For the Love of Good People
A Q&A with Spare Food’s Adam Kaye and The White Moustache’s Homa Dashtaki
That invisible stuff between people is incredibly interesting to us, and just might be the wellspring we need to make more sustainable decisions, businesses and systems. As we continue to hunt for unused and underutilized ingredients, we’re also searching for people and those connections that keep our scope of vision expanding and evolving. (So, you should reach out if you have an idea.)
Something like that exists in the partnership between The Spare Food Co. and The White Moustache. And it all stems from two people: our chef and Co-Founder Adam Kaye and White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki. We tried to capture it in the interview below.
Adam and Homa met in 2014 on the rooftop of the Whole Foods Market in Gowanus Brooklyn, where Adam first tasted Homa’s yogurt. Over the next two years, they’d become bonded by a passion for whey and a new business relationship.
They responded to this Q&A individually, totally separate from one another. Still, the like-heartedness of these people and their goals emerge on paper (and on screen.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Adam: Spare Food is a new kind of food company — one that identifies latent value in the food system in the form of underutilized ingredients from farms and processors, and crafts delicious, new food and beverage products.
Homa: Depending on what problem we are solving for on any given day, I have a different idea of what kind of company: The White Moustache is an advocacy company, a food waste company, an immigrant company, a miracle that has somehow found its way to becoming a company in New York City. But, at the crux of it all, The White Moustache is a sweet little family yogurt company.
Homa and Adam at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket in Brooklyn
Adam: It was after wastED NY, the Blue Hill pop-up restaurant that I co-created in 2015, that I began to think about potential business opportunities based around underutilized and discarded products in the food system. The supply chain work that I did as part of the wastED research and development really opened my eyes to a treasure trove of ingredients that had massive potential. I would visit producers and suppliers and discover the most incredible ingredients being tossed out—at best they were being composted but that was a rarity. This was only reinforced during the wastED London pop-up in 2017. When I returned from that experience, Jeremy and I started having discussions about what a business model could look like—it has evolved a lot since then but the germ of the Spare Food company was born.
The wasted popup team. London, 2017.
Homa: No, no, no. Because I never thought of it as a problem. I was just making yogurt and whey is a natural part of making yogurt. I made it at such a small scale that the whey I had, we just consumed at home.
Homa: I think because they think of the business, and don’t think about the milk. If you thought about the grass the cow eats, you would not throw 30-50% of it away. They don’t value it. Milk is sold on the Commodities market for about $0.19 a gallon or something ridiculously low. I pay $5 a gallon for my milk, wholesale. If the sense of true value started off with the milk there’s no way that the industry would waste it.
Adam: It’s an incredible ingredient with a world of culinary possibilities. And when we look at it as a co-product, it is so emblematic of how we value or don’t value parts of our food. In our current food system, yogurt = value and whey = waste. Homa is also responsible for hooking me—her enthusiasm is infectious and she is truly a whey evangelist. She made it her mission to spread the word on the wonders of whey and I was all ears.
Homa: In 2014. White Moustache was in 32 stores and we were producing 120 cases of yogurt a day, 5 days a week, and making about 35 gallons of whey a day. It was at that point that I made a commitment to creating a market for the whey. We started keeping a waitlist of vendors that wanted the yogurt, and I told everyone, “no one is getting more yogurt until we find a home for the whey.” I tried to get people to take the whey, anybody. “Turn it into a beer, turn it into a popsicle,” I was telling a bakery to take it and put it in their croissants, to soften their dough. I’m not a chef. I was just coming up with desperate ideas. I was giving it away for free—and nothing really happened. The wait list was out of control and my team was bored as hell, like “can we expand, already?!” And that’s what Jeremy and Adam are making possible. They are taking all of our whey and are pushing us to make more yogurt to make more whey. This has been my dream: for the whey to be dictating the supply and demand. Now I’ll bring more milk in to make more yogurt because I know that not one drop of whey is being wasted. I desperately want Adam and Jeremy to do well so we can all do well in this very cyclical, sensible, wonderful way.
White moustache yogurt production line.
Adam: We don’t have a tagline per se at Spare Food but a phrase that we often use is “For the love of good food!” At the end of the day, that’s what motivates us. And that, for me, derives 100% from my family. Food/Family/Culture are practically indistinguishable for me. It’s why I went into the culinary field originally—a deep love and appreciation for food and cooking that I learned from my parents and grandparents. And now to be doing this with my brother is even more meaningful for me. As far as we know, Jeremy and I are 4th generation food entrepreneurs so it would appear that it’s in our DNA, whether we like it or not!
