FOX POINT - A Fox Point man who started fermenting vegetables in his kitchen three years ago is now leading a fermented vegetable movement, landing his product in Whole Foods, Sendik's and other grocers throughout the Midwest.
Jeff Ziebelman had already experimented with fermentation by making beer and sourdough bread, but he hadn't thought of fermenting vegetables until his former girlfriend, a nutritionist, told him about the explosion of fermentation in the nutritional field. He started cutting and fermenting vegetables, and within a few weeks, he debuted his unique sauerkraut and kimchi products at the Fox Point Farmers Market.
Ziebelman continued to learn more about fermentation, and he worked with the Milwaukee Area Technical Colleges Culinary Institute and several equipment manufacturers to determine the perfect measurements for the vegetables slices.
He also worked on developing his brand. The logo on the jars was derived from the "z" on the chimney of his parents' house in Oconomowoc, where he was raised. His company name, Zymbiotics, combined the "z" from his last name with "symbiotics," a reference to the mutually beneficial relationship between our bodies and the microbes created by fermentation.
Although fermentation is trending at the moment, the concept is anything but new. Ziebelman said food fermentation is a process that is thousands of years old, dating back to ancient Rome and the construction of the Great Wall of China. By combining the chopped vegetables with brine in a closed bucket, a naturally-occurring Lactobacillius converts the starches and sugars of the vegetables into enzymes and bacteria that have been proven beneficial for our digestive system, immune system and mental health.
Ziebelman has heard about the health benefits from his customers through phone, social media and the multiple farmers markets he has frequented over the years. Just a couple tablespoons a day has helped people with digestive disorders and acid reflux disorders.
"I've had people tell me that after a couple weeks they are able to go off Prilosec," he said, referring to a heartburn medication. "It's not just a business for me. I'm helping people. It's not just a business transaction. It's about relationships."
Zymbiotics has four products: Jeff's Zauerkraut, Jeff's Ginger Zarrots, Jeff's Zimchi and Jeff's Vegan Zimchi. Each product has a tart, tangy taste that has been carefully considered by Ziebelman. He is in the process of developing a fourth flavor using fermented beets. He would also like to develop a seasonal category that would rotate throughout the year.
Most of what Ziebelman has learned about fermentation has been acquired through his own research. He had always enjoyed gardening, and at UW-Madison, he studied geology, ecology and the history of science. His professional life has varied from computer sales to commodity trading to importing pianos from the former Soviet Union. He was able to quit his day job about a year ago when Zymbiotic sales started taking off, demanding his full attention.
Zymbiotic products can now be found in 20 Whole Foods stores, all Outpost stores and all Balistreri's Sendik's stores. Festival Foods recently approved his products in all 26 Wisconsin stores, and he's also been approved for all Woodmans stores. A full list of retail locations can be found on the Zymbiotics website.
All of the food production work occurs in a facility on 6th Street, south of Howard Avenue, in Milwaukee's Garden District. The company has six employees at the moment, but Ziebelman plans to double the number of employees by the end of the year. Zymbiotics is already carried at Whole Foods stores throughout the Midwest, but Ziebelman hopes to expand his distribution to other stores in the Midwest in the future.