Stir Crazy

Arthur Shelmandine is cooking up something good

by Heleigh Bostwick

arthurArthur Shelmandine, a confessed child of the ’70s, has an eclectic background that runs from the manufacture of sports bags to freelance graphic design. These days, the founder and owner of the Jericho gourmet food business It’s Arthur’s Fault! whisks up sauces in the commercially licensed kitchen in Jericho that he designed.

After graduating from high school in 1971, Arthur Shelmandine attended four different colleges. Taking courses in graphics, fine arts, drawing, painting, and photography, he also managed to work a multitude of part-time jobs — everything from running the family service station in Florida to working for the airlines, bartending at a disco and a hotel, and doing sales and design work for a backpack and luggage manufacturer.

“What can I say?” says Shelmandine. “It was the ’70s.”

It may have been the ’70s, but no matter where he was or what he was doing, two things always remained at the forefront of his interests in life: aviation and food. The “food” interest is what led to the eventual launch of his Jericho gourmet food business, It’s Arthur’s Fault!.

“My dad worked for the airlines and my grandmother ran a cafeteria for a few years,” says Shelmandine, who grew up as part of a large family in Amsterdam, N.Y., near Schenectady. “My first job was in the coffee shop at the Albany Airport when I was in high school.”

Still in college, in 1973, he took a job designing and selling sports bags for Tough Traveler, a company owned by a fellow he had known since high school. After leaving college in ’76, he continued with the company “off and on” until 1979. Along the way he met Laurel Burnstine.

“I met Laurel at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in Petersburg, N.Y., where I was displaying and selling sports bags,” he recalls. Another year would pass before he again saw Laurel, whose family ran the festival.

“When we met up again she became a client and then we ended up going out,” he says. “It was a tumultuous romance.” Nonetheless, on April 30, 1977, they married.

At the time, Laurel was running Earth Works, an art and craft gallery in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “She was visiting Herman’s Sporting Goods to sell them some things, and met with the bag buyer, who I had been trying to see. I had made some cases for her to schlep around her samples,” Shelmandine says.

The buyer wanted to meet Shelmandine. “I came up with a pocket duffel,” he says. “One of the end pockets came off and it became a shoulder bag. He loved it and wanted to buy it, except the company I was working for thought it was too expensive for what they were looking to do. The buyer gave me a very large order for it — $75,000 — so I left the company and went on my own.”

Needing to act fast, he and Laurel put out an advertisement for sewers. The ad brought a mysterious phone call from a man asking to come and talk. “He said, ‘I’ve been involved in the needle trade,’” says Shelmandine. “We gave him some homemade bread and butter pickles, Wheat Thins, and he said, ‘I’d really like to help you guys out,’ and gave us a check for 20 grand.”

Using the $20,000 investment as seed capital, Earth Traveler luggage was born, along with Kangaroo Koncepts, a private label. The Shelmandines sold their bags to Herman’s, Bloomingdales, Dansk International, and others, and had POP (point of purchase) product displays at a number of travel agencies.

The business thrived until 1981 when the labor laws in New York state changed. “We ran into the same problem many businesses did at that time: Workers, like the sewers we used, were no longer allowed to work out of their homes,” Shelmandine says.

He took a job with CB Sports and the couple moved to the Bennington area. While there, he designed a line of sports bags for the company and helped out with outwear engineering construction. He left after a year to do consulting for several sewing businesses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before a lot of them went out of business as the needle trade moved offshore.

Falling back on his graphic design skills, Shelmandine freelanced for major clients such as Orvis, Enchanted Dollhouse, and Alpine Slides, and taking any other smaller design jobs he could find. During the winter, he worked in the snow-making control room at Stratton Mountain, which meant free skiing, something he still loves.

Always the designer and entrepreneur, Shelmandine noticed that the fanny packs the ski patrol used kept falling down around their knees. It was only a matter of time before the ski patrol was sporting brand new fanny packs he had designed for them.

