Products From Three Female Food Entrepreneurs in Denver Highlight Culinary Collaboration | Westword

Products From Three Female Food Entrepreneurs Highlight Culinary Collaboration

All three women are small-batch food makers and regulars at local markets and bazaars, and they're also all pandemic pivoters.
Margaret Restivo (left) and Lindsey O'Neil, local makers, friends and collaborators.
Margaret Restivo (left) and Lindsey O'Neil, local makers, friends and collaborators. Margaret Restivo and Lindsey O'Neil
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In many cities, the food scene can be competitive, but in Denver, culinary creativity often stems from collaboration. That's what happened when a sauce made by one local maker inspired a brittle from another, which is now being used in a cookie from a third. The trio behind this food business daisy chain is Ali Schlichter of Chin Dribblin’, Margaret Restivo of Ms Margaret Maker and Lindsey O’Neil of Send Flours Baking.

All three women are small-batch food makers and regulars at local markets and bazaars, and they're also all pandemic pivoters.

The collaboration idea started with O’Neil. Before COVID hit, she spent twenty years as an event planner and was working at the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek in 2020 when she was furloughed because of the pandemic. “Since I felt secure that I was going back to a job in about sixty days, I decided that I wanted to really try to take advantage of this gift of time I had been given,” she remembers.

O'Neil had always been an avid baker, and had a reputation among her friends for bringing stellar desserts to any gathering. For her father’s seventieth birthday, she stocked her parents' freezer with frozen cookie dough that they could enjoy as a treat after dinner. Even after the birthday stash was depleted, her father kept nagging her for re-ups of his frozen cookie dough fix, she recalls.

The pandemic gave her time and space for creativity, so she started to develop her own recipes, experimenting with the creative flavor combinations that would eventually evolve into Send Flours Baking favorites, such as the malted vanilla Pudgy Boyfriend cookie with pretzel crunch, peanut butter and chocolate chips, and the Snack Attack, which is inspired by the kind of cheese crackers and peanut butter sandwiches found in many elementary-school lunch boxes.

For sixty days in 2020, O'Neil became a cookie fairy, dropping off treats at the doorsteps of neighbors and friends, all the while expecting to rejoin the workforce soon. But when she and her co-workers showed up at the Marriott for a meeting two months into the pandemic shutdown, they were told they were being laid off for good.
click to enlarge two products in brown packaging
A sauce that inspired a cookie that was in need of a brittle.
Helen Xu
“I let myself wallow over the weekend of getting laid off, and then I was like, ‘I think I’m going to have a cookie dough business now,’” she says. She did her first bake sale in May 2020 at FlyteCo Brewing at 38th and Tennyson. That’s where she met Schlichter of Chin Dribblin', who supplies FlyteCo with its curried beer mustard. Schlichter started her sauce brand during the pandemic, after years of running restaurants and feeling burnt out. Since that time, both she and O’Neil have become staples at markets, festivals and bazaars in the metro area.

After becoming friends following the FlyteCo gig, O’Neil and Schlichter decided to share a booth at the Sloan’s Lake Spring Bazaar this past May. They tossed around the idea of creating a cookie around Schlichter’s Spicy Pineapple Peanut sauce for the event.

O’Neil was convinced that the flavor profile would be amazing in her peanut butter cookie dough. “[I] just wanted the notes of the spicy, the sweet, the lime and the ginger to play on the flavors," she explains.

She started testing the idea using an adapted version of her grandmother’s brittle recipe. The results were promising, but there was one problem: Making a one-off batch of brittle wasn’t a big deal for O’Neil, but making it in bulk was not a business she wanted to get into. Brittle is a specialty confection, and as a baker, she had no desire to have to frequently deal with caramel.

That's because caramel is "the napalm of the kitchen," jokes Restivo, whose business, Ms Margaret Maker, exclusively makes gluten-free, nut-free, vegan pumpkin seed brittle. She and O'Neil met in February when they were booth neighbors at the Valentine’s Bazaar in Belmar. They instantly bonded over their similar histories: Both grew up near St. Louis before moving to Denver and turning their passion projects into businesses.

