Yolana Long: From nuts to soup | AspenTimes.com

Yolana Long: From nuts to soup

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBasalt resident Yalonda Long with her In the Soup creations.

BASALT – The economic event of 2008 hit Basalt resident Yalonda Long with extra force. Long’s career – selling real estate in the Roaring Fork Valley – was the sort that went from what she calls “phenomenal” to practically non-existent. Compounding difficulties, 2008 was the year of Long’s divorce, and she had to pay well into the six figures to her ex-husband.

“I proceeded to lose everything – the house foreclosed, lost my car,” Long said. Particularly torturous was taking care of the food needs for herself and her two young daughters. “I’d go to the grocery store with a calculator and some change. We’d buy whatever we could. I was in a fetal position. Hopeless.”

One of the few pleasures left to Long was the Sunday New York Times, and one Sunday morning she came across an article about a CEO who’d been disgraced in the financial collapse. The story, written by the CEO’s wife, told how the couple had taken their newly found free time to fall in love again. And the ingredient fueling their bond was food.

“I loved that,” Long, a typically upbeat 40-year-old Kansas native who often wears her blonde hair in braided pigtails, said. “Sunday suppers, that was my upbringing. We canned; we had gardens. So I think I went back to food to find my way back home. When I cook, that’s essence for me. No matter how little food we had in the house, cooking with my daughters made it feel like things would be OK.”

Needing to provide more than just dinner on the table, Long made food her work. In 2009 she created the organic soup line, In The Soup. The brand is currently available locally at Roxy’s, the Woody Creek Community Center and Carbondale’s Crystal River Meats, and at Alfalfa’s and Lucky’s in Boulder. On the day we spoke, Long had been in negotiations with Whole Foods.

Long launched In The Soup at the Basalt Winter Market, where she not only sold her soups but also traded with the other vendors. Being around other food makers was a big lift.

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“The environment of food is that everyone shares,” she said. “I was part of a food community and we’d feed each other. The conversations were so meaningful. It wasn’t like that in real estate.”

Long had lightened enough to locate her sense of humor. Turning again to The New York Times, she would circle words and phrases that had to do with the economy – termination, pink slip – and use them as inspirations for her products. When she introduced her soups, the well-designed glass jars had names like Past Due Posole and Cheapskate Chicken Noodle. The labels also included a brief history of why Long got into soup.

“I started laughing. I took myself more lightly,” Long said. She added that she has a cookbook in the works, titled “Food, Sex, Air, Water”; among the recipes is By the Way, Did I Mention I Have Four Kids Mac-and-Cheese.

Customers don’t necessarily want to combine their food shopping with reminders about the economy. But Long says that her marketing approach has worked to her advantage. It makes her products unique, and it deepens the relationship between the producer and the consumer.

“People would say, ‘What do you mean by Bankrupt Butternut? What do you mean by Alimony Minestrone?'” she said. “I could take it lightly, tell them it was based on my life. I was in victim mode – 37, ruined, never going to make it again. They’d grab my arm, tell me personal stories. Every Saturday morning, every farmers market, I’d be moved to tears by someone’s story. I’d be able to get outside my own problems.”

There are currently four varieties of In The Soup: Tempestuous Tomato, Bankrupt Butternut, 10 Carat Carrot and Bad Mood PEA. (PEA can stand for phenethylamine, a mood-lifting chemical found in the body.) Long says that money pressure resulted not only in darkly humorous names, but in better soup as well.

“My soups became better because I couldn’t afford to order chicken stock and vegetable stock,” Long, whose soups are now manufactured in Denver, said. “I’d have to roast a chicken in water, make the noodles – a handcrafted soup. It’s lower in sodium, brighter – and less expensive to make.”

In December Casey Puckett, a local Olympic skier and X Games gold medalist, asked Long out on a date. Long countered with an invitation to come to her place for tacos. The two are now a couple, and Puckett is co-CEO of In The Soup.

This week, In The Soup rolled out a new ad. It features Long, a former Jehovah’s Witness, bowing, a jar of soup in her hands and a cross behind her. In big type are the words, “Oh My God. Oh My God.” The ad, made with a camera borrowed from a Long’s neighbor in Basalt, is striking, funny and powerful.

“It’s not sacrilegious. It’s me saying, ‘Please, Jesus, God, Buddha, bless this. Because we’ve got four kids to support,” Long said. “Food marketing might be one of the last frontiers. It’s old and stodgy. It seems like the more I let it rip, the more people like it. And if they don’t like the label or the ad, they still love the soup.”

stewart@aspentimes.com