Ideas for food-related businesses can come from any number of sources—recipes passed down through generations, years spent working in the restaurant scene or even healthy alternatives to what’s already on the market. For Caylie See and her partner Andrew Perzigian, the inspiration to create Yum Yum Tonics came out of the desire to heal others. Both certified acupuncturists, their vinegar-based tonics were originally intended to boost the health of the their patients at the practice they shared in San Francisco.
As practitioners of Chinese medicine, Caylie said she and Andrew were accustomed to prescribing not only Chinese herbs and tinctures for their patients but they also routinely made casual dietary recommendations, such as using apple cider vinegar on a daily basis to help the balance the digestive system. Those recommendations, as well as the ancient folk wisdom gained from Chinese medicine, served as the launching pad for the two to form a company selling tonics to the public, as well.
Although the word “tonic” has become to be associated with any sort of soft drink in many parts of the country, tonics were initially meant to be medicinal and taken as a restorative measure. They’ve also recently made a comeback in the cocktail scene, where they’re also known as “shrubs.”
“Vinegar is an ancient folk remedy,” Caylie said. “It’s sort of like, you know, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where they used Windex for everything? That’s how vinegar is in medicine, and it’s actually quite well-backed with some pertinent research around vinegar’s efficacy for things like digestive disorders, regulating blood sugar, bolstering immunity.”
An acupuncturist for about 15 years, Caylie admitted there isn’t necessarily anything “profound” in how she came to practice Chinese medicine or pursue creating a line of custom-made tonics. In fact, she realized pretty early in her career that she wanted to pursue Chinese medicine. After stints where she “dabbled” in other jobs, like glassblowing and her first job—as a fishmonger (following in her fisherman father’s footsteps and building on her early memories of being out on the fishing boat with him hauling in crab)—she was on the course to pre-med and taking Chinese language classes when she decided to attend Emperor’s College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Los Angeles to get her training as an acupuncturist. “I always had an interest in herbology and concocting things,” she said.
Once Caylie started exploring Chinese medicine she says she began to understand better the reasons why these things had interested her. For Caylie, Chinese medicine combined what interested her—culture, creativity and science, how they relate to each other and how science and nature converge.
In fact, much of Caylie’s research as a practitioner has revolved around not just the overlay between nature and science but also how Chinese and Western medicine converge.
So when a patient recommended that Caylie and Andrew formalize the idea of making tinctures for sale, the two began to spend more and more time formulating tonics outside of the practice. And as they started seeing their patients have good results from the tonics, they became more and more excited about the possibilities that productizing their formulas could have.
“It was not just the clinical results, but the results of introducing Asian concepts in a very palpable way,” Caylie said.
In fact, before they developed the tonics, Caylie said she had also tried to “jazz up Chinese medicine a bit,” by incorporating Chinese herbs into chocolates to make them easier for patients to take. Many Chinese herbs—if you’ve ever taken them—are not particularly palatable and can literally be difficult for many people to swallow. “They don’t inherently taste very good but it’s very good medicine,” Caylie said.
As with any medicine, Chinese herbs won’t work if they’re not taken consistently, so faced with the reality of how they tasted, there was also a practical component to trying to give patients their herbs in a formula that they’d be more likely to take, Caylie said. She said she also wanted to experiment with tastier ways of providing medicine because part of her philosophy in her practice has also always been to “make it fun” and “incorporate [Chinese medicine] into real life.” In addition to her chocolate-herb concoctions, Caylie also experimented in the practice with a variety of different mediums for delivering herbs to patients for consumption, from tinctures to honey and, of course, vinegar.
“Things are soluble in vinegar so it extracts some of the pertinent aspects of a plant’s property and makes it usable or digestible,” she said. In fact, Caylie said, there is a fair amount of substantiated research showing that vinegar-based tonics are good for a range of physical ailments from balancing blood sugar and digestive disorders (including things like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease) to reducing inflammation. In addition, vinegar also simulates the metabolic process so it’s often touted as a way to jumpstart weight loss, Caylie said.
When Caylie and Andrew began researching the properties of vinegar, they discovered a rich history. For example, legend has it that Caesar’s army used vinegar to “sustain their vitality” while they were conquering Europe, Caylie said.
“It just pops up in all these wonderful kind of pieces of history and mythology and literature. The Chinese used to call it ‘bitter wine,’ she said.
According to Caylie, it’s the probiotic aspect of vinegar and the fermentation process that contribute to things like better digestion. In addition to using low temperature cooking to modulate the fermentation process while they make the infusions, some raw apple cider vinegar is also added to each batch of tonic to help retain the probiotic properties.
