Boheme continues to expand with retail
ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. — Boheme Foods co-founders John and Julia Toigo have taken their farm-fresh, naturally made food business to the next level by bringing it into a busy retail location.
They launched their business out of their Manalapan home in 2013, shortly after gaining access to a nearby commercial kitchen.
For the last 18 months, Boheme Foods has been operating on weekends out of a booth in the Green building at Englishtown Auction Sales, while continuing to make the rounds to a few farmers’ markets around the state.
There, they sell jars of their tomato sauce varieties, pickles, sauerkraut, pickled beets, onions, strawberry, plum, peach and a variety of other jams, pasta sauce, mustards, vinegars, hot sauces and granola.
All of their products are locally-sourced from New Jersey farmers.
“The tomato sauces we do have no added sugars, no stabilizers, colors, preservatives or fillers, and there are tomato seeds in there,” Julia Toigo explained on a September Sunday afternoon at their booth at Englishtown.
“You know, it’s really not a huge difference, but it’s a fresher difference,” she added.
Boheme Foods moved into retail at Englishtown in March, 2017, reluctantly, Julia explained, but now that they’ve made the move, she’s glad they did.
“Everybody talked me into retail, finally,” she said.
“There was a woman from CentraState Hospital auxiliary and she met John Toigo at Indyk’s Farm [in Monroe, Middlesex County] two years ago after John broke his wrist,” she explained.
“She stopped me three different times and asked me to come and vend at the Wellness Center at CentraState Hospital. I hesitated but after the third time she stopped me, I checked it out and went to talk to this woman. We are invited there on a regular basis now by the auxiliary, and a portion of our sales goes back to the Live Life Well Program, through the auxiliary,” Julia said.
Boheme Foods sets up in the atrium there on farm market days with a range of other vendors.
“We came in because we’re all-natural and that’s part of the Live Life Well program, eating healthier and eating seasonal,” she said.
“Those ladies suggested I find a retail spot so that the people that came into the hospital would not have to wait another six weeks until Boheme Foods came back,” Julia said, “so we’re here at Englishtown every Saturday and Sunday all year round and then we’re here Monday of Memorial Day and Monday of Labor Day Weekends.”
Englishtown Auction Sales is unique in that they are open year-round and businesses with indoor booths can be open in inclement weather and patrons can even use an indoor walkway to get from one building to another.
Aside from their pickled beets, Italian Giardiniera mixes, handcrafted tomato sauces, mustards and jams, Boheme Foods has also begun producing shrub, a healthy elixir that goes back hundreds of years.
“Shrubs are also known as drinking vinegars, they go back to Colonial times,” John Toigo explained.
“Before you could go to Shop-Rite and buy sugar flavored water, it’s what people did, it’s fruit, sugar and vinegar cooked into a syrup and you pour one part shrub over ice and two parts sparkling water. Or you can add alcohol if you like,” he pointed out.
“Our tomato sauce is all New Jersey tomatoes, it’s not so much what we put in it, as it is what we don’t put in it,” the Chicago native explained.
The couple admitted they haven’t had time to update their website between farmers’ markets and the retail booth at Englishtown on weekends, so they maintain a simpler FaceBook page for Boheme Foods while they’ve expanded their product line.
“Two things have happened,” John explained, “our retail end has really expanded, yet we still have the wholesale business, and we have looked to bring in new and interesting products. “We do a variety of mustards now and hot sauces as well.”
“The demand for this stuff always exceeds our expectations, so now our problem is not sales, it’s production,” Toigo said, noting, that as a two-person team, they can barely keep up with demand.
They use the local Freehold VFW commercial kitchen and two Manalapan-Freehold area restaurants for their commercial kitchens as well.
But for the restaurants and even the VFW — while they’re grateful for the certified commercial kitchen space — they necessarily have to work around other schedules.
“The kitchens close at 11 p.m., so that means a lot of nights,” he said, “our big push this year and next is to get into our own space, so we can have more consistency in production and also increase production. The demand remains tremendous.”
Julia spent 12 years in the Army before getting out after a permanently disabling knee injury left her unable to be transferred overseas.
Her ambition was to become the first female Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army and she was moving up the ranks when she injured her knee while running one day at Fort Sill, Okla.
“I was on the fast track and had every intention to make the Army my career and I was just turning 30 when this injury happened,” she said. “They couldn’t fix my knee so that I could advance.
“I had no choice but to get out.”
Julia made the difficult decision to leave the Army in 1994.
Julia credited her time in the Army for the kind of mental and physical toughness that running a small business requires, including lots of time in the kitchen doing menial food preparation tasks. Were it not for her knee injury, she’d probably still be in the Army, she said.
“It was a lot of discipline,” she recalled, “and you grow up in the Army fast; you make lifelong friends and you develop all sorts of skills. It’s one of the most thankless jobs you’ll ever do, but you develop skills.”
Asked about the future of Boheme Foods and the business of managing growth, the couple agreed the next step is to secure their own full-time commercial kitchen space and, in the process, add some employees.
“To take it to the next level, we need our own dedicated commercial kitchen space, close to home,” John said, while Julia added, “That’s our next step so I don’t have to work all these odd hours. You work around spaghetti and fish dinners and the World Series’ and all these other things that go on. We’ve had produce that we’ve gone out and picked ourselves that goes bad,” she said.
“We have no refrigerated place to store produce either, so we’re looking for that, too,” John said.
“I’m optimistic,” he said, “These things have a way of working themselves out.”