Something else happened while Shelmandine was working at Stratton. “I used to go to the same deli every day for lunch,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking — all the men in my family cook — and one day they asked me to bring in some of the food I made. Soon I was bringing over five-gallon containers of noodles and peanut sauce or sweet and sour soup, 60 mini quiches, hazelnut tortes, and so on.”

Shelmandine’s foray into commercial cooking came to a halt when Laurel was hired by IDX in South Burlington in 1991 and the family, which now included daughters Marikje and Annalise, moved north to Jericho.

When Laurel’s work took them to San Francisco, Shelmandine stayed busy cooking up a variety of confections and sending them back east to friends and family who raved about his caramel and hot fudge sauces, truffles, and chocolate turtles.

Right after Christmas 1992, Shelmandine designed a label for his products. A friend of a friend who had a health store in Underhill asked if he would make some of his products for her store. He did so, happily, and when Laurel’s work was finished on the West Coast, the family moved back to Jericho, and It’s Arthur’s Fault! became a full-time family business, incorporating in 2000.

“Each person’s role here is very different, says Marikje, who is 29. “We each have our own thing to do. I work Monday to Friday, and my role is to fulfill store orders, design production schedules, and supervise employees making the products. I also handle marketing-related things and am the art director.”

Shelmandine develops all of the recipes for the products and creates recipes that use the products. He works the farmers’ markets, takes care of any graphic design work that needs to done, and creates the menus for the classes he teaches in his commercially licensed kitchen, which he designed himself.. “I do the manufacturing and engineering part of it,” he says, “and specify how the ingredients are handled for a recipe.”

“My family has known the Shelmandines for many years,” says Nina Lesser-Goldsmith, co-owner and food education coordinator at Healthy Living Market. “Arthur teaches cooking classes in the learning center — mostly savory preparations, grilling, and simple Asian recipes. He explains the science behind what’s happening to food and likes to focus on how to help people use his products.”

Annalise, age 23, is a full-time student at Johnson State, teaches voice, and directs the church choir. “When I can — usually at nights — I do the books and payroll,’ she says. “Sometimes I do the farmers’ markets and am the sous chef for cooking classes that Dad teaches.”

Laurel oversees accounting and human resources, but is currently on assignment in Maine where she lives during the week. “Since she has been on the road for the better part of 25 years, she scopes out locations, and then we go to visit her,” says Shelmandine.

“Her main job when she’s home on the weekends is mediation and calming practices,” says Annalise. “Running a family business can be really stressful.” There are three other part-time employees who are not family members.

In the last several years, Shelmandine says, business has really taken off, in part because It’s Arthur’s Fault! has been written up in Wine Spectator, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Marikje nods. “Normally business slows down in January, but this year was the first time that stores were ordering cases of products that early,” she says. “We actually had to stop taking on any new stores around June of this year because we couldn’t make the sauces fast enough!”

Shelmandine continues. “We’re no longer just a small Vermont company, but our business model is slow growth. We aren’t interested in selling to chain markets like Whole Foods,” he says.

“Whenever an article comes out about them, people come in looking for their products,” says Suzanne Boyajian, a buyer for Sweet Clover Market in Essex. “We like that they are local, and carry all of their sweet sauces — the caramel and chocolate as well as the peanut sauces and marinades — in the store.”

Next spring, the company is planning to introduce a new product line: flavored syrups made with the likes of Mexican vanilla beans, Valencia oranges, organic Vermont-grown cantaloupe, chocolate mint (grown in the Shelmandines’ garden), and New England cranberry.

Products are rarely retired to make room for new ones, says Marikje, adding that people get upset if their favorite sauce is no longer available.

“Remember the deli in Stratton that Dad used to make the noodles and peanut sauce for?” asks Marikje. “Twenty-seven years later, they still remembered that peanut sauce and called us to place an order.”