Because many of the principles of Chinese medicine are rooted in seasonality and being in harmony with the seasons, Caylie said she and Andrew started looking for local fruits and herbs at the farmer’s market to include in their concoctions, all of which start with an apple-cider vinegar base that is sourced from a local, organic provider.
“We just started throwing them in a batch of vinegar to see what happened. And of course, [we were] drawing on research on what’s already been done in vinegar concoctions,” she said.
Caylie says the company works directly with area farmers to create one or two flavors per season, each of which may change based on what produce is particularly good that year. Yum Yum Tonics has included flavors such as lemon and tarragon, blackberry and thyme, ginger and honey, elderberry and honey and seasonal flavors such as strawberry rhubarb, persimmon and cinnamon or fig and rosemary. The ginger and honey and elderberry and honey tonics are available year-round – both are appropriate take all year and good for the immune system at any time, Caylie said.
And the tonics don’t need to be limited to just medicinal use—they’re also good for cocktails and can be used for salad dressings or marinades—they basically have the same flexibility as any vinegar, Caylie said.
Caylie and Andrew both enjoy cooking, she said, and the more they consumed their products themselves, they realized they could use the vinegars in other ways. “We just started playing with it, and we realized this is perfectly conducive to cooking with. Because it really is a libation primarily it made sense to start looking at it beyond just drinking it in water and look at how does it go with alcohol as a mixer.”
“On a practical level, I think of it as edible and drinkable,” Caylie said. Sold as a concentrate, one bottle contains of Yum Yum tonic contains about 15 servings. “It’s really good for a daily dose using one-part concentrate and eight-parts sparkling water, Caylie said and “it’s a great cocktail medium.” In fact, the tonics are currently being used in bars in Hong Kong for their burgeoning cocktail scene.
According to Caylie, the two have been building the business slowly and will continue to do that so they can grow sustainably and refine the product as needed. Over the two years they’ve been in business, many of the issues they’ve had to deal with centered around production, she said. But they recently signed a co-packer, so that should help. The products are currently available at stores such as Bi-Rite, Rainbow Foods and other small purveyors like a honey shop in Alameda and they will soon be available at local Whole Foods stores.
What drew you to food?
Well, what hasn’t drawn me to food? It’s always at the heart of my adventures. Most of my travel has revolved around seeking out different culinary delights and—from hospitable hole in the walls all over the world (including an unfortunate blow fish experience) to a 29-course dining experience at El Bulli—food is essentially my primary motivation for everything.
Why drinking vinegars/shrubs?
This stemmed from my Chinese medicine influence and inspiration of acclimating the American palate to Asian tastes. Shrubs are a way to incorporate some fundamental Chinese medicine principles, including recognition of being aligned with the seasons as an aspect of health, and of course there’s the plant-based component, as well. Shrubs really perfectly bottle a dose of Chinese medicine for palatable, daily consumption.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
A San Francisco-based food business is in my roots. My family started a local chocolate company in the early 1900’s that is still thriving.
Also, growing up, my mom grew all of our food in her garden and made my baby food and really relished in food preparation. That relationship to the process of growing food and creatively cooking with good quality ingredients has always been deeply ingrained in me and continues to inspire me.
I’ve also actively observed the profound effects of food as medicine in my Chinese medicine practice.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Most of what we’ve learned has been by trial and error. My main advice would be to identify the advice you need along the way and seek it out. I also highly recommend sticking with the metric system when working on the precision and scaling up of recipes.
Also, be sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Folks like us love food, we love supporting our local farmers and food industry, and we get excited about creating something that others enjoy. And the passion, combined with a product that others enjoy, will help sustain your endeavors.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
We’ve found that this process has been one of many small challenges as opposed to any particular large obstacle.
The realities of production (up against the conceptual model of making something) have been food for thought.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
By far the best part about this is the people. Everyone from grocery buyers, stockers, store owners, our co-packer and all the other food producers in our community…they are all such amazing and inspiring people. It is really nice to be a part of a community that loves what they do… From the top down, everyone seems genuinely happy and committed to making the world a little better through food. Plus, I get to concoct and imbibe cocktails.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Blackberry & thyme represents our seasonal and herbaceous flavor profile really well.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Michelle Pusateri is the purveyor of Nana Joe’s Granola. I met her in our shared building, the American Industrial Center (AIC) in the Dogpatch. The AIC used to be a cannery and that whole area has incredible historical significance in SF’s original food industry and trade. Michelle’s granola is an homage to her grandparents, and she truly adheres to the old world style of integrity in her ingredients and production.
[See the Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes interview with Michelle here.]
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
There’s so many great restaurants here, but comfort food always wins me over. So, Eggs in Jail at Outerlands is a go-to.
Yum Yum Tonics
Photos courtesy of Caylie See, Yum Yum Tonics.