The Sunday Interview with Bärta Founder Pia Qvarnström

För att komma till inlägget på svenska, klicka här: Söndagsintervjun: med Pia Qvarnström, grundare av Bärta

Pia Qvarnström is the founder of Bärta – a series of vegan products made from sprouted and fermented organic yellow peas, handcrafted with health, climate and environment in mind. We sincerely love Bärta’s products for their amazing flavor and texture, but also because they act a counterweight to the ultra processed vegetarian meat substitute products that otherwise dominante the market – and clearly attempt to resemble meat in every way possible. Pia has taken the organic, Swedish-grown yellow pea and turned it into a flavor phenomenon that benefits health and planet alike, and Bärta is about to turn into something really, really big. In this interview, we’re learning about how it all started in Pia’s former apartment in Årsta in Stockholm, what the plans for the future look like, how one turns a successful food experiment at home to a packaged product on a shelf at the grocery store and much more, and we hope you’ll both appreciate the read as well as make sure you buy some Bärta products as soon as you get a chance. Alright? Without further ado, Pia Qvarnström:

This is most likely the question you’ve gotten the most over the years, but could you tell us what Bärta is?

For sure! Bärta’s products are made from sprouted and fermented yellow peas. It’s organic, vegan, gluten free and free of any additives. And the peas have been grown in Sweden. Kind of like that. Today we have four products on the market but hope to release some new ones this fall.

Bärta is, in other words, a version of tempeh, originally from Indonesia. When did you come in contact with tempeh for the first time?

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a child and a vegan for many years, and have always cooked from scratched myself. I was also always very sensitive to all those vegetarian substitute products that resembled meat so much. I guess I’d heard of tempeh but just thought of it as yet another meat substitute, without realizing the craftsmanship and traditions behind it. I used to live with a friend who step by step became a vegan herself, and in that process, she became quite obsessed with googling stuff about nutrition and health, and learned about antinutrients and such. She told me about what she read and kept me in the loop, said to me ”you’re doing everything right!” – hinting at the fact that I was into sprouting and fermentation. She also told me about tempeh and said that you could make it yourself but that it’d be “way too laborious”, and I thought “not for me”. So I ordered a starting culture and, well, that’s how it started.

Where does your interest in cooking and artisan food come?

From home, definitely. My mother has always cooked a lot and been interested in trying new things, and my parents also lived in Austria for a bit before I was born, from where they’ve sourced lots of inspiration. They brought with them many other influences from there, such as lots of different types of salads, delicious oils and things like that. And as I became a vegetarian at age 11, I’ve cooked myself since then.

You have a background in rhythmics, dance and movement. Have you also always nurtured a dream of working with food in one way or another, or did that idea arise as a product of experimenting with peas and tempeh in your kitchen?

I’d say I’ve had it in the back of my head. I’ve been thinking about perhaps opening a café, and I’ve been cooking a lot and been responsible for food in various arts and culture contexts. It’s always been a part of my life, even though it hasn’t been my main source of income.

We’re so curious as to the process from when you experiment in your kitchen and create something really yummy to when you have a packaged product on the shelf at the grocery store. We’re like… but who do you call?

Haha, that’s a good question! It’s really freaking difficult, I’ll start out by saying. If I’d known how hard it’d be, I probably never would have done it – if I’d seen the entire road ahead of me with all the hurdles, it would’ve felt like something completely insurmountable. But in short, I’d say first you need an approved place to make your products, and that’s actually not too complicated when you work with plant based ingredients only. Then you’ll need a higher form of certification if you’ll be distributing to grocery stores, I should add. You also need to develop and figure out packaging, which isn’t easy either – especially not if you run a small business. One of the biggest issues early on was actually to even be accepted as a customer at different companies, because in their eyes, we were totally insignificant. Bar codes is another headache, and I really didn’t understand a single thing about those in the beginning! But eventually it clicked and it was really cool to see the barcodes register at check out.

What does a normal day at work look like?

Oh, they can look very different! I have days when I’m part of the production, and then I could just be filling bags, pretty much. I also do lots of PR planning with Therese (head of PR), where we discuss what we want to get out there, what recipes we want to create and such. Product development is another big thing. And my phone rings a lot!

Are you the brains behind recipes and new products?

Yep, that’s all me.

Do you think it’ll stay like that, as the company expands?

Good question. I’m thinking I’ll always be part of it, but that we might need to be more people working with it, and perhaps bring on someone who’s an expert at product development. I don’t have any formal training, but more experiment my way through.

