The healing power of plants has been well-known throughout history. But in our current consumer climate, we’ve started to lose the connection between humans and plants. Modern-day herbalists are here to change all that, handcrafting plant-based tonics to heal and connect with the planet. Today’s guest is Corey MacDonald, an herbalist and the owner of Red Root & Co., a business that sells handcrafted, plant-based tonics, beverages, and herbal preparations made from high quality, local, organic, and fair-trade ingredients. If you’ve ever seen the Red Root & Co. Instagram account, you’ll know that it’s full of lush images of plants and foods made with their products, and it’s full of helpful information about the plant world and herbal traditions. Tune in to hear about Corey’s love of plants and how she brings people tasty, healthy, nourishment.
Key Points From This Episode:
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Red Rood & Company on Facebook
Red Root & Company on Instagram
South of the James Farmers Market
The Farmers Market at St. Stephen’sSupport the show
Corey MacDonald 0:00:
We rely heavily on the nourishment we receive from the natural world and, for various reasons, I feel like that relationship has been lost and plant’s a part of our story, plants are for every day, and there’s a variety of ways to incorporate them.
Georgiana Dearing 00:21:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast. Where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind that good food, good people and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we’ve got some stories for you.
Welcome back foodies, I’m George Dearing, owner of WaterStreet Marketing and founder of Virginia Foodie. Today, I’m talking with Corey MacDonald, an herbalist and the owner of Red Root and Co., a business that sells handcrafted, plant-based tonics, beverages, and herbal preparations made from high quality, local, organic, and fair trade ingredients.
If you’ve ever seen the Red Root and Co. Instagram account, you’ll know that it’s full of lush images of plants and foods made with their products, and it’s full of helpful information about the plant world and herbal traditions. I work with Corey in a coaching program and I just loved her passion for her work and I thought it would be great to have her on so she could share her story.
Listen in to hear about her love of plants and how she brings people tasty, healthy, nourishment.
Georgiana Dearing 01:44:
Hi Corey, thank you for joining me today. You and I worked together for some time now, but for the benefit of our listeners, could you give us a general introduction of who you are and all the great products you're making?
Corey MacDonald 01:58:
Well, thank you for having me here today George. I am Corey MacDonald. I’m an herbalist and I started Red Root and Company, and we like to make culinary beverage and health and wellness products that are crafted in an herbal tradition. We make preparations like tonics, bitters, syrups, shrubs, and oxymels.
We started in 2016, it’s been about four years. We started with our oxymels and we’ve been broadening our offering since then.
Georgiana Dearing 02:33:
The first question I ask everybody this year, we’re recording in late 2020 and it’s been a crazy year, it’s been very strange for the food industry. The very first question I’ve been starting with is, how is it going? I know that you did a lot of in person sales at shows and things like that? How has this year been for you, how is it going?
Corey MacDonald 02:56:
Well, yes, I mean, my goodness, 2020 has been a tough moment for makers of all kinds. We did do a lot of in-person, we did a lot of large shows, and farmers markets, and initially, everything was turned upside down, all the large shows were canceled and the farmer’s market was canceled also.
Thankfully, the farmer’s markets are now running again so that’s been great, get back in front of people, pre COVID, we had our online shop set up, so I think that was really helpful for us to connect with customers in that way. It’s definitely been a challenge, and I think it’s kind of pushed on us a bit to use some of our creative skills to figure out other ways to connect with customers, like expanding its reach to people. We definitely have been thinking more about the depth of our offering in regards to products, sharing plant information, educational outreach.
In the midst of all of that challenge, it is giving us opportunities to explore, and fill out other platforms, and new ideas.
Georgiana Dearing 04:03:
That’s a positive outlook, you’ve kind of reframed 2020 from struggles and setbacks to challenges and opportunity, which is always kind of the positive thing to do, right? You’ve got new opportunities and things?
