By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Judy Hildebrand’s long-term goals are to go gluten-free and sail around the world.
“In two years,” she said one recent summer day, sitting in the kitchen of her Dade County home with a cat in her lap, “I want to be ready to go.”
Ms. Hildebrand was explaining how the cat, an elderly dog and a sea voyage that took her 33 days (because she’d been becalmed by something called the Bermuda High) tied in with her decision to bump her line of gourmet vegan dips and spreads, Judyfood, to the next level.
Ms. Hildebrand started selling her artichoke and hummus dips in one store, Chattanooga’s Greenlife, as a sideline to her vegan food delivery business in 2001 or -2. She’d been invited to do so in 2000 but the world hang-gliding championships were in Greece that year and she was on the women’s team. Thus she’d told Greenlife with some regret: “Can’t do it, goin’ to Greece.”
But after that delay, Judyfood took firmly off and can now be found in most Whole Foods in the Southeast. From a grocery store kitchen Ms. Hildebrand rented from Greenlife, the operation moved first to a commercial kitchen in Flintstone, then on to a specialty manufacturer in Pennsylvania.
Now Judyfood is poised to move to a larger and more automated manufacturer in California, where, on top of their present label of all-natural, the dips and spreads can be pronounced kosher and, eventually, organic and gluten-free as well. “Once we get started with the new manufacturer and our pricing is where it needs to be, then it’s like Katy bar the door,” said Ms. Hildebrand.
This corporate push is still fairly new. “I wasn’t serious for the first eight years,” said Ms. Hildebrand.
That’s because, even after moving here 17 years ago from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to facilitate her hang-gliding habit, she continued to make a significant part of her living as a freelance boat captain. But that month Ms. Hildebrand spent moving a yacht from St. Thomas to Rhode Island – it was supposed to be 14 days – changed her thinking.
It wasn’t the mechanical problems, the becalming or the perils of the high seas. Ms. Hildebrand eats that kind of thing with a spoon. “I had a ball,” she admitted.
No, it was just that she hated leaving her aging animals with a sitter that long. What was the solution? People with their own boats can take their pets with them.
Despite a long career commanding boats, Ms. Hildebrand had never owned one. To fix that, she’d need more money. How to get it? “Judyfood is the only card you have to play, and you’re going to play it now,” she told herself sternly.
That was a couple of years ago, when Judyfood was still a Greenlife phenomenon. So Ms. Hildebrand rented a car and drove to New Jersey to present Judyfood samples to a natural foods distributor the very next time she happened to fly north to pick up a yacht to sail south.
Are you getting hopelessly confused as to what artichoke dip has to do with Ms. Hildebrand’s life of high adventure? Perhaps we’d better back up a bit.
“It all started when I was a flight attendant back in the early ‘70s,” said Ms. Hildebrand.
Raised in Pennsylvania by parents who were pretty good sports about losing the when-are-you-settling-down battle, Ms. Hildebrand took to the skies as soon as she could get her first job. She spent all her spare money and time on the horse she owned then, but the riding and flying weren’t quite enough to satisfy her thirst for adventure, so at 21, she booked a windjammer cruise.
“Everything that could go wrong on that trip went wrong,” she said. “We had a fire on board and had to evacuate the boat. There was a lien against the boat and we couldn’t leave port for three days.”
In short, she’d never had so much fun in her life. This, she realized, was the way she wanted to live.
Ms. Hildebrand kept her flight attendant job a little longer – she’d discovered hang gliding by then, so it wasn’t as if her hours were empty – but as soon as she could swing it she moved to Hawaii.
Ms. Hildebrand had no experience on boats but found it quite easy to get a job as ship cook because of her one natural advantage: “I don’t get seasick, so I could get my foot in the door that way,” she said.
So though she knew little of cuisine except a few basics she’d picked up from a roommate during her fly-girl days, she soon found herself cooking aboard Destiny, the Hearst-family 80-footer that housed Blue Water Marine Lab; then, after she’d moved to the Caribbean and eventually to Florida, on a variety of ships owned by a big charter company called The Moorings.