You’re engaged in the climate action movement. In what ways does that express itself in your life, beyond Bärta?

It affects me all the time. I don’t lead a perfect life, but I reflect upon it all the time and try to make good choices and decisions.

When you’re not working with Bästa, then what do you like to do?

I like climbing, and I also bought myself a little house with a wonderful garden a year ago. I want to grow lots of vegetables there, but I need to control myself a bit, haha. I also like to run. How much fluctuates, but it’s always there.

As the entrepreneur as you are, running your own business, I’m guessing the line between work and free time gets blurry often. How do you create a sense of balance?

I only have notifications on for new orders on my phone, and I never check my email if I’ve called it a day. I also don’t keep my phone on at night, so if something happens, it’ll just have to happen! Sometimes I need to work weekends, but I’m cool with that. And if I know I have many days of work ahead of me, I make sure to not be at 100% capacity all the time, but conserve energy where it can be conserved.

Do you know beforehand how much you need to produce, or does the number of orders and their sices fluctuate a lot?

It’s completely unpredictable! ICA placed an order yesterday, and it was for six pallets – and usually, they only ever order two! So they cleared us out. It’s definitely very challenging, as there’s no normal whatsoever. It’s good for us that we have a majority of frozen products, because if you have mostly refrigerated, you risk wasting huge amounts.

Have you had a mentor or advisor on this business journey of yours?

I’ve had many people who have helped me along the way, but no specific mentor – I could have used one though! But our design agency – Brand New Design – has meant a great deal. They’re total nerds when it comes to all things grocery stores and know exactly everything you need t do, have developed our design and helped us so much along the way. They’ve really played a big part. We also have other food producers in the building where we have our office and production that we can exchange experiences and tips with.

Bärta’s branding is so amazing! How was the logotype and packaging developed?

Thank you! Yeah, so that was together with Brand New Design – I felt immediately that they knew their stuff when it came to food and that was so important to me. It was my idea to have an old lady type of thing on the packaging, and they proposed that we should use my mother in the beginning, but eventually we landed on me, so it’s my face on the seal.

And now it sounds like you’re expanding abroad?

Yes, exactly! We’re not completely sure exactly when and where just yet, but the plan is to make it into one new country this year. It’s obviously a big project, entering a new market.

You’ve had the sustainability profile Therese Zätterqvist as part of the team for about a year now. How has it been bringing in such a social media expert? Has that felt valuable?

Oh, absolutely! She’s really an ace in so many ways, and it was important to us that we fond person that we clicked with in every single way, and especially when it comes to values. She fits in perfectly.

Is social media your primary marketing platform?

Definitely. We’ve tried some other forms of marketing as well, but social media is the strongest and most important. We have so much to say and so much we want to communicate, and there’s so little space in a regular ad. Through social media, we can share and tell people so much more, so they actually get a feeling for what our products actually are.

You’re obviously in a really intense growth phase, your products are going to be exported etcetera. Is there a part of you that wishes the company would remain small scale?

Oh, for sure, haha. But ever since I had my food truck and sold lunch to maybe 40 people – however locally produced and awesome everything was – I’ve been thinking, what kind of difference will 40 people make? That the more people I can impact and get to choose my products as opposed to a piece of meat or something bad for their health, the better. The positive net effect will be so much greater. If you want to contribute to change for real, you have to scale up.

Is that something that drives you, wanting to contribute to positive change?

Yes, absolutely. Even if it feels like our focus now has to be on making money and selling products, I have that with me in every step of the process.

You mentioned earlier that you have some new products lined up, in addition to the four you already have on the market. Can you give us a hint as to what we have to look forward to?

I sure can! We have a few new versions of cold cuts coming, and we’ve also started working with a new Swedish-grown legume with amazing properties. We’ve developed two new products with that. I’ve also worked on a new marinade for a long time, with hints of cumin and lemon, which is finally ready. And we have a new flavor coming as far as the frozen chunks as well.

You test and try and experiment and all of a sudden, you find something that actually works. I’ve had a bit of anxiety about not being able to come up with new products as good as the ones we already have, and that the new would come out too similar to them, but these all feel like great complements. The big grocery store chains bring in new vegetarian frozen and refrigerated products twice a year, so you get two chances at presenting your new inventions and hope they’ll be interested.

What are your favorite ways of eating Bärta?

I almost always throw together a salad of some sorts, where I mix whatever I have on hand vegetable wise with for example cooked quinoa, and then I just sauté one of our products. You can sauté all of them. Oven roasting the “Helbit Alspånsrökt” is also very good.

