View every situation in a different light before making a decision. We’re learning to establish process and procedure at Big Marble Organics while growing quickly. Recently, we were making a batch of our organic cane syrup, and it didn’t measure out quite right. To frame this up, we’re dealing with about 1,000 gallons of hot liquid. It’s an intense process and you have to think fast if it’s not coming together as planned. Dwayne is in charge of making all the batches, and he called me to get a second opinion on how we should proceed. It’s important to have a partner to run issues by and bounce ideas off of. It turns out that in this case, a few minutes on the phone gave us enough perspective to rectify an issue on the spot.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Leoni.
Hailed as a champion of sustainability and green restaurant innovation, Chef Danielle Leoni has distinguished herself with an avant-garde approach to blending the best of the southwest with the tropical traditions of Jamaica. Nationally recognized as a culinary leader implementing sustainable change within our food system, she travels the nation speaking about ecological and social sustainability through the lens of food. Her passion for creating positive change has most recently manifested as Big Marble Organics — Arizona’s only carbonated beverage manufacturing company creating the nation’s first certified organic and fair-trade ginger beer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Raised in the quintessential Italian-American family in the suburbs of Chicago, my Sundays were filled with the sound of my loud clamoring family — pots and pans moving throughout the kitchen, the smell of fresh garlic, and the remnants from what felt like an eternity of grating pecorino-reggiano on my hands. My family found their way to Arizona in my early teens and I have lived there ever since.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t criticize unless you’re willing to be a part of the solution.” Whenever I’m taken aback by something in life I step back, take a breath and consider whether or not the situation is something I really can or want to improve. If I’m not willing to commit my time, then it doesn’t matter enough for me to be unhappy about it.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I remember when I was in my early twenties, and I was discovering what it meant to feel good about myself — meaning, having a healthy body, how to feed myself well and how to be mindful. I came to find Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he poses a seemingly simple question, “ What should we have for dinner?”.
Pollan’s book strung together questions I had about culture, community, food traditions and the general malaise I sensed in people. His simple question became a very simple solution to what some see as the complex task of being happy.
I found tangible ways to easily bring health and happiness into my life as well as to others. I did this by eating closer to home; and by this I mean, getting my food from the folks who actually grow or craft it.
Most importantly, I began to see the money that I spent as my way to speak up for what I want more of in my life — a responsible path for a brighter future. I do this by focusing on brands that produce meat, vegetables, pasta, jewelry, soap — you name it — that have responsible sourcing and practices at their core.
When I realized that these small purchases all add up to creating an undeniable amount of market demand, this encouraged me to vote louder with my purchases — big or small. Pollan’s book, which I read over a decade ago, planted the seed for my latest endeavor Big Marble Organics, to help shape a better food system one carbonated beverage at a time.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I come from a patchwork of jobs ranging from running a yoga school to working in city government, but for the past 12 years I have been the Executive Chef and co-owner of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar in downtown Phoenix. Running the restaurant and my kitchen is more than a full-time job, but I’ve had a long-standing passion for ecological and social sustainability.
As a chef and now with Big Marble Organics, I pride myself on being a good food advocate who expresses my hopes for a better world through my work and the choices I make as a business owner.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
The pandemic pulled my life out from under me like a rug. I’ve stood firm in what I do for over a decade with deep roots in culinary advocacy in my community and nation. For the first time since I’ve opened the restaurant back in 2008, I had no idea where I was headed.
On March 19th, our doors shut at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar for an undetermined amount of time. The restaurant has been my focus, inspiration and source of security for what seems like a lifetime. A focal point of what we do at the restaurant is make our ingredients for our cocktail program. We tinkered with a ginger beer years ago, set it aside, let it go by the wayside and circled back around to it. For the last couple of years we took our ginger beer making seriously and debuted it at a local market with huge success. Dwayne Allen, co-owner and director of bar operations at The Breadfruit took to producing our ginger beer recipe professionally. He ironed out a lot of the details through in-house trials and took on the responsibility of scaling production. When the pandemic hit, we lost 100% of our restaurant revenue, had just begun production at the Big Marble facility and knew we had to pivot our energy and resources.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
In March, when COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire in Phoenix, we didn’t know where the restaurant industry was headed, but we knew the future of it wasn’t bright. Dwayne and I established our careers in hospitality because we enjoy bringing people together and revel in their good times. And, we know that in a time of crises, people long for a reason to celebrate.
At that time, we already had the Big Marble Organics manufacturing plant in place, but we weren’t quite ready to launch. With the pressure mounting, we knew that it was time to shift our business plan for Big Marble Organics. We went from what was intended to be a soft launch in early 2020, straight to the third year of our plan — nationwide shipping. Big Marble Organics went from crawling to walking in a flash!
How are things going with this new initiative?
Big Marble Organic Ginger Beer can be found at retailers and restaurants across Arizona and is now available for purchase online by visiting BigMarble.com. We’re currently discussing wider distribution with a national wholesale distributor, which will help bring our product to market across the country.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without my partner Dwayne Allen. We’ve worked side by side for a long time — 12 years running our restaurant The Breadfruit & Rum Bar and now launching Big Marble Organics. Over a decade of camaraderie has spurred countless ideas to come to fruition and has been a powerful influence in how I’ve approached the world.
Together, we were driven to create Big Marble Organics with the painstaking consideration and integrity not found in most ginger beers. It was formed out of necessity, after the ginger beer being used at our restaurant moved manufacturing out of Jamaica and began using poor ingredients and sourcing techniques. These processes were in direct opposition with our mission of being stewards of the community by serving only clean food and beverages.