Corey MacDonald 04:14:
Georgiana Dearing 04:16:
Well, you mentioned a word in the beginning that I’m going to ask you about, you said it oxymels, and I know what that is, because I have read up on it because of you. You introduced me to them, but it’s kind of a funny word, and it’s kind of old fashioned. Can you explain what an oxymel is?
Corey MacDonald 04:36:
Yeah, oxymel, I kind of like think of it a bit as how foreign kombucha, the word must have been when it initially was on the market. Oxymel is an old – it comes from Latin and it literally means acid and honey, and it’s an ancient concept of food as medicine. I wanted to bring like a modern spin to that and figure out ways people could incorporate it in their lives.
It literally is vinegar, we use raw organic apple cider vinegar, we infuse it with different botanicals, we put a touch of raw Virginia honey, and the end product is then, what we call kind of an herbal, culinary tonic, that is really delicious to use as a healthy condiment on a variety of foods, vegetables, legumes, salads. We just sprinkle it on everything and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from customers that they love like trying it on new things that they make. Then it also can be used in beverages, so some people will take it that way. It has a lot of – a wide range of applications, I would say.
Georgiana Dearing 05:44:
You said a healthy condiment. You’re an herbalist and you're making food products that are bottled and sold for people’s pantries, really. Tell me a little bit about your product philosophy and your herbal traditions? Tell me like the why of your product line. How do you make choices?
Corey MacDonald 06:07:
Well, kind of like I was saying a little bit about oxymel and it’s a food as medicine concept. You know, we think of that adage as like old and Hippocrates concept of, you know, if you don’t subscribe to him, but I really think that that idea, maybe used in different verbiage by many cultures through time has been like a way of eating, a way of lifestyle, and really, a way to conceptualize like the deep connection between sustenance and health. That is definitely infused in all of our products.
Georgiana Dearing 06:43:
You talked about the oxymel, what else do you have? You have bitters, what else do you have, that you –
Corey MacDonald 06:49:
We have bitters, shrubs, we have a variety of tonics, and we have an elderberry syrup, for example. The tonics would be more specific to maybe a particular remedy or a body system or something. You know, for example, the elderberry syrup is a great immune support full of antioxidants. A lot of people would incorporate it to help with immunity.
Georgiana Dearing 07:19:
You're kind of like bridging that gap, there’s a concept out there, sort of, is food is fuel, and your products are kind of bridging – are they bridging that gap a little bit? Like giving people an opportunity to up their choices, and then the next step is also introduced tonics or, explain it?
Corey MacDonald 07:43:
Well, I see all of them as a way, definitely sustenance and that fuel idea that you mentioned, but also a little bit more than just that. In my mind, I really feel like humans have evolved alongside plants. We rely heavily on the nourishment we receive from the natural world and, for various reasons, we have food deserts, modern convenience lifestyle, disruption of plant knowledge that’s shared between people, and I really feel like that relationship has been lost. Plants are part of our story, plants are for every day and there’s a variety of ways to incorporate them.
Like herbal preparations and all of the forms that were created at red root and company are part of that and this is, like – it’s historically relevant and it’s relevant today. With that in mind, I wanted to create a variety of products to meet people where they are. In whatever way we can contribute a piece of bringing that plant goodness, which I like to call it, into their daily lifestyle, we want to do that. Someone might be really attracted to the oxymel, which is the healthy herbal condiment jot sprinkle on their roasted vegetables, or the elderberry syrup that would be something they would take daily during cold and flu season.
I believe, the more that people bring plants into their lives, and this is one piece of it, that we’re kind of bridging those connections that were lost between the natural world and this really just reinvigorates the relationship.
Georgiana Dearing 09:24:
I like what you said about meeting people where they are. I mean, we’re here, living really modern lives, and there are a lot of people who are going off the grid, and getting all the way back to their roots, and shunning modern life, but just through the content that you share and the things that you talk about, I can see that you're really trying to bring these more ancient traditions, I would say, into a modern way of living.
I mean, you’ve got cocktail recipes on your site too. It looks like you’re encompassing the whole life of the modern family.
