"Health food, local food... There was something in there, and I wasn’t sure what it was at that point, but I knew that it was time."
“I grew up very much around flowers— growing, green flowers all the time.” Laurel McConville, founder of Nectar & Green, described some of her childhood memories as the daughter of a flower shop owner in Connecticut last week when we sat down at her quaint shared kitchen in Rockport, Massachusetts.
“I was there in the sense that I was fascinated in the making and the artistry of [my mom’s] work and flowers, but also, it can’t be understated that I was around a woman who was really fierce and fearless. I was immersed in the shop in a very real way. If I didn’t have somewhere to go, I went to work with my mom. I would water the plants, trim dead leaves, fold cardboard rose boxes, especially for Valentine’s Day— I folded them by the dozens!”
Laurel, named after the flower, and born the same year her mother opened a flower shop, has a quiet gracefulness about her, but it's clear that she possesses this intensely fearless character too, as the founder of a company that has perfected hand-pressed almond milk. Nectar & Green only works with whole, organic ingredients (we counted all the ingredients on the shelf: 8 total). The almond milk is bottled in glass and delivered to clients just hours after pressing. It doesn't get much fresher than that! And not only is Laurel getting a product out there, but she’s also taking into consideration all the environmental implications-- not for marketing, or bragging rights, but simply because it feels right. Laurel never cuts corners, and she’s utilizing her business to do good and make change.
"It was almost implied that my mom expected my sisters and me each to do something equally as bold. I always had this idea that I would have a professional career for a set amount of time, and then I would likely do my own thing. That was always always ALWAYS in the back of my mind. I thought along the lines of, 'When I have my own store, or when I have my own business…' I had grown up around this lovely, romantic story, and I knew that I wanted to do that in some way, but I didn’t how, or when. And I wasn’t really able to articulate it at first. But when I started to feel that tipping point, that moment came very clearly."
So how exactly did this niche, health-focused idea come about? When she was 13 years old, Laurel became a vegetarian. "I suddenly became very opinionated overnight! My mom was SO annoyed by it, but she slowly realized it wasn’t going to change. I ate terribly in the beginning: pasta, bagels, chips and cookies. I was the worst vegetarian in high school. Then in college, it seemed to be: Cheese Everything. I was eating all this junk, and I knew I needed to make some changes. I started eating vegetables, and then I read a book that explained how chemicals are in nearly everything. You have to remember this is 2000, so this was the first time I was reading about hormones and chemicals-- that pesticides aren’t good for us. 'Organic' was not a household word. So I read this book and promptly stopped drinking things like Diet Coke, was on the lookout for chemicals, stopped eating dairy, and suddenly started feeling better."
Her progression gradually went from unhealthy vegetarian, to conscious vegetarian, all the way to raw vegan, and everything in between. "Now I just try to eat healthy. I’m way more balanced. I’ve taken a little bit from each of those experiences, and at the end of the day, I don’t feel like there’s a label that I fit into anymore, and I feel good about that."
In college, Laurel completed a combined Bachelor/Masters program in Education, specifically progressive education. She did a portion of her Masters in London, and fell in love not only with city life, but also with the food culture. And I don't mean fish & chips, or the giant blob of mayonnaise that Laurel said mysteriously seemed to appear on everything, including salads!! What fascinated her was the food shopping culture, where each little bakery, butcher shop, cheese shop, etc. really perfected the products they offered. Having grown up shopping in American grocery stores and supermarkets that attempt to be everything to everyone, Laurel felt inspired by this new perspective.
"I originally moved to Boston because it was somewhat close to home, and sort of European in feel, and just never left. I got a job at one of the only progressive public schools in the city where I taught second and third grade combined. I also led the school in urban gardening projects. We’d plant things, watch them grow over time, take them back to the classroom. My classroom had a kitchen, and we’d turn it into food for the next day. That was sort of the link of health food meets food source. With health food especially, we can look for the best things on the planet, and not think twice about where they come from (for example, goji berries, coconut oil…). We think about these very exotic ingredients when we think of healthy things. So, for me, this was health food meets local food. We don’t have to be shipping things from across the globe to be well. I think now that might seem more obvious, but to me, six or seven years ago, that felt like a novel idea. Local food was just starting to have its moment."
"After I had given seven years to my career in education, I was really proud of my work, but I felt that perfect timing to act on this entrepreneurial desire. Health food, local food, there was something in there, and I wasn’t sure what it was at that point, but I knew that it was time. It was this weird switch. I was thinking about it all the time."
After she moved on from her teaching position, Laurel worked front of house at Joanne Chang's famous Flour Bakery for a little over a year to get a sense of what makes a business that special, and that efficient. She went into it thinking she would be there no more than four months, but fell in love with it. "I hung my hat on the idea that, I’m going to work for Joanne Chang. I knew I wanted a career in food, and I was going to work for the best. It was like my informal culinary school, and I treated it very much like that. I think the people in my life understood that. I was very aware at the time that it was a particular kind of move, but I kept my eye on that ultimate vision."
When Laurel eventually left Flour to start her own business, the whole process didn't go as quickly as she had expected. "In the beginning, when you decide that you’re going to do something like this, the impulse is to incorporate EVERYTHING you love and care about into one idea. I wanted a cafe/restaurant/community space with raw food and fresh juice! I knew that the food I wanted to see, that was already in San Francisco or New York wasn’t in Boston. I wanted to bring something to Boston that wasn’t here yet. Our laser-focus now allows us to be efficient and thoughtful and really perfect what we do. Sometimes we get feedback along the lines of, 'What else are you going to deliver?' But why we wake up and do what we do isn’t about delivery. It’s about bringing a really beautiful product to people. A very specific product."
"My hope is really this idea of purity. Yes, we’re this super-niche, super-focused product; we’re one little thing in peoples' fridge. But if you start thinking about this, and you start asking questions...my hope is that as people see this, a light will go off and they’ll think, where else in my life could I be making another choice? What’s in the stuff I use in the shower? I want to educate people about the lack of regulation in a lot of items on the market, but I don’t want to hammer in scary facts. I want to instill this idea of going back to the basics: where is this stuff coming from? You’re not going to change everything in your house overnight. That’s terribly expensive and scary and overwhelming. It’s all about balance. As a company, we just want people to start thinking and asking those questions."
Lastly, Laurel's biggest piece of entrepreneurial advice was to be really clear on why you're doing what you're doing, as opposed to what you're doing. The what might change, and you have to be ready to change the what, but if you're really clear on your why, that won't matter as much. As an entrepreneur, if what you're doing is not working, but you're driven by your why, you can pivot and be more adaptable.
Almond Milk Tasting
Laurel and I tasted two of Nectar & Green's six current flavor offerings. First, we tasted Vanilla Bean, made with almonds, purified water, local sea salt, local honey and vanilla bean. The second was Matcha, made with almonds, purified water, Matcha green tea, local sea salt and local honey. For this particular tasting, what came through the most was simply this: almonds. Laurel's idea of purity is very much a reality. I love that her flavor inspirations are deeply rooted in whole, natural ingredients, and that she allows those to shine through without the bells and whistles. This doesn't mean her almond milks aren't each unique and flavorful, complex and nuanced-- they certainly are! But the almonds are the highlight, as they should be. They are, after all, almost entirely responsible for the rich, dense, creamy mouthfeel, and that perfect balance of sweet and savory.
Nectar & Green's almond milks are 30% almonds, whereas most supermarket brands are only 1%-3% almonds and typically contain a list of gums, fillers and preservatives. You too can get in on this hand-pressed almond milk party by going here. Follow along @nectarandgreen to keep up with the company's latest happenings.