake Robin, and they’re all part-time, but it’s a start.
A greater challenge has been the region’s short growing season. The Murrays can’t always find what they prefer.
“The sourcing has been more difficult in the last year and a half when we decided to really emphasize the local organic. It’s a little trickier.”
It’s easier in spring, summer and fall.
“Almost all of our organic stuff comes from Amish farms.”
The goal is local and organic
But on this winter day, cabbage comes from the Ohio Food Terminal on Woodland Avenue where big trucks from conventional and factory farms roll in daily.
“We’re actually making kimchi today using conventional vegetables,” says Pat.
The cucumbers in Wake Robin’s “Garlicky Dill Cucumber Chips” aren’t organic either, but they’re locally-grown, in a hydroponic greenhouse near Hopkins Airport.
“Organic cucumbers are quite difficult to grow, especially in Ohio. There’s a very limited season. This is the way we get cucumbers year-round.”
They wanted local, organic cauliflower recently and waited as long as they could for it, but eventually had to shop outside the region.
Sourcing has been hard work.
“The cucumber guy says to me all the time, ‘If this were easy, Pat, everybody would do it.’”
But Murray has something to prove.
“My main interest in this is whether you can have a business that’s genuinely locally based, not just in the manufacturing, but in the sourcing. The jury’s still a little bit out on that.”
Our verdict’s in, though, for the “Garlicky Dill Cucumber Chips."
The tangy morsels swim in a briny liquid, but we found the closed fermentation process keeps them firm and crispy.
Wake Robin’s Kickin’ Kimchi, on the other hand, is not for the meek of heart.
The name Wake Robin is in tribute to Ohio’s official wildflower, which is shown on the label.
“It’s also a tide of spring, “ says Molly, “which I think is a nice metaphor.”
Wake Robin Fermented Foods are on the shelves of several grocery stores in the region, including Mustard Seed in Akron and Solon and Heinen’s in Cleveland.