Homa: My whole life, I have actually been really annoyed with food because it was just so dominant in my childhood. In Zoroastrianism, there are holidays throughout the year that entirely revolve around food that we’d cook in huge 50-gallon batches. My parents would cook all weekend for a party and our whole community would pile into our house to eat. We’d feed everybody—our friends and our enemies—and the next time, they’d feed us. I wouldn’t get to read my books or watch TV because I had to cook. Then we’d have leftovers all week so I couldn’t eat a bologna sandwich at school like everyone else. I think this is why I was drawn to academic achievement and to becoming a lawyer [Homa was a lawyer!] Then as I grew older, I found that I was cooking in moments of feeling homesick or for our holidays. I would throw a party and cook for 50 people…I was compelled to do it. It is something that seeps into your bones in a way that creates a sense of belonging in the world. I don’t take it for granted: that role that food played in community, in sustenance and in a sense of belonging. It has also played a great role in how we make and run every drop of yogurt and whey at White Moustache. Probably most importantly, I have two very little babies at home that I plan on happily indoctrinating and quite possibly annoying in the same manner.
Homa as a teenager seeding pomegranates with her father in their backyard.
Adam: Right from the start, there is a base level of trust and understanding. That counts for a lot, especially in the world of a start-up. And with that, there are shared values (family values) that we both have and a common sense of purpose. I think we have a very unique perspective as brothers who grew up in another country and watched our family go through the process of immigrating to a new country and all the trials and tribulations that come with that. That’s a pretty deep bond. What’s interesting is that Jeremy and I are not in our early 20s and starting a business together—we’ve both had long and successful careers and have chosen to work together later in our respective careers. Our parents worked together for many years as well and interestingly enough, I spent the last two decades working for two brothers!
Homa: My sister Nahid and I are very different from each other. Sometimes she drives me absolutely crazy and makes decisions that feel like she’s trying to kill me, and we have it out. But Nahid balances me out perfectly, and that has been so good for business. Siblings are magical. Even though we’re complete opposites we both also share all of the life experiences that inform a product that’s so deeply personal, like this yogurt. We both grew up in Iran together, immigrated to the US together, shared that trauma together and ate all the same foods. We pray together and we cry together. And there is a kind of intelligence in all of that. We are lucky that it has found a home in this business. It goes into where we are buying peaches, into whether or not a quince tastes too sweet or too tart, into whether or not we continue buying our milk in plastic bags… or whatever decision we’re making.
Homa: Adam is like an engineer in the sense that he truly upholds the integrity of what the ingredient is. He could figure out how to build a car with a toothbrush, you know? Because he understands the toothbrush so deeply. He can look at an egg (or the whey) in a different way every single day and not be not confined by what has been done with eggs before. He makes the whey shine so much in these drinks, and in a way that I’ve only dreamed of doing. Adam just adds a magic amount of cucumber and makes the whey something wonderful and friendly. He infuses a sense of grace and education and accessibility. I have all this hostility that the whey is so difficult to place or explain—and he has so much optimism, it’s remarkable.
Adam: Homa is an uncompromising purest who adheres to the absolute highest possible standards. One has to respect that. As someone who has spent his career working in some pretty amazing restaurants and kitchens, her approach is something that I can relate to. And it shows in her product! Anyone who’s tasted White Moustache’s yogurt knows exactly what I mean.
Homa: Drink it. Oh, there’s a gallon of whey? I can drink a gallon of whey.
Adam: Hmmm…how do you define crazy? For a while I experimented with using whey to poach and pickle shellfish like mussels and razor clams. The acidity and minerality of the whey meshed really well with the brininess of the shellfish.
Adam: The potential was always there as was a mutual desire to figure something out. From my perspective, it was when we really doubled down on product development with a focus on whey, that larger scale possibilities seemed to open up.
Homa: I think it was actually fairly recently. I knew Adam and Jeremy were starting Spare Food and were interested in the whey, but I thought they’d find something else—spent grains or something more trendy. Dairy is so complicated—I thought that they would come across a regulatory restriction, or a refrigerated transport problem, or an issue with the probiotics. White Moustache whey, I thought, is too small, too long-winded, too weird. .Obviously, I deeply believe in the whey myself, but after so many years of dead-ends, I couldn’t imagine that someone else would as well. Much less the caliber of what Jeremy and Adam were planning. I think it was when Jeremy moved his family here to NY, that it first began to feel real. Then, once we’re still talking about it during the pandemic, I knew that not only was this very real, but that it was in hands much more capable than my own.
