Natasha Brown Wainwright and Ginny Marks each credit some kind of divine intervention for their launch into sweet start-ups. For Wainwright, it was a call out of the blue from a QVC broker with an invitation to showcase her Natasha’s Just Brittle on the home shopping station.
“It was a godsend,” says the northeast Baltimore native. “They asked me to send a sample, and then they worked with me for eight months to become a QVC vendor.” Three days earlier, Wainwright had closed the in-home childcare center she operated for more than 21 years to focus on her small business, so she sentimentally kept the well-timed voicemail from the QVC broker. A similar bolt from the blue, she says, came recently when both Whole Foods and Wegmans approached her to pitch her product. Marks says her path was influenced by her late father and her late husband. After her husband, Jack, died in 2009, Marks says she plunged into mourning for a couple of years. She finally dragged herself up and invited some friends for dinner.
“The night before, I made vodka and cranberry popsicles, only to find the vodka didn’t freeze,” she says. This gave her something to focus on. “I was determined to get the vodka to freeze.” Marks, who says she has a “strong faith” is convinced that her father, an inventor with some 100 patents in his lifetime, and her husband, who “loved his vodka,” held sway on what happened next. “I think the two of them were in heaven together and said, ‘Let’s help her get it to freeze.’” After a year and a half, Marks had the problem licked and set about starting her company, a line of spiked ice cream called Arctic Buzz.
Natasha’s Just Brittle began as a summer project to busy the kids and tweens at her day care, Progress Place Learning Center, Wainwright says. The kids enjoyed cooking, so she suggested they start a small business.
“Kids came up with an order form they’d give to parents to take to work on Mondays,” she explains. “The orders would come in and we’d produce everything on Tuesday and Thursday for delivery on Friday.”
The sweet shop cranked out cakes, cookies and smoothies as well as brittle, she says. They raked in close to $500 over the course of the summer and were rewarded with a trip to Free State Sports—“Chuck E. Cheese on steroids,” Wainwright says. “They got to eat their lunch out and play video games all day.” When the summer ended, requests for Wainwright’s brittle didn’t slow. She found herself making batch after batch of the stuff, which she slow cooks with organic sugar, butter, sea salt and other natural ingredients. The brittle is crumbly, with more of a granular texture than the sharp-edged cleave-to-your molars stickiness of others. She uses a variety of nuts and flavors the brittle with banana, dulce de leche and cookies and cream.
Wainwright has also expanded to other treats—many invented to use the bits of brittle left behind when the candy is cut into neat squares. She rolls chocolates in crumbled brittle, and packs the bits in the center of crispy treats. She makes a “bridge mix cluster” with nuts, caramel bites, espresso beans and brittle. She rolls chocolate-dipped bacon and apples in brittle. Wainwright started out in a shared commercial kitchen, but to qualify for QVC, she needed a dedicated place of her own, so she took over what was once a Chinese restaurant on Bel Air Road. Illuminated photos of her luscious goodies are displayed above the counter, replacing previous images of egg foo young and lo mein. The television gig on April 29 overwhelmed Wainwright with orders, and because she wasn’t up to speed, QVC canceled them all. Even so, Wainwright has fielded more than 150 QVC viewers who have reached out to her through Facebook and her website. “
Some of the QVC people are a little older and aren’t comfortable with the internet,” says Wainwright, who also takes orders by phone. “I’ve pulled over to the side of the road while I’m driving to write down credit card information.” Wainwright is slated to sell at the new Whole Foods in Riverdale. She also has a candy counter at the Bi-Rite, a small grocery store near her headquarters on Bel Air Road, where she sells her goodies Thursday through Sunday.
Once Ginny Marks figured out how to turn vodka into a frozen treat that would stay frozen (a strictly guarded trade secret, she tells me), she faced some regulatory hurdles. She secured a distillery permit and a license to distribute to liquor stores throughout the state. She opened a small factory in Finksburg where she cranks out the spirited treat in six flavors: chocolate, coconut, cookies and cream, key lime, raspberry and vanilla. The 100 milliliter servings (just under half a cup) are about 8.7 percent alcohol by volume. They’re currently sold at more than 80 outlets throughout the state, and Marks is working on getting into New Jersey. For now, it’s pretty much a small operation. Marks maintains a small “Arctic Buzz” branded chest freezer at each retailer and travels around the state offering tastings to curious customers.
“Once people taste it they’re blown away,” she says. “The only people who don’t like it are people who don’t like vodka.” Indeed, the ice cream has a distinct flavor of alcohol, along with the crunch of Oreo cookies or the tang of lime.
I learned about Arctic Buzz from Mary Elizabeth Plovanich, the pastry chef at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Plovanitch, who loves creating fantastical dessert displays for special events and operates the pastry stand at Everyman Theater, likes to include the vodka-
infused dessert in ice cream sundae bars for wedding receptions and adult gatherings. It’s also sold at the hotel’s seasonal rooftop Sky Bar. “It’s really popular,” Plovanich says. “It’s like getting a dessert and an after-dinner drink in one.”
Where to Buy
Natasha’s Just Brittle is available locally at Bi-Rite, 5950 Belair Road, Baltimore, or online at natashasjustbrittle.com
Arctic Buzz is sold locally at a variety of shops, including:
Federal Hill Wine & Spirits
901 S. Charles St., Baltimore
40 West Discount Liquors
6326 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville
3713 Old Court Road, Pikesville
Towson Wines & Spirits
6 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson
For a complete list, go to arcticbuzzicecream.com.