In a way, that was the beginning of Judyfood. “When I was in the Caribbean working for The Moorings, we would get together and exchange recipes, and everybody had that recipe for hot artichoke dip that was loaded with Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese,” said Ms. Hildebrand. She loved it, and so did her charter guests.
After five or six years of sailing, Ms. Hildebrand had learned enough to take the Coast Guard test for her captain’s license. Then she captained a racing sailboat, which was fun for a while, but she always liked variety so she preferred shorter gigs, charter cruises or delivering boats seasonally to wherever their owners, who lacked the time or skill to move them themselves, might wish to enjoy them. “My favorite thing was in the spring and in the fall, I would do deliveries, and then as soon as the delivery season was over, the charter season would start and then I would do charters, so I kind of had the best of both worlds,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, where she passed the last 10 years of this seafaring life, she had a roommate who ran a vegan food delivery business. Ms. Hildebrand had gotten interested in veganism herself when she read a book by John Robbins, heir to the Baskin & Robbins ice cream empire. The Robbins family had an ice-cream-packed freezer and an ice-cream-cone-shaped swimming pool, but growing up young John was sick all the time – lactose intolerant. So he became a pioneer of the vegan lifestyle, and his Diet For A New America convinced Ms. Hildebrand.
She was not as impressed with her girlfriend’s cooking. “I thought, you typify what people think vegan food is going to taste like,” she said. “This is awful.”
So Ms. Hildebrand began helping her friend out in the kitchen, and when she later moved to Dade County – known for its great hang-gliding but not for its vibrant maritime industry – starting her own vegan delivery business seemed a logical way to make a living.
That business she named the Veggie Connection, but people never remembered that. They just remembered somebody named Judy was bringing them food. “So unbeknownst to me they were calling me Judyfood,” said Ms. Hildebrand.
Thus Judyfood was the name she chose when she began packaging for Greenlife a vegan version she’d created of that hot artichoke dip from her cruise chef days, using a product called Vegenaise to replace the egg-laden Hellmann’s.
She began with two kinds of the artichoke dip – one has roasted red peppers – and two kinds of hummus, a garbanzo bean spread. To these she has added over the years a spinach-pecan dip and a spicy Southwestern spread she created when she was stuck four days in Texas with nothing to do but explore Mexican grocery stores after her hang glider was destroyed mid-tournament by a dust devil. It has become her biggest seller.
Judyfood’s expansion has been a process of adapting recipes to make sense at commercial bulks. When Vegenaise doubled in price, for example, Ms. Hildebrand said, “I’m either going to quit or I’m going to have to learn how to make mayonnaise.” So she assembled all the ingredients on the Vegenaise label and then some, coming up in the end with something she liked better.
Then, after Ms. Hildebrand’s Bermuda High decision, and her ensuing relationship with the distributor Albert’s Organics, she began with her first manufacturer, which found Silk so milk, another basic Judyfood ingredient, too expensive for commercial use. Ms. Hildebrand spent a month in the manufacturer’s test kitchen creating a facsimile. “We had to reformulate everything,” she said.
Now she faces the same process with the larger manufacturer. Changing brands of cayenne, for example, made the Southwestern dip too hot. She expects a good month of work before the California plant can ship dips that taste right.
Other bumps have been gaining shelf space in Publix stores only to lose it a year later despite relentless traveling to demo her product – “I was like the Publix Road Warrior. I was all over the place” – and finances in general.
Though Ms. Hildebrand found an investor to help with costs, and with strategy – “I can make food that tastes good. I’m not a businessperson” – she has found herself living at times on hope, and a home equity line of credit.
Now she expects all that to pay off within the next two years, as better pricing and better planning launch Judyfood into Whole Foods all over the nation as well as into other large chains.
And then? Ms. Hildebrand makes no bones about it, the whole point is not more money but more adventure, packing up the pets, buying a boat and spending a year in the Bahamas testing it out before starting around the world.
“I just firmly believe that you have to do things that you love,” she said.