Panning for Garlic Gold

by Sabrina Sucato

Raema Rotindo is a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin. Instead of weaving straw into gold, however, she concentrates her alchemic efforts on the humble garlic clove.

Rotindo, 30, founded Rockerbox Spice Co. in July 2012 out of her small New York City kitchen. While her assortment of premium spices is now successfully housed inside select Hudson Valley storefronts like Pawling’s The Blue Olive, the journey to market was far from cut and dried.

After graduating from Stony Brook University with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics, Rotindo found herself working an unfulfilling job in the Big Apple. She turned to cooking as a way to de-stress and reconnect with her childhood traditions. “My grandma and grandpa were garlic farmers,” she explains. She grew up eating the bulbs that would sprout from her family’s farm in Webster, NY. It was not until adulthood that she realized just how spoiled she had been in the taste department.

“I wanted to be able to get back to that flavor,” she says. That desire surfaced in earnest one day when, on a whim, she tossed garlic and jerky together in her dehydrator as an experiment. What came out was “the most amazing, potent garlic powder I had ever had in my life.”

Inspired by her personal kitchen surprise, Rotindo began to bring little jars of her garlic powder to family, friends, and local food swaps. It was at the community swaps in particular where she realized her hobby had the potential to become something more. In an admittedly gutsy move, she brought her potent powder to the famous Brooklyn Kitchen cooking store to see if they would stock it.

“They actually placed an order, which I was totally unprepared for,” she admits. Not one to shy away from a challenge, she got to work ordering production supplies, registering for an LLC, and confirming all the food certifications necessary to enter the spice business.

Since then, this real-world spice girl has been on a roll.

With creative flair, inherited in part from her mother, a painter and children’s book illustrator, she also designed the signature brand logo and jar labels and designed the Rockerbox website. Rotindo explains the provenance of the catchy name she chose her start-up food enterprise this way: “A rockerbox is a sifting tool gold-rushers used to separate gold nuggets from dirt. I chose this name because, like a gold nugget, quality seasonings are hard to come by.”

After quitting her city job and moving back upstate to the Hudson Valley, she poured herself into her business. It was during this time that she began to sell her wares at farmers markets. “I started out in Millbrook, which was the town where I was living,” she says. After a successful summer there, she decided to branch out to other local food stands. Chief among them was the Pawling farmers market. “I had been hearing amazing things [about the Pawling market].” She ventured into town to scout out the scene and “was immediately impressed and started going there every Saturday.” Local enthusiasm for her spices and support for her brand kept her coming back to Pawling for three summers.

Now based out of Hudson, NY, Rotindo has graduated from weekend community vending to focus on wholesale and regional food festivals. Although she is no longer at the Pawling market, she still maintains a presence in town at The Blue Olive, one of the few vendors that carry nearly all of her unique blends.

“I was so honored that The Blue Olive is willing to carry basically every flavor I make,” she enthuses. While most locations order only the best sellers, like her Roasted Garlic Dust, Shallot Flakes, and BBQ Rub, “occasionally you get the shop that wants to showcase what you’re doing.” Whenever she finds herself in the location of a vendor that stocks her spices, she loves to stop by the store to see which products are in demand.

On the wholesale end, Rockerbox has a strong presence throughout New York state and is on the road to widespread national recognition, thanks largely in part to a bulk order from Williams-Sonoma. “It was a six-month process,” she recalls of the time it took to assemble the order for distribution throughout the U.S. and Canada. Through the process, Rotindo made a conscious effort to prioritize quality ingredients and source as locally as possible.

“All of the garlic and onions are domestic and organic,” she notes with pride. Unlike grocery store alliums, which often have international origins, much of Rotindo’s garlic comes from California, while her onions are produced here in New York.

With achievements like these, it is a wonder that Rotindo has time to breathe, let alone carve out free time for herself. Yet she recognizes the importance of balance and makes a point to devote some of her energies to music, her other passion.

“I’m in a band called the Hudson Dusters,” she says. Rotindo, who sings and plays guitar, has always dabbled in music. Once she moved to Hudson, she started going to open mic nights to unwind and meet others. The Dusters developed organically when she and two other locals joined forces to create folksy Americana music.

They now book regular gigs and are slated to perform at The Greenville Drive-In on May 20 before the locale kicks off its 36th annual Asbury Short Film Concert. That day will be a busy one for Rotindo, since it is also the kickoff date for the Smorgasburg Upstate weekend market in Kingston. Rockerbox will have a table on both the 20th and the 21st for all its garlicky goodies. After that, the brand will also make appearances at the Hudson Berkshire Wine Festival at the Columbia County Fairgrounds, May 27 – 28, and at the Country Living Fair at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, June 2 – 4.

Rotindo has a full, well-seasoned plate in front of her. Yet that does not deter her from dreaming up future projects. “I would love to have a cookbook,” she admits. While she occasionally posts a recipe on social media for Rockerbox fans, she plans to have a full set on her website by the end of the year. Her original, famous jerky recipe may even make an appearance.

Although Rotindo’s entrepreneurial journey was “harder than I ever could have dreamed it would be,” her hours spent peeling garlic cloves and experimenting with her dehydrator set her on the path to culinary success.

With gold that does not glitter and diamonds that are literally buried in the rough, Rotindo struck more riches than most treasure hunters ever find.

LEARN MORE about Rockerbox Spice Co. at www.rockerboxgarlic. com. PURCHASE Rockerbox spices at The Blue Olive, Pawling NY, SEERotindo at the Smorgasburg Upstate market, Hutton Brickyards, Kingston, NY, on May 20 – 21 (11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.). SEEThe Hudson Dusters at The Greenville Drive-In, Greenville, NY, on May 20 (7:00 p.m.).

SABRINA SUCATO is a Poughkeepsie- based freelance food, travel, and fashion writer, whose work has appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal, Hudson Valley Magazine, and The Wayward Post.