The scent is complex, floral, evocative–comprised of hundreds of flavor and aroma compounds, real vanilla brings dishes and drinks alive. Yet most of the world’s vanilla comes from one island: Madagascar, a country off Africa’s southwestern coast.
So, when Marty Parisien and Bill Wiedmann started Singing Dog Vanilla in 2004, they contracted with farmers in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. “They have great-quality vanilla beans that have a great fruity, floral note, because of the different climate and soil,” Parisien explains. “It’s like grapes with wine. You get little differences based on growing conditions.”
Today, Singing Dog Vanilla works with more than 300 small farms, employs 12 people (including a farm manager based in Indonesia), maintains offices in Eugene and Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and brings real vanilla extracts and other products to thousands of customers worldwide.
“We’re trying to be like the Burt’s Bees of vanilla,” Parisien says. “We like being the niche market brand. Silly name, serious vanilla.”
Most vanilla suppliers work through distributors, but Singing Dog Vanilla does things differently. “No distributors, no advertising,” Parisien says. “We have a ‘go where they ain’t’ strategy. We only sell to food co-ops, independent stores. Those places all over the country are really good to us. We’re also in some large chains, but only when they will go direct. We like to maintain that direct relationship, from our retailers to our farmers.”
Singing Dog Vanilla gets their name from a canine phenomenon. Outsiders have only known about Papua New Guinea’s singing dogs since 1952. Instead of barking, singing dogs have a call that’s been likened to whale song—an unusual thing for a dog to do. For nearly 15 years, Singing Dog Vanilla has been finding success in being unusual, and in playing to each other’s strengths.
“I was good at starting businesses, but bad at running them,” Parisien says. “Bill filled that gap. He’s a production engineer, so he manages operations, and I grow the company and the brand. His job is to get the vanilla into the warehouse. My job is to get it out again. It’s a good match.”
Harvested once per year, vanilla is the only edible fruit from a certain kind of orchid. Instead of selectively buying vanilla pods, Singing Dog Vanilla buys the farmer’s entire harvest at a healthy price. Even, when supply is volatile, Singing Dog Vanilla can continue delivering high-quality vanilla to customers.
“Our farmers have an interest in the quality of the final product,” Parisien says. “They know they’ll be paid market prices plus a percentage of the final product.”
Instead of sharing profits indirectly, such as funding projects, Parisien believes the farmers are the best people to decide how profits should be used. “Villages have bought, say, over a hundred pairs of clippers for clipping orchid vines,” he says. “They’re investing in their operations—equipment, road improvements, things like that.”
Just as the tree-climbing, 30-foot vine-like orchids take years to grow harvestable vanilla pods, it’s also taken time for Singing Dog Vanilla to build relationships with the farmers they work with. “A lot of our farmers can’t afford to form co-ops or pay into Fair Trade,” Parisien says. “New farmers are now coming to us. It took a while for farmers to see we were telling the truth. We earned their trust.”
With more farmers coming on board, Singing Dog Vanilla is developing new vanilla-based products. The company also has helped support farmers affected by earthquakes during 2018, paying hospital bills and providing supplies such as water, blankets, and food.
For Parisien, Singing Dog Vanilla’s unusual setup comes down to fair trade and mutual connection. “Being able to talk with people on both coasts and the farmers has enabled so much connection,” he says. “A small cafe in Indiana may be talking to us, we field the question to our farmers, and enable that direct connection between them all.”
For a delicious shrimp and asparagus recipe by Amy Tong that features Singing Dog Vanilla’s Salt Grinder, check out our website at eugenemagazine.com.
Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus <singingdogvanilla.com/recipe>
By Amy Tong
1/2 pound asparagus, cleaned with rough ends cut off
1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
3/4 teaspoon Singing Dog Vanilla Salt (divided)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (divided)
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 teaspoons vegetable oil (divided)
Drizzle 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of ground pepper onto asparagus. Toss and set aside.
Toss together 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, and 1/2 lemon zest and add to salmon.
Preheat stovetop grilling pan to high heat. Brush pan with vegetable oil and place in asparagus. Cook the first side for two to three minutes. Flip once and grill other side of one to three minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus. Remove asparagus from pan.
Add more vegetable oil to pan and add the shrimp in a single layer. Cook one side for two to three minutes. Flip and cook other side for two to three minutes, until cooked through. Transfer to serving platter with asparagus and sprinkle with remaining lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla salt.