If I’m not whipping up a salad, I shoot for a stew, and for that I use the unflavored “Helbit Rå & Naturell”. I break it into pieces, sauté them in tons of spices and then let them simmer in a stew.

Now it’s time for the last question, a few steps away from salads and stews. It’s what we ask all of our interview guests: what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

Lily & Hanna’s Cookie Caramel Euphoria!

Thank you so much, Pia, for giving us a piece of your valuable time. We wish you all the best with upcoming endeavors and continued success for Bärta, and encourage all of our readers to both follow Pia and her crew on Instagram (it’s a really great account with high quality content), read more about Bärta at swedishtemptations.com and of course try the different products. We also recommend giving Pia’s two favorite recipes a go (see below) as well as the recipe that we’ve created featuring Bärta, which are these Tempeh Tacos with Mushrooms and Pickled Vegetables. Until next time – take care and eat well!

All images from Bärta’s media archive.


Bärta Burger Umami with Pickled Red Onions and Cauliflower Purée

Makes 4 burgers
1 h active time but requires some prep work

Ingredients

2 packages Bärta burger umami
4 burger buns
3 carrots
Alfalfa sprouts
Beet sprouts
Machê lettuce

Pickled red onions

1 red onion
100 ml distilled white vinegar
100 ml sugar
100 ml water

Cauliflower and chanterelle purée

1/2 cauliflower head
2 handfuls chanterelle mushrooms
150 g cooked large white beans
1/2 tsp sea salt
25 ml water
25 ml oil
Oil for frying the chanterelles
Black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring the vinegar, water and sugar to a boil. Let cool. Thinly slice the onion and place in the liquid. Let sit for at least one hour.
  2. Cut the (half) cauliflower head into two thick slices. Oven roast at 175°C for one hour.
  3. Chop and fry the chanterelles in oil.
  4. Blend all the ingredients for the cauliflower and chanterelle purée. Season to taste.
  5. Slice the carrots into 3 mm thick ribbons, preferably using a mandolin.
  6. Deep fry the carrot ribbons in oil. Make sure the oil is hot enough by dropping down a piece of carrot. When it’s bubbling a lot, the oil is ready. Then lower the temperature a little, so as to prevent the oil from smoking. The carrots should change color and turn crispy.
  7. Cut the breads in half. Brush the cut side with oil and toast in the oven.
  8. Pan fry the burgers until golden brown.
  9. Assemble the burger. We like this order: bread, purée, carrots, alfalfa, burger, machê lettuce, pickled red onions, burger, beet sprouts, purée, bread.

Wrap with Tuscan Kale, Apple Salsa and Bärta Chili & Lime Chunks

Ingredients

1 package of Bärta chunks chili & lime
4 tortilla breads
A few Tuscan kale leaves
2 carrots
5 cm knob of fresh ginger, finely grated
1 garlic clove
1/4 red chili pepper
2 tbsp roasted sesame oil
Salt
Oil
250 g cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Vegan cream cheese, preferably with some lime juice stirred into it

Apple salsa

1 large apple
1/2 red chili pepper
1/2 red onion
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp cooking oil
1/2 tsp salt
A splash of roasted sesame oil
1 bunch cilantro

Base recipe vegan organic cream cheese

1 liter organic unsweetened soy milk
50 ml lemon juice
1/2 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp oil
How to: 1. Carefully bring the soy milk to a boil. Whisk frequently to avoid any burning at the bottom of the pot. 2. Add lemon juice and salt. Note that the milk will separate. 3. Strain through a large coffee filter in the fridge, for about 12 hours. 4. Stir in oil. Season to taste with salt and (optionally) lemon, herbs or other spices.

Instructions

  1. Take out Bärta chunks chili & lime from the freezer and thaw quickly in the microwave.
  2. Sauté garlic, ginger and chili in sesame oil. Cut the carrot into matchsticks and add to the pan. Tear the kale into large pieces and add in as well.
  3. Sauté the Bärta chunks until golden brown or brush them with oil and grill them.
  4. Apple salsa: finely chop the chili pepper and onion and mix in a bowl. Add lime juice, oil and salt. Chop the apple and add in as well. Roughly chop the cilantro and fold into the salsa.
  5. Heat up the breads quickly in a pan or on the grill.
  6. Assemble: Spread cream cheese on the bread and top with the sautéed vegetables, apple salsa, tomatoes and Bärta. Wrap it all up and dig in!

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More posts in our interview series:

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