The result of a casual comment over a Thanksgiving Dinner, Potter’s Crackers have earned their reputation around the cheeseboard as a wholesome and creative locally made cracker. Their mission is to produce high quality, organic foods in a sustainable way. The company was started by Peter Potter, a food science major at the University of Wisconsin, and his mother, Nancy Potter, owner of the New Glarus Bakery for 28 years. With their joined experience, the two were naturally suited to perfect these palate-pleasing crackers.

Potter’s Crackers are elegant whole-wheat crackers produced from quality, natural, fresh ingredients so you get great grain and butter flavors in every bite. They use all organic ingredients that are sourced locally. Potter’s artisan crackers are mixed, rolled and baked fresh in their own cracker kitchen in Madison at the Madison Enterprise Center (the light industrial business incubator in the Willy Street neighborhood that serves start-up and expanding small businesses).

Their kitchen is the same space previously used by Just Coffee before they moved to their current location on East Wilson Street in Madison. Nancy says that the ventilation system in the space installed for Just Coffee’s roasters provided them with an ideal start to build their kitchen and offices. “We worked on it a couple of months,” she says. “We had a plumber and an electrician, but then Pete and I did all of the painting; then we had the help of a friend to put the walls in.” She adds, “This location is really perfect for us. Only baking four days per week, we aren’t maximized in terms of how much we can produce in here. Production-wise, I guess we could stay in here a while. Storage-wise, it’s going to be more difficult. Already, I’d give anything if I could have a walk-in fridge.”

In the beginning

“All I did was say it once nonchalantly, and he didn’t let go,” says Nancy Potter of that fateful Thanksgiving comment. “He said, ‘Mom, that’s a fantastic idea. You should do that,’ and then it was, ‘We should do that,’ and then everything fell together—finding this space, finding the used equipment,” she says. “He was the one who was very persistent.”

Nancy spent the winter months between mentioning the idea at Thanksgiving and the company’s first production run in July of 2006 creating recipes for the business. Nancy says she began with the goal of using only 100 percent whole wheat while incorporating as little fat as possible. The result is a delicate ratio of whole wheat and cracked wheat to white pastry flour with minimal fat. It is a cracker that’s skillfully flavored with any one of a list of fresh, local ingredients including roasted sweet corn, jalapenos, garlic, cranberries, and rosemary, to name a few.

Making connections

“There’s no end to creative new crackers you can do,” Nancy says, “And we’re always looking for more and more local suppliers.” This year the company began using fresh produce from another familiar farm, West Star Farm in Cottage Grove. “George at West Star was able to produce a lot of stuff—jalapeños, we got all of our corn there, garlic and onions. Now we found another local guy... a new farm, growing [rosemary] in the ground in greenhouses—Sprouting Acres, Andy Watson (a vendor at the Eastside Farmers’ Market).”

Being a regular vendor at the Eastside Farmers’ Market has made it easier for Peter and Nancy to find farms to purchase local, organic ingredients. They first began selling their crackers there in July 2006 and have always offered a hefty amount of samples at each market. Nancy recalls of that first market, “We were so excited, and then they all sold

right away! Peter had our only car there at the Market, so I had to run over there [across the field from the Eastisde Farmers’ Market to the Madison Enterprise Center], got a crate of crackers and ran [back] across the park to [the market]. We’ve made a lot of connections at the Eastside Farmers’ Market for suppliers [and I’m] hoping we can do that more and more.”

Creative crackers

Nancy estimates about 25 different flavors for the crackers, but seasonality plays a large role in the availability of their selections. Their year-round flavors include Garlic and Onion, Basil Walnut Pesto, Six Seed, Sesame and Caraway Rye. Currently, and while the ingredients last, shoppers can find Sweet Potato and Onion, Cranberry Graham, Apple Graham and Grilled Corn and Onion with Chili Peppers.

Pairing flavors is an art and Nancy credits her son with much of the creativity and knowledge in making those leaps. “I really wanted to make crackers,” Nancy admits, “and I was thinking more in terms of sesame, wheat. He was the one who said, ‘Oh, let’s throw basil in this one; let’s throw cranberries and orange.’ He’s the one who had all those great ideas. He is really good at combining flavors, so he’s the one that really brought a lot of the imagination.”

Nancy says one of the challenges of a cracker is that they are often a vehicle for something else (ie. cheese, dips) and most people generally want a great flavor that stands on it own but will not overpower everything else. Nancy and Peter are always working on that balance, but they admit that a lot depends on each person’s palate. “We try to keep some of our crackers subtle and then some stronger, and trying to strike a balance is s a challenge,” she explains.

These days

A staff of four part-time bakers and four high school students (hired through CWD’s Youth Mentoring Program) packaging and labeling the finished crackers make up the workforce for the small company. One of the bakers has also begun to assist with some of the sales, but Nancy and Peter both spend time marketing the crackers at Farmers’ Markets and other venues. Now, with the help of a new distributor, Potter’s Crackers has begun to branch into more markets in Wisconsin.

Peter, who is busy running a business and finishing his graduate degree in engineering, says, “I really enjoy being a part of a local food system. It’s extremely important to me. But for me, the business is [somewhat] of an extra-curricular activity and applying the information I’m learning to an actual system is really valuable.”

Try some for yourself

Stop by the cracker aisle and pick up a bag of their delicious crackers. You won’t be sorry.