Inside Track: A career fueled by curiosity
Long-time chef Steve Stallard is creating and developing food products for his BliS Gourmet company that nobody else has even thought of.
Steve Stallard likens the culinary industry to the National Football League: Plenty of people get there, but few actually make it big.
The analogy helps explain why Stallard, with more than 20 years of kitchen experience, decided to start a food product manufacturing business rather than a restaurant when he felt the entrepreneurial itch.
“I wanted to spread myself out further than just a local or regional restaurant,” Stallard said. “There’s only a few individuals who make it to the top echelon. I wanted to push out a product line that went across the country and possibly the globe.”
His company, BLiS Gourmet, is allowing Stallard to do just that.
As a company with multi-million dollar annual sales, BLiS Gourmet has experienced at least 30 percent growth every year since it began in 2005. Based in Grand Rapids, BLiS finds much of its success in major metropolitan areas across the country, thanks to a large network of chefs.
Stallard’s company’s growth has come without the benefit of advertising or public relations. Even so, BLiS products, carried by Meijer, Williams Sonoma, Eataly, Dean & DeLuca and many other food retailers across the country, have ended up on television shows hosted by Anthony Bourdain, Rachel Ray and Oprah, and in print media such as Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits and Saveur.
BLiS has launched several new lines this year and saw a 75 percent sales growth in the last quarter, Stallard said.
“We’ve got a solid distributor base,” he said. “It keeps growing and expanding, and we keep up. The loyalties have paid huge dividends. That has paid off — finding quality people who know your product and sell it well.”
The company’s name stands for “Because Life is Short,” a motto Stallard has stood by since his teenage years. He’s been cooking since he was 14, starting with the game and fish he hunted and caught while growing up in Michigan — including during his college years at Northern Michigan University in Marquette in the Upper Peninsula.
His amateur cooking experience led him to work in professional kitchens, including at the Amway Grand Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids where he worked under Master Chef Daniel Huglier.
In the late ’80s, Stallard attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he earned certificates in the culinary arts and baking and pastry.
“I decided cooking is what I wanted to do,” he said, “so I started cooking for the best chefs I could find.”
In his more than two decades of cooking professionally, he spent time at Marshall, Michigan’s Win Schuler’s restaurant, at the five-star and five-diamond Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and at the Michelin 3-star Taillevent of Paris.
During his time in France, Stallard fell in love with its food and wine culture, before making his way back to Grand Rapids and becoming executive sous chef at Amway Grand Plaza in May 1990. During his second five-year tenure with Amway Hotel Corp., Stallard became executive chef before feeling the need to scratch the entrepreneurial itch.
Stallard knew he needed business experience outside of cooking and, in 1995, he went to work for an aquaculture startup in Pennsylvania. There he helped develop a full smokehouse and a fresh fish processing line. He also directed marketing, product development and processing.
In 1997, he moved on to the Racquet Club of Memphis, where he was in charge of the 1,200-member private tennis club that had 31 employees.
Later that year, Double-A baseball team the Memphis Red Birds was developing a full entertainment district/stadium concept, which would include several full-service restaurants. Stallard was hired as the general manager and executive chef of the private club and a 200-seat restaurant, along with being in charge of the concessions operation.
“To gain credibility, I needed managerial experience,” he said. “But I left to get back into chefing because I missed it.”
He became Dow Chemical’s executive chef in 2000 and spent five years in Midland, feeding the company’s executives as they dined and entertained. Still, starting his own business called to him. So in 2005, Stallard finally started his food product business, BLiS Gourmet, with one product: caviar.
“We were having a hard time finding fresh, domestic roe that was a species of fish no one else uses,” he said. “So I started with brook trout, a fish native to Michigan that produces a quality roe.
“From there, I tried to find (products) unique to use and not done by other people.”
He relocated to Grand Rapids because of his time spent working for Amway Hotels. He’s a Michigan man at heart, he says, and loves the feel of living in a city but also having the ability to hunt and fish within a few hours’ drive.
Grand Rapids, with its developing food scene, is the place to live in Michigan, Stallard said. He likes to share his knowledge with up-and-coming chefs from GRCC's Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, and also with the customers who use his products, helping them figure out flavors and how they can be used.
Following his success with caviar, Stallard began to develop the concept of barrel-aging products in used Kentucky bourbon barrels. He started with maple syrup that spent approximately a year in the barrel.
“We’re the first company that I know of to put maple syrup, at $3,000 a barrel, into old, leaky bourbon barrels to see what happens,” he said. “It was risky, but we took some chances and it worked. Now other people are starting to do it.”
The bourbon barrels created such a unique and flavorful syrup that Stallard began looking for other products he could age in barrels, including soy sauce, vinegar and fish sauce, all of which are now part of the BLiS line of products.
In 2007, when he had some left-over syrup barrels he wasn’t using, Founders Brewing Co. asked to use them. Founders put the base beer of the renowned Kentucky Breakfast Stout in the barrels and the resulting beer, Canadian Breakfast Stout, has become one of the highest-rated beers in the world.
Now a mutually beneficial relationship has built up between the two companies: Founders returns the barrels it has used to Stallard, allowing him to expand his product line even further. Recently, the two companies co-released Blast Hot Pepper Sauce, aged in Kentucky Breakfast Stout barrels. Since the first go-around, barrels have gone back-and-forth several times, leading to new products from both companies.
BLiS takes its time when it comes to new products, however. The company has three employees in the production department, all with at least 10 years of cooking experience. All BLiS products are the result of constant tasting and adjustment, Stallard said. BLiS Bourbon/Maple Barrel Aged Soy Sauce took two years to develop before its release early this year.
“Finding the products that work is the real key, for stability and safety,” he said. “We’re creating things nobody has seen before. We’re always tasting and developing and teaching each other nuances of products.”
Stallard’s entire career has been fueled by his curiosity, exemplified these days by his creation of new products. Most recently, he’s smoking a batch of the barrel-aged soy sauce, which will allow him to create multiple products reusing the regular and smoked barrels of the soy sauce products.
“We continue to produce one product, and two more come off of it,” he said. “If you lose your curiosity, you become stagnant.”