The Best Pickled Things: Willow King, Co-founder of Ozuke

By k. Binkowski | JULY 2016

Meet Willow King of Ozuke

So many good stories start in the kitchen. This one is no exception. Several years ago good friends Mara and Willow King found themselves in a kitchen concocting recipes that felt worthy of their family meals - good wholesome food on which their kids could thrive. Little did they know that those days of culinary exploration and maternal instinct would be the foundation on which a line of pickled products would be born. It’s always a joy to sit down with Willow and hear more of her story.

How did you go from a mother putzing in her kitchen to an accomplished business owner providing quality products to the likes of Whole Foods? Tell us your start up story, we know just enough to know we’re going to love it.

I joke with my business partner, Mara, that we have not only grown a business but also gotten a crash MBA in the process. Before Ozuké I was teaching English Literature and Mara was a chef. We are both artists who love to eat, read and share stories. This business was born of those loves but has pushed us to add many other tools to our kit.  Spreadsheets have become our friends, many many people have advised us on good tools to track inventory, financials, costs, projections. We have wrestled with investment strategies, machine engineering, travel itineraries and legalities. I must say, I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I am so grateful for all the lessons, even the hard ones.  

There’s nothing quite like learning from experience! Your business partner is an accomplished chef and you are both very clearly passionate about food. Tell us about fermentation and why you choose to launch a pickled products brand in particular.

We were both pretty geeked on the whole live culture world. We have read all Sandor’s books, were kombucha converts and both very interested in health and wellness. Mara grew up in Hong Kong and was a sushi chef for many years so she had been fermenting for years. I got the fervor later but was sold from the beginning. Fermentation is part weird science, part culinary, part medicine - any way you cut it, it’s just so good for you. You can learn more about the process here

From the farmers you source from to the customers whose nutrition you influence - your reach is so impressive. What impact can customers expect to have when they purchase your pickled products?

I love this question because we do realize that organic products are not always the cheapest on the shelf, but that additional dollar or two goes to support a myriad of people and activities that we think are really important. The majority of our produce is sourced from local organic farmers that have become friends. We pay a living wage (which in Boulder is way above the national minimum!) to all our employees, we run a zero waste facility, we package everything in recyclable glass instead of questionable plastic, we feed our compost to local livestock stewards and we create products that we know have a positive impact on people’s health.

Let’s talk about that ripple effect. You obviously care very deeply about the quality and integrity of the ingredients that you offer your children and bring to market. How are the values that you’ve engrained in your business reflected in other aspects of your life?

I think that my attention is much more keenly focused on the products that I buy or choose not to buy now than it was before I ran a business myself. As we all know, there is a lot of baloney out there - manufacturers taking advantage of concepts like “natural” and “healthy.”

I think consumers in general are getting much more savvy about this marketing mumbo and we are all demanding more: where are things being sourced from (take palm oil for example, that story is so important), who is making these products, what is really in them and so on.

I have so much respect for the farmers, makers and marketers that are telling the truth, making delicious and beautiful things and empowering people along that way. We need that on every level right now and it is all being driven by consumer awareness and preference. We are in charge.

We couldn’t agree more, but it certainly is complicated. The food industry is riddled with certifications that can often be difficult to navigate. At the end of the day, what do you look for when trying to stock your own cupboards ethically and responsibly?

I think organic is number one. Having been through that certification process I know the time and integrity that companies have to have in order to show that they are doing it the right way.  “Non-GMO” is a bit confusing and organic certification should cover that base, which is why I place it at the top of my priority list. The rest of them are really about your lifestyle and choices. For example, Ozuké products are also certified Vegan, Kosher, Gluten Free and Paleo but those are really just about letting people know as much as we can so that they can make good choices for themselves.

You built a successful natural food business in the mecca of a cut-throat entrepreneurial community. How do you balance a relaxed and natural lifestyle with successful business growth in Boulder, CO?

Luckily Boulder, CO is as serious about its leisure as it is about business, so there are lots of opportunities for both. I have two young sons and a wonderful husband who both help me cover all the bases and also get me out on the trails, in the rivers, up in the trees and into my heart.

And we have to ask, if you had to pick just one pickled product forever and ever amen, what would it be?

I’m a kim chi girl, always will be but those umeboshi that Mara makes are a close second. Lucky for you, both are available on our website!