PHOENIX (AP) — Former biomechanical engineer Lisa Rast sells a toffee-brittle hybrid cobbled from her grandmother's recipes at a Gilbert farmers market. Like the neighboring lettuce farmer, bread baker and cheese curd maker, she's banking on the public's appetite for artisan foods to propel Nutwhats to profit.
Her timing could not be better. In the last five years, Arizona has become an enthusiastic participant in a national artisan food revolution, a culinary fight against the bad, bland and boring.
"More and more people are getting tired of mass-produced food. They realize that artisan means quality and they are willing to pay more for better," said Rast, a Chandler mother of two teenage boys.
Nationally, artisan food sales soared by about 19 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the National Association for Specialty Food. At the same time, research giant Packaged Facts reports nearly half of U.S. adults say they "like to eat food with artisan appeal."
The reasons vary. Consumers buy artisan for superior taste and premium ingredients, to support the local economy, and to eat natural and organic.
"People are beginning to get the connection between the nation's health ills and the processed, factory foods they are eating. The artisan food movement is all about getting back to knowing how food is made, and knowing that it is made with fresh, natural ingredients," said Kimber Lanning, director of Local First Arizona, a non-profit organization that supports locally owned businesses.
Unlike organic, there are no government regulations or official definition of artisan. Dictionary.com defines artisan foods as "a person or company that makes a high-quality, distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand and using traditional methods."
Datamonitor found that within the past five years, 800 new food products debuted bearing "artisan" labels, and that the rate of new artisan products being released every year is increasing. In 2010, nearly 200 new food items branded as artisan were unveiled, up from fewer than 80 in 2007.
Today, farmers markets are fertile fields for the artisan movement. The nearly 150 pop-up markets statewide are to food artisans what craft fairs are to artists - an affordable, high-profile marketplace.
Two years ago, after losing her job in timeshare sales, Merissa Ramos opened the North Scottsdale Farmers Market with a handful of vendors. Today, nearly 55 artisans sell goods on parking lot pavement every Saturday morning.
"People want to shake hands with the farmer who grew the carrots," Ramos said. "Consumers like buying directly from the source, and there's no shortage of small farmers and food producers eager to shake hands. They are the rock stars."
The number of artisans at the eight metro Phoenix markets run by Arizona Community Farmer's Market Group has more than doubled in the last five years, according to spokeswoman Dee Logan. The group now hosts nearly 300 artisans selling everything from grass-fed beef to chile-flavored olive oils, offering a direct line to consumers willing to pay premium price to know not just how and where their food was produced, but also the names or faces of the artisans.
The big jump in artisans is also tied in large part to the affordable storefronts farmers markets offer.
Two other factors — the sluggish economy and new cottage law — also accelerated the boom.
"Those who were making six figures, lost their jobs and couldn't find another are turning their aunt's brownie recipe into a business," Logan said. "They might not replace their salary, but they hope to make enough doing something they are passionate about."
Under the cottage law, home-based bakers who agree to follow government food-safety guidelines now can sell certain baked goods at farmers markets.
So who are these modern-day artisans?
As a group, they are culinary visionaries by nature or by creed. They are farmers who coax heirloom tomatoes out of 2-acre plots and butter makers who churn by hand. They make beet horseradish with local, all-natural ingredients, honey from desert hives and organic tamales. They make cheese from the goats they raise, they sell soup made from the potatoes, pork and basil bought from fellow artisans at the Saturday markets.
"They support each other because they all believe in the artisan food cause," Ramos said. "They are people from all walks of life with the same dream."
Most food makers eventually aspire to graduate from weekly makeshift markets to grocery stores. While large chain grocery stores recognize the appeal of local and artisan, most continue to stock their shelves with mass-produced foods.
The exception is Arizona-based Bashas' Family Stores, which includes Bashas', AJ's Fine Food and Food City. The family-owned 12-store AJ's chain stocks more than 100 locally made products, from Shamrock Foods to "the mom and pop."
Their motivation is a mix of savvy business and philanthropy.
"We believe in giving back to the community that has supported us all these years. By supporting our local food makers, we help accomplish this family goal," said Edward "Trey" Basha, vice president of operations.
Nearly 70 percent of all new food products fail, so selecting the local, artisan foods for AJ's is no easy task, he said. The gourmet retailer walks a fine line between selecting products that sell well, but not so well the artisan is too small to produce enough to meet consumer demand.
But an increasing number of artisans are making a living selling exclusively locally or, at best, regionally. According to Julie Murphree, marketing director of the Arizona Farm Bureau, the small, family-run food business is thriving.
Murphree said she expects double-digit growth to continue, a sign that the "little guy" can make a living.
"It might be your passion, but food is a business, a really tough business," she said. "You might be driven by altruistic and idealistic aspects, but to be sustainable the numbers must crunch."
In the next year, Rast and her husband, Jim, who works for a Chandler computer company, hope to double sales at markets and online of their 13 varieties of buttery, hand-crafted nutty treats made with all-natural, premium ingredients.
The sales goals are ambitious, but Rast believes Nutwhats fills a flavor gap in the crowded candy field by offering "just the right amount of sweetness with the delight of the unexpected." She's painfully aware that others who started their business with high hopes have flopped.
"It's really hard work to be an artisan food maker. It's not glamorous and there are lots of sleepless nights," she said. "But we took a leap of faith in ourselves and our product, and know there are foodies out there looking for fun, hip foods like ours."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com