Newport Mercury Loves the Ish

Haley Stern | Food entrepreneur
It’s not quite a sauce, dip or spread and yet it’s somehow all three. “Ish sauze,” as Haley Stern has dubbed her line of all-natural, vegan, preservative-free and gluten-free flavored spreads, is tricky to define. However you categorize it, the 27-year-old Newport resident is highly conscious of her ingredients and her audience. Originally conceptualized with an almond-citrus flavor, “ish” is now offered in Mango Sriracha, Chipotle Green Apple, Cilantro Jalapeño and Pesto. It’s available for purchase at select area retailers, local farmers markets and on Stern’s website,

I’m sure people have questions about the name “ish.” Could you explain this?

You know when you’re planning to meet up with friends or whomever and you’ll agree to meet at like 11-ish. “Ish” is an approximate, it’s not exact. I wanted the name to be sort of playful and fun.

Where did the idea to create “Ish sauze” come from?

I graduated from Roger Williams University in 2011 and moved out to San Diego and then Costa Rica. Traveling offered me a new perspective, which allowed me to see myself in a different light. While journeying, I saw something similar to “ish” and decided to play with the idea and make it my own.

What made you gravitate toward “sauze” as opposed to another food option?

Personally, I love sauces and spreads because they’re so accessible. People don’t always have time to cook. My vision is a delicious, ready-to-go snack for those of us who are usually on the go. Additionally, I wanted something unique. I was sick of hummus because there’s only so much you can do with it. I was also tired of looking at product labels with ingredients I couldn’t pronounce, let alone identify. “Ish” is a product I believe in because it’s all natural — it’s gluten-free, vegan and I don’t use preservatives.

What is your relationship to food/cooking?

Well, I don’t cook as much as I’d like to. But I’ve been making “ish” mostly on my own, just experimenting. I’ve always loved food. Since college I’ve worked in restaurants. I was at the Clarke Cooke House for awhile and now I’m at Caleb & Broad.

Were you studying nutrition or culinary in college?

No, I studied business. I did a sales job out of school — cold-calling, pitching ideas, gaining knowledge of distribution. All of that experience has benefited me tremendously in starting up this business.

How difficult was it to launch your line of sauces?

Difficult! I started playing with recipes and exploring flavors three years ago. The “original” came first and it was almond-based but almonds are very expensive. So I started using flax seed, pumpkin seed, navy beans and hemp in addition to the almonds. Through trial-and-error, I switched the recipe a few times.

How do you decide on your flavors?

A lot it comes out of personal preferences, so what I like to eat and what flavors I believe blend well. I started with the original almond-based flavor, which is lemony too, but I have different fruits and veggies and spices in the flavors I’ve come out with since. I also look into food trends to stay current.

Does this mean avocado’s on its way?

Maybe! (Laughs.) I have some new flavors in the works. But I can’t reveal them just yet.

So what came after you finalized the flavors? Packaging, marketing, licensing, etc?

That was pretty daunting. One major concern was shelf stability. The product has to sit on a shelf for a month or two — how am I gonna make that work? I did a lot of research this past winter, spoke with food scientists and ended up having to pay $200 for each shelf life test. It’s expensive! Then I had to figure out the licensing stuff. I needed a license for the commercial kitchen, a food peddler’s permit for the markets as well as a retail license to sell in stores. As far as marketing, I wanted a product that wasn’t just a kitschy item at the farmer’s market. I wanted it to have retail value as well, to appeal to people in grocery stores.

When did people get to try your product?

I did a food show at Hope & Main in Warren. A bunch of buyers came in to sample products. I had these stickers that I’d laminated myself, which was so tedious and then there was the issue of needing something waterproof. But a few stores signed me on for some larger orders so that was exciting! Also I have proper labels now.

Where do you make “ish”?

I was using the kitchen at Caleb & Broad for a while. Rich Willis, the owner, was really supportive. Currently I work out of Newport Cooks in Middletown.

You’ve mentioned Caleb & Broad, where you currently work. From who/where else have you received support?

My friends and family have been supportive. A friend of mine, Mike Corseri, designed my website. The farmers market community has been wonderful too. I don’t know where I would be without the support of other vendors who have given me advice and confidence to keep going. Jess Filkins, who created Jahmu Chai, was particularly helpful and inspiring.

How do you find the farmers’ market scene?

Farmers’ markets are fun and the people are really friendly. I’ve sold my products at the URI market, Newport Vineyards, Memorial Boulevard in Newport and Casey Farm in Saunderstown. I’ve made a lot of friends that way; it’s community-building. But each space is different. At a lot of the markets people are really looking to spend money to grocery shop. Memorial in particular differs because we’ll get a lot more foot traffic but people are often just looking. There are a lot of tourists who pass through on their way to the beach.

Who are your customers?

My target market ranges in age from young adults to seniors. They’re people who are health conscious, active and maybe living an adventurous lifestyle. Because I’m using local, organic ingredients I recognize that my customers can afford to spend a little extra money on food that is good for them. You know, college kids might not be able to splurge $8 on a boojie sauce. I get that.

What are you doing currently?

Right now I’m trying to keep up with the markets and push my product into more stores. I’ve got some new flavors coming out soon. I’m just beginning to see my hard work come to fruition. Finding containers was one of the last big challenges, mainly just struggling to get them at an affordable price. But I’m in a good place now and looking forward to what’s ahead.

What are your plans for the future? Expansion?

I want to partner with a few restaurants and breweries. I definitely have my sights set on Whole Foods. But I’d like to offer different forms of my product, such as single-serve packages. I’m hoping to sell beyond Rhode Island, too. I’m also thinking about hiring people to assist me sometime in the near future since I’ve mostly been on my own. I think providing people with well-paying jobs is important, as well as employing women of color because they don’t always receive fair job opportunities. I think it’d be a fun work environment.

Any words of advice for people entering into similar endeavors?

Be consistent and don’t give up. I truly believe that the biggest difference between people who are successful and those who are not is consistence and persistence. I’ve faced some hardships getting into this business but I’ve pushed myself and learned a lot along the journey.

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