Corey MacDonald 10:01:
Yeah, I think we all have our preferred indulgences to whatever – yeah, where we are, it is fine. Yeah, I agree and I think I’m like – when my son was younger and I was like, “How can I get more vegetables in him? I’m going to make like muffins with carrots in there,” or something like that. Hey, I can bring these cool bitters and someone’s going to put them in a cocktail and it’s just part – it becomes – it’s part of meeting people where they are, but they’re getting that plant goodness.
Because, with the bitters all of our products but you know taking the bitters as an example, where we make our bitters from whole plants. A lot of bitters companies are using flavoring, some extracts, and we aren’t. We are actually taking burdock root, and we’re making a maceration, and we are pressing it, and so that burdock root is then in that cocktail and that is pretty awesome.
Georgiana Dearing 10:58:
Oh, it’s just awesome. So this leads me to where are you getting your ingredients? Where are you finding burdock root? We had a guest recently who is a chef at Lion Creek Brewing, and their master brewer there introduced the concept of foraging, and she talked about how they leave and go out and just look for ingredients that are showing up seasonally.
So, where are you going? Are you doing any foraging or are there people out there who are farming burdock root that I don’t know about?
Corey MacDonald 11:35:
All of the above, George, yes it is all happening. Yeah, there are definitely some really great companies that are ecologically-minded, growing, and you know there is a lot of different terminology but you know, biodiversities or organic that are growing burdock root that is growing very well and has a lot of the qualities we want. So, that would be one way we get some ingredients. Another is from local farmers.
For example, we get amazing ginger and turmeric from a farm called Nisani Farm, which is located in Virginia, but yeah, we also – I mean wild harvesting, aka foraging, is something an herbalist typically – well herbalist like me anyway loves to do. That is one of the highlights of my day if I get to do that. So yeah, burdock root grows like the weed in Virginia.
It is not really something that – some plants you’re going to be careful about what you are harvesting, but something like burdock root not so much because you know there is plenty and that propagates really easily so yeah.
Georgiana Dearing 12:45:
How do you protect that foraging resource? One, I mean, burdock root is probably not a great example because it is so plentiful, how do you protect that foraging environment? I mean you are going to have to pick the places where there is not say a lot of gas and fumes from the roads. You got to have to be out in the wilderness and then you are going to have to – how do you do that? How do you protect your foraging sources?
Corey MacDonald 13:13:
That is a really important aspect of wild harvesting is to be thoughtful about where you are harvesting and what you are harvesting. Definitely you know along the roadside is a no-no, although there are often beautiful plants there, but you definitely don’t want to harvest from there and I certainly wouldn’t. I have, for example, friends who homestead that have land and that’s a great place to go wandering around and find things.
I also am really careful to only take a certain amount of what is there, because we don’t want to eliminate a population of plants that are growing because we harvested them all. This is an old, this is like native concepts from all cultures around the world is, you don’t want to take more than you need ever, and you definitely want to leave at least half of what you found because there are other animals, there are other people, and we, again, want things to keep onto something to be extinct.
So something like sumac is a plant that grows in Virginia really well, and it is something that I would wild harvest, that I am always very thoughtful about where it is coming from and how much I am taking.
Georgiana Dearing 14:24:
Well, that really speaks to kind of the very craft nature of the products that we are making. It seems like there is a lot that goes in way before like the bottling of the product and then there is a lot of time and energy and care spent.
Does that limit you on production runs or how big your business could grow?
Corey MacDonald 14:50:
I mean I think it definitely is something that would come from a plant that is more vulnerable or it is not easily accessible, for whatever reason that might be. We definitely wouldn’t. If we use that in a product, we would use it in a limited fashion, maybe a seasonal product, but when we have crafted some of our tonics for example, we are going to be really seeing a new product this Fall, and it is a turmeric tonic.
One thing I intentionally thought about when I was designing that formula is, where can I get these ingredients? Can I get them regionally to create a product that will be sustainable, and also support business that are around here, and then also be able to create the product that I wanted it to be. So, when I do craft things like that, I am thinking about that because all of those pieces matter to me. It matters to where I want the business to be and where I want it to be going.
