Wilmette, Community

Father-daughter duo’s Ouilmette Spice Company finds recipe for success

Variety is the spice of life, so the old saying goes. But Wilmette residents Gustav Toppenberg and his daughter Vivienne are turning that saying on its head.

They hope the peppers they plant, harvest, and turn into spicy sauces, spice-infused salts and spice mixes will provide some dining variety for folks who use them.

Their enterprise, Ouilmette Spice Company, is a father-daughter partnership that started in their Wilmette kitchen during the pandemic, expanded to the Historic Wagner Farm’s community garden and, as of last summer, continued at Wagner as vendors at the Glenview Farmers Market.

Gustav and Vivienne both said recently that Ouilmette Spice Company combines their love of at-home culinary experimentation with their passion for growing a home-based cottage business, and with the fun of finding communities of friends, fellow vendors and patrons, both at Wagner Farm and via social media.

“My original motivation was to spend more time with Vivienne,” Gustav said. “It became even more.”

The company has some of its roots in the tradition into which Gustav was born. The 44-year-old technology consultant grew up in Denmark, and he said that his parents imbued him with an appreciation for growing organic food from scratch, and for culinary experimentation: “My dad made wine, and my mom made lots of things.”

Vivienne, 10, continues that tradition. The Highcrest student loves the careful research and creative effort that she is putting into Ouilmette Spice.

A line forms to buy Ouilmette Spice Company pepper sauces and other offerings during the Glenview Farmers Market held last summer at Historic Wagner Farm. | Photo Submitted

The Toppenbergs — Gustav and Vivienne as well as Vivienne’s mom and older sister — moved to Wilmette in 2015. Once in Wilmette, Gustav continued experimenting in the kitchen.

“At one point, Dad started making sourdough bread,” Vivienne said.

She became interested in what her father was tackling in their kitchen, the two of them decided to try making some homemade salami, and she delved into research on how to create shelf-stable foodstuffs. She and her father now joke about her approach to the work.

Gustav said, “When you talk about creativity, that comes from the right side of the brain. Vivienne is left-brained, and she’s very focused on science and math. This was a chance to exercise her right brain as well, because it takes creativity to do what we do.”

“I think very literally,” she agreed, with a laugh.

After their successful salami efforts, the stage was set for further horticultural adventures. In 2019 a friend told Gustav about the community garden at Wagner Farm. After helping the friend with his garden plot, Gustav talked to Vivienne about the possibility of working on one of their own. She agreed, and after the discussion happened in late 2020, they signed up for the farm’s garden.

They planted their first crop in January of 2021 with only a few seeds. Those few created a bumper crop at harvest time that October, since a single seed generates a plant that itself generates pounds of peppers, Vivienne said.

Over the next two growing seasons, they learned a lot about how to successfully nurture peppers from seed, including the sometimes delicate balance required to transfer young plants from climate-controlled indoor spaces to the outdoors.

They learned how to use peppers to create sauces, (the latter with some help from YouTube videos), becoming adept in mashing peppers, salting and bottling the mash to ferment.

Once fermentation was complete, they added spices and additional ingredients like rosemary, cilantro and tomatillos for a finished product. They tested the sauces with the help of feedback from friends and family.

Wilmette’s Vivienne Toppenberg relocates a young pepper plant into the garden plot she and dad Gustav Toppenberg operate at Historic Wagner Farm in Glenview. | Photo Submitted

The first sauce they created for Ouilmette Spice is a pineapple- and mango-infused offering named Habanero Sunrise. Gustav said it remains his personal favorite; Vivienne likes the milder Electric Lime.

Their latest crop of sauces now includes a super-hot offering, called Fermented Fire, with a base of truly impressive peppers, including the ominously named Trinidad Scorpion.

By their 2023 growing season, Gustav and Vivienne raised 48 different pepper varieties. Last summer was also when they became vendors.

When friends and other buyers asked if Gustav and Vivienne had other products, they went back to the kitchen and created salts infused with three of their popular sauces. They remain open to more experimentation; for instance, when another vendor brought Gustav some of his fresh peaches, the eventual result was a peach-infused sauce.

They’re currently deciding next steps for the company. They don’t yet have a website and state law prevents them from selling to people outside Illinois, but they have Instagram and Facebook accounts where people can contact them to buy goods that Gustav and Vivienne then deliver.

They’ve been contacted by other area farmers markets, Gustav said, but have to determine if they can handle more.

As demand grew for their products, so did the communities in which they found themselves, from fellow pepper growers and other market vendors, to the customers who helped spread word of their business, Gustav said.

“Our social media has been so important, and we are so appreciative of people that maintain that connection,” he said. “If nothing else, this is a community story.”

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Kathy Routliffe

Kathy Routliffe reported in Chicago's near and North Shore suburbs (including Wilmette) for more than 35 years, covering municipal and education beats. Her work, including feature writing, has won local and national awards. She is a native of Nova Scotia, Canada.

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