Adam: I don’t know — I think we wear our partnership on our sleeve pretty unabashedly and celebrate all aspects of it! And why shouldn’t we. I do think that we all look at this as something much more than a business relationship. It’s about building something bigger and more meaningful together.
Homa: The hard work. The tears. The frustration. We’ve all sacrificed for the whey. In revenue opportunities, in lifestyle opportunities and family time. I think the thing I worry would go unseen is the extent to which this particular partnership has truly caught us. It has given our mission and values and sacrifice a real tangible, beautiful and magnificent outlet. It has been a make it or break it moment for White Moustache.
The first ever canned run of spare tonic.
Homa: Their patience and grace and the way they can educate around the whey. For example, when I’m trying to explain the whey, I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone where everyone knows what an egg yolk is, but no one knows what an egg white is. So I’m just screaming: It’s f****** delicious! And so f******* nutritious! When they explain whey, they have far more patience and tact and scientific data. They bring a fresh breath of optimism in the struggle that I’ve been personally in for so long. They are making a true business out of the whey based on a value system different from the big corporations and they are going to make it thrive and make a model that makes sense. Me and my sister are two siblings, and Jeremy and Adam are like two siblings. These two business entities are also two siblings. It’s like that in our conversations, our collaborations and our frustrations. There’s so much symbiosis—everything about working with them is wonderful.
Adam: Several things. This is part of a long evolution of our relationship that started about 7 years ago. I feel like all roads have led to this point and now we’re just getting started. I love knowing that the other side gets it! Knowing that we are doing something that could truly become a model for other food businesses and other industries. We have a mutually beneficial relationship that truly demonstrates the power of cooperation. There is a term for that in the natural world—it’s called mutualism. Oh, and one of the best parts is getting to have frequent chats with the Dashtaki sisters!
Adam: The Spare Food business model is based upon identifying latent value in the food system and crafting delicious new food products from that untapped value. This is quite a novel concept in the food system. The success of our work with White Moustache is really the blueprint for us—it shows other food companies the mutually beneficial potential in this approach. Each of our successes will inherently benefit the other. And this is where we come to the idea of a virtuous cycle, [you may hear us talk about this a lot.] As we sell Spare Tonic, we can purchase more whey, and White Moustache can purchase more milk from NY farms to make more yogurt. And the more yogurt they make, the more whey there is for us to expand our production and distribution. Along the way we are all hiring and paying our teams of producers, brewers and canners. The ripple effect of this type of an approach is potentially massive and benefits not just one company, but a regional system.
Homa: The implications are huge. Adam and Jeremy have the grace, resources and personalities to educate and be patient with showing people how special the whey is. I’ve always been a little bit allergic to marketing and advertising—I think I do it badly. To have Adam and Jeremy in this space and be championing The White Moustache whey has been the greatest validation. They’ve out-crazy-ed me in my commitment to the whey. It has really put a lot of breath into me and my sister. We are so much more hopeful and feel like this isn’t just a pipe dream. And in a real-world sense, this partnership has triggered White Moustache to finally grow, after 6 years of being stagnant. It feels like a miracle, truly.
Homa: Yes. I’m very hopeful for the food future.
Adam: Yes, but we have a long way to go. The trajectory of the entrenched food system has been unsustainable to say the least. There is not a day that goes by that we don’t see evidence of this, from climate change, to health crises, to massive social and economic inequities. And sometimes impacting big food feels like altering the course of the Titanic moments before it hit the iceberg. That being said, there are enough of us out there working on our small piece of the puzzle to have an impact—I really do believe that. That to me is very encouraging. And I’d like to think that the work of companies like White Moustache and Spare Food amongst many others, can serve as an example of a different, better way of doing business. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t really have a choice.
Homa: More than I’ve lost over my babies keeping me up at night. Which is saying a lot. So, about two-year’s worth?
Adam: Actually, in the pantheon of things that keep me up at night as a startup founder, figuring out how we’re going to rescue whey through food use is probably pretty low on the totem pole. We’ve actually figured it out and we’re doing it - Spare Tonic is evidence of that. It’s all the nitpicky and mundane logistical details that complicate things. At the end of the day, we’re not talking rocket science here. What we are talking about is rewiring our accepted approach to the production and distribution of food. It really means altering how we value different parts of our food system. Now we need to get others to see that as well. Once we do that, the inherent logistical and operational challenges will fall into place. [There’s that optimism Homa was talking about!]
Homa: CUCUMBER & LIME SPARE TONIC because it reminds me of an Iranian drink with cucumbers called sekanjabin.
Adam: Unfair question! That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! I really do love them all for different reasons. Each has a very unique character. And there are more flavors in development so perhaps my favorite is yet to come!