Considering how completely beautiful their stuff is both inside and out, it should come as no surprise that Empire Mayo is the brainchild of Elizabeth Valleau and Sam Mason, a graphic designer and chef, respectively. If they sound like an odd couple, it’s simply because that’s just what they are, and like so many other great odd couples, they were set up by a mutual friend. “This friend heard me say I wished there were fancy mayos on the market. I’m not a chef, but was interested in getting out of advertising and into the food business. This friend introduced me to Sam, and I was completely starstruck.” Foodworld fangirl that she was, Elizabeth knew Sam right away from his work at New York City’s own temple of molecular gastronomy, WD-50.
The two hit it off, discovering a shared love of comforting, familiar foods (aka all things mayo). Seeing a hole in the market, they moved quickly. Elizabeth designed the bold, colorful, impossible-to-miss packaging and Sam called in favors all over the city. “We tested recipes in Wylies’ kitchen at WD-50, we tested at The Vanderbilt, we called everyone we could. Sam took a lot of time to tinker, and what we discovered is that the best method for us was cold infusion. The method sets us apart. It allows our flavors and colors to be so completely brilliant and bright.”
They debuted at Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea the summer of 2011, and discovered that there was indeed as much demand as they’d guessed. “Smorgasburg and the Flea are such great brand incubators, we sold out every single week from Day One.”
Because of the demanding process – Sam still makes every single batch by hand – they needed their own kitchen, which is what ultimately lead them to build their crazy-adorable storefront in the Prospect Heights. “This little store is actually our commercial space and Sam makes them all by hand in a walk-in kitchen. Nobody expected a store devoted to mayo, but it’s awesome to be here, to meet our neighbors. But the real impetus was to have ideal working conditions for the cold emulsions. Which was really impossible to do in a shared kitchen like so many of our small-batch colleagues do.”
Working with such a perfectly blank slate, they pull flavor inspiration from all over the place. “Within this amazing New York City food community, we’re always talking about flavor. Sam has a particular style that perhaps comes from his pastry background – sort of an unexpected merging of sweet and savory, with rare and unusual combinations.”
Business is flourishing and the two are clearly thrilled at the progress. They’ve even begun to daydream about expanding the 'Empire' to include other products. But at the moment, the fancy mayo business is keeping them quite busy, and happily so. “We’ve made something out of nothing! That’s a great feeling. It’s great to be an innovator, to start a business with people we really like and do it exactly the way we wanted. We basically sit in the shop for hours every week talking about flavor. The whole process is just too much fun.”