When asked what quality she likes most in people, Kristen Desmond, the owner of Flagstone Pantry, answers, “Sincerity. What you see is what you get. No hidden agendas.”
She might as well be talking about her business. Flagstone is the open kitchen and deli counter at the Santa Barbara Public Market that offers food prepared fresh daily in ridiculously small batches with a focus on wholesome, natural, and seasonal ingredients. There’s complete transparency, for the food is prepared before your eyes, and Kristen’s genuineness as she interacts with customers is obvious.
She comes from a long line of people who cook, and became interested in nutrition in her mid-thirties. “I changed the way I cook and the way I eat,” says Kristen, who runs marathons along with her husband. “It’s amazing what healthy eating and living does for you.”
Besides managing and cooking at Flagstone, Kristen also bakes for Handlebar Coffee Roasters and for the café Breakfast on Chapala. Her delicious soup and other healthy prepared foods are also featured at Satellite S.B. and the Santa Barbara Athletic Club. “The wholesale part of the business is growing,” she tells me excitedly. “Besides, so many more people are in the [Public] Market in the past year — since The Garden came in.”
But Kristen’s first interest wasn’t cooking. She grew up in the Bay Area and decided to attend UCSB to study political science. “I love economics and government,” she says. She moved to D.C. after graduation and got a job with a civic education foundation. “I was working for a nonprofit and asked a few people what the next best step for my career would be,” she recalls. “Everyone encouraged me to get an MBA.” So she did so, at the University of Virginia’s Darden School.
She then went into organization and change-strategy work in the public sector. Her husband, Michael Desmond, who also went to UCSB, practiced law in the capital. “D.C. was a great place to be in when you’re young and in your twenties,” she reminisces. “The diversity, the professional opportunities, the international exposure. It’s exciting.”
When they moved to New York City, she decided to attend the Natural Gourmet Institute, a one-year culinary program whose nutritional focus was attractive. “I didn’t think one day I would open my own business,” she says. “I just thought it’d be a rewarding path.”
In New York City, Kristen completed an apprenticeship with executive chef Jeremy Bearman at the Michelin-starred Rouge Tomate, where the focus was on modern, healthy American cuisine. She also worked in the kitchen for executive chef Dean Rucker at Golden Door Spa and for Jose Andres Catering in Washington, D.C.
In 2010, she and her husband decided to come back to Santa Barbara. She looked for a small, family-owned business to find a job and wound up baking and cooking for Metropulos Fine Foods for two years.
In 2012, she started baking for Handlebar and made them an assortment of items, including dairy-free, egg-free, and gluten-free goodies. Her wholesale business began.
When Kristen learned about the Public Market development, she expressed an interest and was told that she had three weeks to submit a business plan. “I had a ton of stuff at my fingertips, a confluence of business skills and culinary,” says Kristen, who had been saving recipes on an inspiration wall. “It all found itself coming together, which was very exciting.” A lot of the recipes at Flagstone come from a blog she’d created earlier called Get Your Yummy Back, and they are now featured on her website. Soup is her favorite thing to make, so there’s even a soup calendar on the site.
“I love it,” says Kristen of her successful venture. “I find great satisfaction in the interaction with people and the feedback I get from the customers. The social nature of it is what I love about it.”
Kristen Desmond answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I’ll say kindness, or perhaps caring. I’ve always considered cooking a caring profession.
What is your greatest fear?
Facing a day without a to-do list or a prep list. I am a little obsessed with list making.
What do you like most about your job?
I like a lot of things about my job. It’s task oriented. It’s creative. It’s social. It’s a team sport. It’s a great feeling when it all comes together.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Fresh air, sunshine, my family, friends, great food & drink, but mostly the luxury of time to enjoy it together.
Whom do you most admire?
My mother. She taught me the power of unconditional love. What a gift that was.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Reading a book in the middle of the day as if I have nothing else to do.
What is your current state of mind?
A bit frazzled. I need to hire a cook. Do you know a good cook?
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Cruelty. There’s just no excuse for it.
What do you most value in friends?
Empathy, loyalty, and the fact that although years can go by, gaps close immediately.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Fantastic!” “OMG!” and “Good kitty!”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be a professional ballroom dancer. It’s requires an awesome combination of athleticism and grace.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I worry too much about things I can’t control. I always have. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better about it with age, but being a business owner probably hasn’t helped.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Opening Flagstone Pantry on my own, surviving into my fourth year with a food business, employing 10-12 people in a happy place, and all while not having lost myself entirely. The odds are against all of that.
Where would you most like to live?
I love living in Santa Barbara, but if money were no option, I’d also have a pied-à-terre in New York City with access to a private jet for going back and forth. I miss the big-city vibe.
What is your most treasured possession?
When my mother passed away, she left behind a beautiful pair of aquamarine earrings. I had each one made into a pendant necklace for my sister and me. I love that necklace. It keeps the three of us together.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My husband. He’s a funny guy and helps me find humor in most things. It’s a great skill and excellent characteristic in a life partner.
What is your motto?
“Don’t lose your sunny disposition!” My mom used to say that to me, mostly when I was worried about things.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
My mind goes immediately to American women pioneers who raised and managed families and livestock and businesses without modern conveniences. How did they do it? I mean, how badass is that?
On what occasion do you lie?
He’s really not a good kitty. I just tell him that because he’s MY kitty.