Back in St. Louis, Restivo had trained as a pastry chef at L’Ecole Culinaire and worked at Truffles in Ladue, which is where she developed her pumpkin brittle recipe in 2011. “It was around the holidays, and my grandma used to make peanut brittle when I was a kid as a holiday treat,” Restivo explains. "I was feeling really nostalgic, and I decided to sneak it onto the cookie plate we had on the menu. But the pastry chef in me just went, ‘I can make this better. I can make this lighter and sexier [by substituting pumpkin seeds for peanuts].'"

The brittle quickly became a hit. In 2012, Restivo moved to Denver and continued her culinary career at Linger, but once COVID shut down restaurants, she decided to take advantage of the Cottage Foods Act to sell her pumpkin seed brittle directly to consumers. She officially incorporated Ms Margaret Maker in December 2020, then spent six months perfecting her recipes, sourcing ingredients and designing labels and packaging.

Adjusting from a commercial kitchen to her home kitchen wasn’t without its obstacles. She was used to the perks of having suppliers deliver ingredients to the restaurant’s doorstep. Now she was coordinating pickups for 200 pounds of raw pumpkin seeds by herself. Once she nailed down the recipe and process, her first market was the Sloan’s Lake Bazaar in June 2021.

Almost two years later, at the same market, O’Neil posed the question of collaborating: Would Restivo be interested in developing a Thai-spiced pumpkin seed brittle inspired by Schlichter's Spicy Peanut Pineapple sauce that would then go into her Thai Dye For peanut butter cookie? “Then we would have this cookie that incorporates three women who met doing these markets, who all started our businesses around the same time,” says O’Neil.

Restivo needed no convincing. “I bought a bottle of sauce from Ali that day and then went home and started playing,” she recalls. It took three iterations, but she came up with a recipe that infuses her caramel base with lemongrass extract, fresh ginger, lime peel and kaffir lime leaf. Then she makes the pumpkin seed brittle as normal before sprinkling on dehydrated lime zest and chili flakes.

She describes the flavor as a roller coaster: It starts out spicy, “and then the lime kind of kicks in, the ginger sweeps in and rounds out the heat,” Restivo says. “Then you get some good, almost palate-cleansing heat and some brightness from the lime zest.”

Top of mind in developing this new “collabrittle,” as it's called on the packaging, was ensuring a balance of flavors that stay true to the sauce and achieving a texture that would work well with O’Neil’s cookie dough. As for the cookie, O’Neil crunches up the brittle and mixes it into her classic peanut butter dough, then sprinkles the top with more pieces of brittle before baking. The resulting treat is soft and gooey, with occasional bursts of heat and citrus and lovely crunchies throughout from the brittle melting and re-caramelizing.

“We don’t have co-workers anymore, so our other vendors are like our co-workers and collaborators that we can bounce ideas off of. And so it’s just cool, and Margaret is always so excited about things, so it’s fun to work with her on stuff,” says O’Neil.

Schlichter echoes the sentiment: “It’s been such a fun ride and such a fun time collaborating with such incredible makers. Both Lindsey and Margaret are so talented, and I love having them as friends, and amazing inspiration for women in business. I’m so grateful for all the relationships I’ve built in this community,” she says.

The collaboration has helped all of their businesses, especially when all three happen to be at the same market. “I tell people, ‘Oh, if you like this cookie, you should go see Margaret and get the brittle, and then go right next door to Ali, and she has the sauce.' All three of us are doing our version of that,” says O’Neil.

They are already talking about doing more collaborations, as well as possibly selling each other’s items. Other future plans are in the works, too. “I would like to have a bakery-coffee shop and then do production in the back for the frozen cookie dough,” says O’Neil.

“Ultimately, I hope the brittle business leads me to be able to open a restaurant or cafe of my own," Resitvo adds. "That was always the dream."

Chin Dribblin’, Ms Margaret Maker and Send Flours Baking will all be on hand for the Four Mile Historic Park Pumpkin Festival October 14 and 15. For more information, follow them on Instagram @chindribblinllc, @ms.margaretmaker and @sendfloursbakingco.
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