CEDAR RAPIDS — Sara Gotch loved classic diner dishes like chicken and tuna salad sandwiches. What she didn’t love were the calories present in the mayonnaise at the base of those salads.
She had an idea — what if she substituted lower-fat Greek yogurt instead? But the taste wasn’t quite right.
So she started experimenting, playing around with spices and other ingredients to try to mimic the flavors of mayonnaise with yogurt.
“I turned my parents’ basement into a chemistry lab,” she said.
Coming up with the right combination of spices and ingredients — things like dried mustard and powdered eggs — was a process that took her about two months to perfect, but at the end, her business Gnarly Pepper was born.
She sells a “Like Mayo” mix, designed to be mixed into Greek yogurt and substituted for mayonnaise, along with veggie and onion dip mixes.
“Greek yogurt is the same texture as mayo,” she said. “But Greek yogurt has less calories. By subbing out those calories, it’s a healthier alternative.”
She previously worked as a graphic designer in Sioux City and started a photo printing business there, Lovoto, which she still runs as a creative design company.
Once she started that business, she said she got the entrepreneurship bug. It allowed her to be creative while solving problems for her customers.
“That feeling of being my own boss was the driving force,” she said.
So she decided to pursue another of her ideas — she keeps a list on her phone — and that led to starting Gnarly Pepper about two years ago. Until now, her spice blends have been sold online and through specialty shops and grocery stores, including 36 Hy-Vees.
She and her fiance have moved a lot in the last few years, as he traveled for his job, living on the East and West Coasts, Minnesota and Wisconsin. When they were ready to settle in one place, he found a job in Cedar Rapids.
It was time to take Gnarly Pepper to the next step, Gotch
decided, and she contacted NewBo City Market after they moved to Cedar Rapids.
The stand opened March 7 and is open during the market’s regular hours.
With the NewBo location, she’s showing off her spice blends in prepared food like sandwiches and salads. She mixes her blends into County View Dairy yogurt and then crafts items like Chakra Chicken Salad or Yolk-O-Ono Egg Salad, served, on a croissant, in a spinach wrap or in a lettuce boats. She also sells salads to go along with pre-made dips.
“My main goal is to let people eat a very traditional tuna salad, egg salad or chicken salad, with Greek yogurt, and hopefully they can’t tell the difference between that and mayo,” she said.
She hopes to expand her menu in the future with more adventurous dips and spreads such as tartar sauce, aronia berry, chipotle and horseradish blends.
Playing with flavors is one of her favorite things, she said.
“Looking, tasting, fine dining, good wine — all that stuff is what makes me happy,” she said. “I love cooking at home.”
And with the market, she gets the added benefit of instant feedback.
“I like interacting with customers,” she said. “I like making people feel happy that they can indulge without feeling guilty.”
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If You Go
• What: Gnarly Pepper
• Where: NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
• Details: email firstname.lastname@example.org, gnarlypepper.com