Alum builds business on growing popularity of black garlic
Black garlic tastes nothing like white. Through a 120-day fermentation process, fresh cloves turn into a rich, dark paste that is increasingly showing up on upscale restaurant plates and grocery store shelves around the world.
“People are sometimes reluctant to taste it. But when they do, they say, ‘No way!’” says UWL Alumnus Craig Dunek, ’05 &’08. “It’s crazy how it tastes. There is nothing like it.”
The novelty of this delicious food is what got Dunek hooked on growing garlic, fermenting it and building a successful business selling it across North America.
Dunek and business partner Tommy Torkelson started the business, Black Garlic North America, in August 2012. Dunek relied extensively on his undergraduate degrees in chemistry and microbiology, as well as a master’s degree in biology from UWL, to figure out how to make black garlic, which requires carefully calibrated environments for the garlic to age and ferment, changing the cell structure and flavor.
Their business has since expanded rapidly, becoming the No. 1 seller of black garlic on Amazon.com. The business now ships tens of thousands of pounds a month to customers across the U.S. and Canada.
The roots of success
The smell of garlic is potent as Dunek gives a tour of his facility, a 3,500 square-foot building on his rural La Farge, Wisconsin, property. He walks through three sections he added on as the company has grown. The fourth, now in progress, will nearly double the size of the building.
Dunek is a gardener, builder and all-around do-it-yourselfer. He built all of his own energy efficient equipment and facilities used in the garlic fermentation process, allowing the business pass savings on to customers. He and Torkelson captured the black garlic market by significantly lowering the cost to produce it.
They’ve continued to spread the word about black garlic with regular weekly visits to the Green City Market in Chicago throughout the summer. Despite their constant presence, every time they meet people who ask, “What’s black garlic?”
Before starting his business, Dunek hadn’t heard of it either. He started researching it after he realized garlic grows pretty great in rural La Farge. He planted a bulb he bought at a farmer’s market one fall, and the following summer when he dug it up, it was about the size of a baseball.
“When you cook with garlic out of garden versus at grocery store, it’s so much better,” he says. “I thought this is incredible. The world needs to experience this.”
While researching ways to commercialize garlic on the Internet, Dunek stumbled upon black garlic. But it didn’t take him long to realize that he wouldn’t be able to grow enough black garlic to meet demand. In addition to the two and a half acres of garlic he grows on his land, other garlic they ferment to sell comes from North American sources primarily in California, Mexico and Wisconsin.
Dunek’s wife, Kelly (McConnell) Dunek,’04, also earned a bachelor’s in biology and her doctorate of Physical Therapy at UWL. Dunek says her well-paying job was one of the foundational pieces to making Black Garlic North America successful.
The company now sells to distributors, stores and restaurants across the continent. It’s used as an ingredient, as well as a dietary supplement. Although the health benefits of black garlic are still being studied, Dunek has heard plenty of stories anecdotally that it lowers cholesterol. Some clinical trials have also shown that it stimulates the body’s production of antioxidants.
Dunek has perfected the process of fermentation to offer variations on the flavor, which he describes as a combination of fig, balsamic and date. They sell it in several forms including, whole bulb, peeled, powdered and pureed.
Dunek says his primary buyers have long been divided between food adventurers and health conscientious, but now the health conscientious are in the majority.
UWL research inspires
Dunek says UWL undergraduate research experience on antimicrobial agents for mushrooms made him want to continue on to earn a master’s degree. That master’s in biology studying how to make antifungal drugs from fungi helped him realize his love for combining scientific work with outdoors.
He spent time outdoors foraging for wild mushrooms and doing indoor, contemplative lab work. His current work mirrors that process.
“I liked what I was doing then, and I like what I’m doing now,” he says.
Moreover, Dunek says UWL professors instilled in him the importance of being “methodical” and “tough” when it comes to doing precise science like this.
“You didn’t just walk in and get an A. It was hard to get an A in those classes. When you worked on a project, you had to do it right. If you didn’t, they’d catch it right away,” he says. “That attitude lends to success.”