Verve Culture: Local mother-daughter duo delights in artisan gifts from other cultures
August 20, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It's lunchtime, and Jules Vertrees is casually pressing homemade tortillas.
"The thing about tortillas is that they're just like pancakes," she said. "The first one never seems to work out."
Continuing to press the simple masa flour and water mixture into her tortilla press, her second try turns out perfectly. Meanwhile, her mother, Jacquie Lewis, whips up shrimp and vegetables for the taco filling.
Jules and Jacquie aren't an ordinary mother-daughter duo. They've been working together for more than 20 years, and not just in the kitchen. Their most recent enterprise is Verve Culture, a company that specializes in artisan gifts from other cultures.
"Our products are all about experiences," Vertrees said. "People don't want unique gifts that mean something and that provide an experience; they want to go skydiving or eat in a new restaurant and post about it on social media rather than getting another outfit they don't need."
This article is from the summer issue of Steamboat Living magazine.
After studying market trends and consumer behavior, Vertrees and Lewis were encouraged to move in a new direction, away from the mass-manufactured gifts of their previous company, Australia-Steamboat Connection. When their yearlong noncompete clause ended, they started Verve Culture. The goal was to find and sell local, handmade products from countries around the world.
Mexico was their first focus.
"We love Mexico and have been going there for years," Vertrees said. "I love the food and the vibrancy of the culture and cuisine."
The proximity helped, too. Vertrees and Lewis flew back and forth a dozen times while doing research and product development.
"We initially had a few ideas for products like guacamole kits, glassware, tequila, but we got more ideas just from walking around and being inspired by the culture there," she said.
After many trips and much research, they settled on three products: the aforementioned tortilla press, a molinillo (a traditional whisk for Mexican hot chocolate) and a citrus juicer.
"We saw these juicers on every market corner and in every alley," Vertrees explained while juicing a lime for the tacos, "and I just loved them."
Vertrees and Lewis worked for over a year with Mexican artisans to develop their product line. The juicers, normally large and industrial, were created smaller and more manageable for a typical kitchen. The tortilla presses are usually steel gray, but Verve Culture's is a vibrant red.
"It's important to us that everything be what we call 'countertop worthy,'" Vertrees said. "We want the pieces to be beautiful and interesting enough to be out on your kitchen counter and to be conversation starters."
All of their products are handmade authentically in Mexico, according to Mexican culture and tradition. They're quick to point out the detail that goes into carving the molinillos.
"This is a craft that is passed down from generation to generation," Lewis said. "We want to convey the people behind the products and tell the story of their culture."
Carefully designed packaging includes the history of the item as well as personal touches. The tortilla press comes with recipes that Lewis and Vertrees wrote and tested themselves and the largest molinillo (there are three sizes) includes authentic Mexican chocolate.
When their first three products quickly got snatched up by Nordstrom, they were off and running. Now they are sold not only on their own website but also in kitchen and gourmet stores across the country, through uncommongoods.com, and locally in Steamboat at The Homesteader.
Thailand is their next focus.
"When we first got to Thailand, we went into a supermarket just to have a look around and see what was available. That's how we get inspired," Vertrees said.
But their sights were set on Thai chef's knives. While researching traditional Thai swords, they realized that today, there are knives made by the same blacksmith tradition.
"They were hard to track down. They're not on the tourist trail, so to speak," Lewis said. "We asked a local Thai chef if she knew where they came from, and she told us it was from the Ayutthaya area north of Bangkok. So we set out on an adventure trying to find the village. We stopped and asked locals as we went from town to town."
But that's all part of the fun, they insist.
"We've made some lovely relationships," Lewis said. "It's truly the essence of Verve Culture to rely on local people who share their homes, knowledge and joy in helping us."
Lewis recounts when they went to Mexico City to pack, label and ship their very first order to Nordstrom.
"There are strict timelines and guidelines so we needed to be very accurate," she said. "We had four guys helping us, none of whom speak English, and I have absolutely no Spanish, and Jules has just a little. It was hilarious using hand signals, mime and smatterings of Spanglish and laughter. After five days of 10 hours on assembly line work, we left the facility having made our new best friends."
In the future, Lewis and Vertrees hope to expand, including such other countries as Italy and Spain. But for now, back in the kitchen, the tacos are ready, complete with the homemade tortillas — all now perfectly pressed.
"We should be having margaritas," Vertrees joked, "even though it's Monday afternoon."
It's all part of the experience.