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Americans are hungry for quality, homemade goods, and people with a passion for cooking are filling that flavorful niche. Treats such as Meaner’n a Snake Pickles, Hot Pepper Jelly and Cobbler in a Jar, previously served only at the kitchen table, are now big sellers at market days, farmers’ markets and even craft sales. And part of this new culinary experience, which actually harks back to the way humans have shopped for millennia, includes time spent negotiating in lively vendor-buyer interactions. Learn how to sell homemade jams and jellies at your local market, and it might just turn into a profitable little business.
Deep in the heart of Texas
Don and Marsha Bales of San Antonio decided four years ago to test their local niche. They put 10 dozen jars of homemade goodies – cobbler in a jar, grape jelly, and strawberry and peach jam – into their van and set up a booth at Wimberley Market Days in Wimberley, Texas. The Bales’ fresh-tasting jams and jellies were an immediate hit.
As their part-time hobby grew into a full-time business, they expanded their menu and number of venues. Today, their brochure lists 31 items including old favorites like their pepper jellies and other intriguing treats with names like Cowboy Candy and Mesquite Bean Jelly.
At the same time, the Bales added several additional market day events to their schedule. Committed to face-to-face sales at regional shows, the couple’s goods are available through their roving sales booth, in spite of inventory requests from commercial establishments, and they now offer shipping through their website. Repeat customers use e-mail to request specific flavors at future shows.
Find your flavor
Don and Marsha suggest entrepreneurs start with established recipes and carefully use life experiences to create winning flavors. Hot Pepper Jelly is by far their best-seller. The pepper taste hits different parts of the palate, and the flavors take a couple of minutes to come through. The couple uses a mix of jalapeño, Anaheim, serrano, habanero and bell peppers. Another pepper jelly, Raspberry Arbol, is the couple’s second-highest selling product.
The Bales also suggest including some unique, local flavors such as Mustang Grape Jelly, a name intriguing enough to attract people who like to try new foods. Mustang Grape Jelly is named for grapes eaten by wild horses in the bygone era. From the scruffy tree that’s ubiquitous in their area, Don and Marsha have developed Mesquite Bean Jelly. People will say, “Mesquite Bean Jelly! You mean you can do something with that funky tree?” Another unique and unexpected flavor is Texas Citrus Marmalade, using Texas red grapefruit, oranges and lemons for a flavorful treat that is quite different from the recipes developed years ago in England and France.
Setting up a table that attractively says “country” with open space on the front and sides is another key to their success. Don sets out an array of opened jars and crackers and greets casual visitors with an offer to try some samples. When customers’ faces light up and their eyes search the unopened jars for other flavors, he asks them to point to a jar. He opens the jar and offers another sample. This gesture of good faith draws repeat customers who form the foundation for an expanding business.
Keep things small
If your mother made a certain jelly, a store-bought version will not taste the same. Commercial processors make large batches. The large volume changes the chemistry between fruit, pectin and sugar as it cools. Home canners have known this for years. Don and Marsha make their jellies, jams and other treats in small batches, similar to the size made in homes in generations past. Initially, the couple made their treats at home. Now they rent a commercial kitchen to satisfy USDA health requirements. Don has a USDA Canning Certification, a Food Safety Management License and a State of Texas Food Manufacturing License. For information on obtaining similar certification, check with your county’s extension office.
Careful planning goes into preparing the foods. Some raw ingredients are purchased. Don grows his own figs, and gleaning (picking fruit after harvest season with the owner’s permission) and picking wild fruits help cut costs. A word of caution: Through experience, Illinois-born Marsha learned to throw rocks into bushes to alert rattlesnakes to leave before she starts gleaning in the Texas hills, and she’s careful of wild boars when harvesting cactus fruit.
Jellies, jams, preserves and marmalades are at their peak of flavor just after being put into jars and sealed. The couple prepares batches of the desired sweet spread as close to sales time as possible. A freezer, separate from the family freezer, is used to store fruit and juice. To preserve brightness of color and freshness of taste, sugar is added just before the final cooking and canning. Don and Marsha frequently add commercial pineapple or lemon juice since these juices have a consistent amount of acidity and can enhance the flavors.
In recent years, customers with diabetes or weight problems have asked for tasty sweet spreads with alternative sweeteners. Agave sweetener is good for those who have trouble managing blood sugar. Organic Blue Agave is 25 percent sweeter than sugar, but has a glycemic index of only 13 compared with 68 to 85 for dextrose and corn syrup solids, and 100 for sucrose, the most common form of table sugar.
The type of pan used to boil the ingredients while making jams and jellies is also important. Certain jellies and jams, like blackberry and blueberry, need a narrow pan with high sides. Others such as peach and fig need a wide, shallow pan for best results. Don uses a 16-quart stainless steel, triple-layer (stainless steel, aluminum, stainless steel), clad jelly pan for best heat distribution. A pan that has hot spots will produce uneven heating and possibly scorch in spots. To keep up with the increasing demand for Hot Pepper Jelly and Raspberry Arbol Jelly, Don uses a 40-quart Groen tilting steam kettle.
The couple’s process includes pH adjustment and requires monitoring sugar content in solution to obtain maximum flavor and consistent set. They have learned (both by training and experience) how to adjust according to fruit consistency and ripeness. However, the basis for most of the knowledge for successful jelly, jam and pickle processing came from Don’s grandmothers, Cora Bales and Ola Mae Weeks.
Don has a calculated method for preparing and selling treats as a sideline business. “We have ‘X’ amount of time and ‘X’ amount of personal energy. Use both wisely,” he says.
With the right production process and pizzazz in the booth, you too can develop your own flavors and style. People have a way of recognizing and supporting entrepreneurs who create Americana. Food sales at market days, farmers’ markets and craft shows are thriving. It seems a portion of local American consumers have made a decision that “Made in China” can’t compete with “Made in Texas.”
Shirley Splittstoesser is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She and her husband live in Urbana, Illinois, and enjoy traveling and experiencing the unique tastes they encounter along the way.
Recipes are from Don and Marsha Bales of San Antonio. Their jams, jellies, preserves, marmalade, pickles and chowchow are sold under the name RayAnnVentures. For more information, visit the website www.RayAnnVentures.com; e-mail Marsha at RayAnnVentures@yahoo.com; or call their business phone 210-767-9938 or Don’s cell phone 210-767-9938.