Georgiana Dearing 15:50:
Well, that is a turmeric tonic for Fall, are there other things that are going to be happening this Fall for you, other flavors?
Corey MacDonald 15:58:
Yes, I am really excited, George, because we have redone our labels. There’s some new packaging, and we learned a lot in the last four years and we realized we needed an update, and wanted to be able to share more information. We have some beautiful new labels, so those are going to be coming along with a couple of new products, which is one the turmeric tonic that I just mentioned, and then we are also going to have an immune boost that is the comet berries and shrooms.
We really wanted to find a way to incorporate some mushrooms into our product. So we have berries and shrooms immune tonic and we also are creating a digestive tonic. So those are all on the horizon.
Georgiana Dearing 16:43:
How do you use a digestive tonic? Is that every day, or how does a person take that? I’m just curious.
Corey MacDonald 16:50:
So, it would be used either before you eat or after a meal, and you’ll just take a little show, like a quarter an ounce or half an ounce, with your meal and it is going to help digest your food.
Georgiana Dearing 17:01:
So it is a product you offer that actually is going to help enhance any meal that a person is eating, right? Like, help him maybe get more nutrition from the rest of the food they’re eating.
Corey MacDonald 17:12:
Exactly, yes. The digestive tonic will help increase stomach acid, and it will help the cascade of the liver talking to the gallbladder, and releasing bile. So it is just going to help, if you have some digestive discomfort when you eat, this will help.
Georgiana Dearing 17:28:
Well that’s kind of cool. That to me is an accessible way to connect sort of traditional care and modern living.
Corey MacDonald 17:37:
Georgiana Dearing 17:39:
Well, I have this question I have been asking everyone, and I want to know, what inspired you? You come from an herbal tradition but what’s the genesis of that? What brought you to this life and lifestyle and ultimately your product line?
Corey MacDonald 17:56:
So, as a kid I was always creating restaurant menus and cooking food for my family. So, it’s like even like – it is so funny but I would make muffins. I laugh at myself, and sell them to my neighborhood on Saturday mornings always, always have these visions of making things and wanting to share them with people. So, that was just – I mean I was really young and I have always been enamored with our family garden and particularly my grandparent’s gardens.
I was intrigued by plants. I thought about it for a long time, doing something, but I never could really figure out what really resonated with me. I came to herbalism and adulthood and once I found herbalism I realized I felt like I was coming home, and this is like what I have been waiting for, and because a student of herbalism. I have done training and then practiced for a while and I just really wanted to share, and make plant infused and medicines for and with other people. So, it just was a natural progression for me to get to this place.
Georgiana Dearing 19:11:
Oh you came home, I like that. I like that sentiment. That is a good feeling. Well, where can people find you? Where can they find your products, and where can they find you personally?
Corey MacDonald 19:25:
Well we have our website, which we sell products there. That is redrootcompany.com. We also are on Instagram and Facebook, and it is @redrootco. There are some shops in Virginia that sell our products, Ellwood Thompsons in Richmond, Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, and there is Rebecca’s Natural Foods in Charlottesville, and there is a list on our website of the places you can find us. We also have a calendar on the website because we usually go to the South of the James and St. Steven’s Market in Richmond, once a month.
We have our dates listed on our website, and we’re going to be doing – you know we are still not sure quite how the Fall is going to be shaking out with some different events. Almost everything has been rescheduled for next year, but we might be doing some demos or plant workshops coming up.
Georgiana Dearing 20:21:
Well, I appreciate that you came and talk to me today and I promise not to take up anymore of your time. So I am going to let you go, get back to your mixing and making and I look forward to seeing your new packaging and talking to you again.
Corey MacDonald 20:36:
Thank you George, it was great to be here.
Georgiana Dearing 20:38:
Thank you, bye.
Corey MacDonald 20:40:
Georgiana Dearing 20:41:
Thanks for listening and if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on “grow my brand” at vafoodie.com. If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people and good brands.