Probiotics Powerhouse Elaina Luther Will Make You a Fermentation Fanatic

Elaina Luther went from being a massage therapist and instructor to fermentation scientist in the early 2000s.
Elaina Luther went from being a massage therapist and instructor to fermentation scientist in the early 2000s.
Danny Liao

Culture Club 101 is many things: a fermentation shop, a cafe, a marketplace, a coffee, kombucha and water-kefir stop. But above all else, the Pasadena spot is an education facility. And at the helm is entrepreneur and health advocate Elaina Luther.

Seeking answers to her own health problems, Luther went from being a massage therapist and instructor to fermentation scientist in the early 2000s. She craved fruit and fruit juices but they made her feel sick. Searching for some way to get her fix, she stumbled upon the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of nutrient-dense foods. Luther's research took her down a rabbit hole from which she's never quite escaped.

"I thought, maybe if I ferment it, I can enjoy it without feeling so bad," she says. "I learned that the process of fermenting allows good bacteria to eat the sugar in the fruit. I started fermenting pomegranate juice I got from the [Pasadena] farmers market, and bingo. I could actually drink it."

From there, Luther set out to share her findings, giving away free samples of her pomegranate "soda" to gauge shoppers' interest. Demand was high for her alternative drink. By summer 2009 — about three years ahead of Health-Ade Kombucha's debut at the Brentwood farmers market — Luther was running her own stall in Pasadena.

But she had never wanted to be in the food and drink business. She aimed to educate and empower others to take control of their well-being. That summer, Luther found a tiny shop on Wilson Avenue and got permitted as a private club. Members, most of whom she'd befriended at the farmers market, frequented the shop for Luther's fermentation workshops. Though the classes were plenty successful, Luther quickly saw that there was also a need for a market with ready-to-eat goods and the ingredients needed to replicate the dishes she demonstrated.

"I saw firsthand how busy people are — they don't have time to make bone broths and other nutrient-rich foods," she says. "So little by little we morphed into a store. We were only open two day a week, but by then we had 1,000 members, and with no advertising at all. We were a community."

Ingredients used for cafe items are organic, non-GMO and sourced from local farmers.
Ingredients used for cafe items are organic, non-GMO and sourced from local farmers.
Danny Liao

Profits were strong, but when new orders came down from the health department in 2014 — the city now classified her as a convenience store, and her location wasn't zoned for that — Luther needed to move. She was devastated but also aware that the time had come to find a bigger place. It took a full year to find a replacement storefront and another year to build it out. But Luther couldn't have been happier with the process. The space was paid for entirely by the community via donations, crowdfunding campaigns and prepaid shopping carts. She's already mentored other entrepreneurs on how to raise money socially without getting loans.

Everything inside the new Culture Club 101, which opened in October, is sustainable, too. Ingredients used for cafe items are organic, non-GMO and sourced from local farmers. Luther's favorite offerings, which are made by her son, Marcus Guttilla, include the vegan coconut curry and the pasture-raised rotisserie chicken.

While the cafe and coffee counter bring people in, it's the sales from the market that bolster the business, as was true at the original location. Only the best of the best goes on the shelves, Luther says. Sprouted black rice, house-made bone broths, sauerkrauts made in Luther's on-site, temperature-controlled fermentation room, raw milk from California's Organic Pastures.

The space is open to the public, though some still opt to pay the $99 annual fee to be members. Benefits include discounted or free classes, which take place in the store, too. Recent class offerings include a foraging foray in the San Gabriel Mountains, after which participants made wild sauerkraut with their findings; kombucha and kimchi workshops; and a gluten-free treat-making class.

But as much as Luther wants you to stop in for lunch or pick up groceries, she hopes you'll become a student at some point, too.

"My interest has always been teaching," Luther says. "There's so much joy in seeing a spark — seeing the light go on in someone else. Handing off the torch? That is priceless."


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