Dwayne and I spent years at the restaurant discovering the process of carbonation. Dwayne took focus on turning our in-house carbonation process to a larger scale, professional process. Unlike starting up a brewery, producing carbonated beverages isn’t something you can find on YouTube. Dwayne’s mix of total MacGyver-like wizardry, plus his detail-oriented technical side, totally amaze me! Dwayne was the one that pieced together our current manufacturing process, and without him, there is no way Big Marble Organics would be in existence today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
When we launched national retail shipping, we sent cases of Big Mable Organic Ginger Beer to share with a few dozen of our industry friends around the country. I couldn’t believe what happened… People began texting videos — popping open the bottle, eating Big Marble ice cream floats, of their kids pontificating on the gingery spice, using our cardboard insert to grow seedlings and photos of Big Marble being enjoyed everywhere from a campsite in the Grand Canyon to the streets of New York. Oh my goodness! So much excitement! So much love!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- View every situation in a different light before making a decision. We’re learning to establish process and procedure at Big Marble Organics while growing quickly. Recently, we were making a batch of our organic cane syrup, and it didn’t measure out quite right. To frame this up, we’re dealing with about 1,000 gallons of hot liquid. It’s an intense process and you have to think fast if it’s not coming together as planned. Dwayne is in charge of making all the batches, and he called me to get a second opinion on how we should proceed. It’s important to have a partner to run issues by and bounce ideas off of. It turns out that in this case, a few minutes on the phone gave us enough perspective to rectify an issue on the spot.
- Self-development is a key part of business strategy. If there is a limitation, I have found it starts with me. I’ve had to figure out how to lead a team, run a business and learn from my mistakes. Starting Big Marble Organics is what comes from a decade of looking hard at my bad habits and actively focusing on self-improvement.
- Embrace the fullest expression of your creativity. Big Mable Organic Ginger Beer is hyper-carbonated, which gives us bubbles that last the whole way through. Dwayne and I always lamented on how a Dark n’ Stormy went flat too quickly, or carbonated non-alcoholic beverages would fizzle out. We knew we could do better and that meant making our own carbonated beverage. A lot of companies will go to a flavor house to have their drink formula designed, and then outsource the production and packaging to someone else as well. We did not. Instead, we dove deep into the world of emulsification, seemingly endless taste testing, building out our own manufacturing plant, and bottling our ginger beer until it matched our vision.
- Stand up firmly and publicly for what is right. Our restaurant has been in business for 12 years. Up to 90 percent of new ones fail within the first year and the average restaurant’s lifespan is five years. We’ve become an industry success not by following the industry standards, but by doing what is morally right. I’m responsible for sourcing all of our ingredients at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar. Procurement for most means getting the lowest price for goods. For me, it’s my way to help my local, state, national and global economy shape itself via means of a sustainable supply chain.
We believe a sustainable business and a profitable business are one in the same. We source from folks who have responsible sourcing and that comes at a higher price than commodity goods. We have close relationships with our farmers, ranchers, fishers and purveyors. This allows us to put our dollars where they have the biggest positive impact for the planet and its people. This is a pillar of who we are and our success. These standards are also the foundation of Big Marble Organics, which led us to produce the first certified organic and fair trade ginger beer in the nation.
- Make people happy by giving them what they need. We all want to experience joy. After throwing dinner parties at my restaurant six nights per week for 12 years, I’ve come to realize that it’s the smallest, simplest things that make people happy. I could spend weeks organizing a private party, designing a new menu or the like. When people show up what they really love the most is when they get the chance to learn the story behind the food they’re eating, the cocktail they’re drinking or rum they’re sipping. I’ve found this to be true with Big Marble, too. At the end of the day it’s all food and drink. What delights us is feeling a connection between what we’re doing — eating and drinking — and it’s origin. Big Marble is ginger beer in a bottle, but I’ve seen people realize it’s much more. They’re delighted when they know when they drink a Big Marble Organic Ginger Beer they’re supporting a team who set out to do good, that the ingredients are clean, simple and sourced responsibly. I’ve come to realize that there is quite a lot to a seemingly simple sip of ginger beer.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I read the headlines to get a sense of what’s happening in the world, our nation, my state and city. I do this to get a sense of how the government is moving and of public sentiment to see how it might impact my personal life and businesses. I don’t let my heart sink, I don’t clench my jaw. I read it like it is — a matter of fact. If I think speaking up could help a situation then I do. If I can’t make an impact, then I take the information for what it’s worth and move on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Inspiring a nation of people to stand up for their right to live their lives without having to take the risk that the very things we need to survive in this modern world — our food, clothes, transportation, entertainment, etc. might harm us more than serve us.
It’s so simple. We all scramble to keep our lives on track. We need to tell big business that they can’t complicate our lives even further by dirtying our clean air, land or oceans and cannot turn a profit at the expense of human dignity.
We all want to be safe, healthy and treated fairly. We all can have this if we first agree that our neighbors deserve it as well.
We could heal our land from the misuse by commercial agriculture and manufacturing, clean the air we breathe from industry’s greenhouse gases, liberate children from sweatshops and overall live a better quality existence.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Jose Andres, for sure. He is infinitely passionate about helping people in crisis via food and has figured out how to do it on a worldwide scale. It’s not often that the passion of a culinarian is transformed into a global movement. I’d say having lunch together would be pretty darn awesome.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!