FARGO — Clayton Cottman never anticipated moving to North Dakota and starting a business producing gourmet "puppy chow," but that’s exactly where the Washington, D.C., native-turned-entrepreneur finds himself today.
Cottman studied culinary arts and has seen his career take him across the United States, from training with Emeril Lagasse to working as the executive chef at a seafood restaurant and in a food truck in the middle of North Dakota's oil patch. In the latest chapter of his culinary career, Cottman founded Uncle Charlie's Homestyle Snacks and is bringing its first offering, Charlie's Chow, to market.
When Cottman moved to North Dakota in 2015, he said one of the things he missed most were his great-aunt Thelma's renowned from-scratch cakes
"If you could find any reason to stop by her house, you could have a piece of one of her cakes," Cottman said. "You didn't really even have to ask."
One cake was untouchable, however — the cheesecake Thelma made for Uncle Charlie.
"When I was a child, I wanted nothing more than the one thing I couldn't have, which were the cheesecakes that my Aunt Thelma would make for my Uncle Charlie," Cottman explained.
Capturing the love
On every step of his culinary journey across the country, Cottman sought to replicate the feeling of eating Thelma's cakes.
"Each opportunity brought me one step closer to finding what I didn't really realize I was looking for at the time, the kind of love I felt when I would taste Aunt Thelma's cakes," he said. "I really wanted something that took me back to Uncle Charlie's cheesecakes."
Cottman found exactly that when he was introduced to puppy chow in Fargo, where he said the cereal tossed in peanut butter, melted chocolate and powdered sugar "knocked my socks off."
"I could pretty much instantly feel the care that went into making the batches," he explained.
Since then, Cottman said he "became a little obsessed" with the idea of creating new flavors. He spent a year and a half perfecting the first batch of flavors: brownie truffle, red velvet, cotton candy, banana split and orange creamsicle.
The final challenge was settling on a name for his first product line.
"When it came to naming our company, there was no question in my mind that I needed to honor and pay homage to the guy who inspired it all, which was my Uncle Charlie," Cottman explained.
'Wearing a lot of hats'
Uncle Charlie's back-office operations are based in the Black Building in downtown Fargo, but the company leases a commercial kitchen elsewhere in north Fargo to produce and package Charlie's Chow.
Cottman employs a team of five to assist in administrative tasks as well as production but still juggles numerous responsibilities on a daily basis.
"I end up wearing a lot of hats on a given day. I multitask constantly," he said.
Many of the principles he learned in his culinary training — discipline, creativity and having a routine — have come in handy in business, he explained.
"A lot of times I end up being my own administrative assistant, my own chemist, my own marketing department in some instances. It's exhausting, honestly, but I've never been happier," Cottman concluded.
A Fargo favorite
Charlie's Chow is available for sale at EatCharliesChow.com, where online sales have been "going good", Cottman reported.
"A lot of people from all over the county are identifying with this snack and gravitating towards it," he said.
Though he never anticipated settling down in North Dakota, living in Fargo "just feels right", Cottman said. It's why he hopes to make Charlie's Chow a fixture in grocery carts throughout the metro area.
Uncle Charlie's is working with "quite a few" local stores to get Charlie's Chow on shelves within the next month, hoping that the snack will be available across the Fargo-Moorhead area before the holiday season begins.
"I'd like to make sure that we have a strong presence right here in our backyard," Cottman said. "This is one of the ways we'd like to give back to the community and make this snack something that the Fargo-Moorhead area can be proud of."