• Motto

The Secret to My Success Can’t Be Taught in Business School

4 minute read

When my partner Jim and I made our first few batches of jam with the blueberry overflow from our garden over 25 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined that one day, we’d be doing it for a living.

We started making jam for friends and family. When they encouraged us to sell it at a local farmer’s market, we thought – “Why not?” We sold out in a matter of hours. From there, Jim and I started growing our presence in farmer’s markets throughout New England, where we quickly developed a loyal fan base. After a few years selling locally we got some big breaks from major retailers. Fast-forward to today and we now produce more than 75,000 jars of product a day across more than 8,000 retail locations nationwide.

It’s a nice story, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. As people with no prior business experience, we had some tough and frustrating times starting Stonewall Kitchen. Recipes didn’t always turn out as we planned. Retailers weren’t promoting or pricing our products correctly. Our journey was fueled by inspiration, edited by trial and error and above all else, sustainable by being adaptive.

We learned that flexibility is key to handling mistakes and surprises—from everything to the kitchen to the manufacturing. In our farmer’s market days, our strawberry jam wouldn’t set properly so the consistency turned it more liquid. Voila. Strawberry Sauce. And one of the main reasons we hand-wrote our labels is so that we could change the name of an item in the instance that something didn’t turn out as we expected.

That happened a lot early-on. When experimenting with recipes, we would start with one product idea – like a savory onion compote. But things would happen in the kitchen that we couldn’t have predicted. In making that savory onion compote, Jim and I added sugar by accident. The result was our Roasted Garlic Onion Jam. And you know what? It’s delicious, and one of our most popular items.

Flexibility was essential to not only how we made our products, but what we made our products with. It’s no surprise that as a new company, turning a profit wasn’t going to be easy. While we got a thrill from the money we made from our garden, we had to start thinking bigger. While working at the farmers markets we saw crates and crates of beautifully ripe produce that were left unsold at the end of the day… so we started bartering. A crate of peaches for some of our blueberry jam. Or a few ears of corn in exchange for a few bottles of marinade. Our products were a direct result of what we could negotiate at the market. In retrospect, that was our R&D. We only made what we had access to, and we had a lot of fun doing it.

Read more: 7 Things You Must Do Before Starting Your Own Business

Even today, Jim and I turn each trip into a scouting opportunity, sourcing and tasting ingredients from whatever is around us. It’s those trips and experiences that still dictate our product development today. We come home and take what we’d learned and saw, and create something new that we could share with our customers. In a way, this gave us the ability to share our personal love and passion through each and every product that we create.

You can’t plan everything, and you can’t control everything. Embrace that! Being able to “wing it” is something that has served us well in the past 25 years. It wasn’t always easy going with the flow, but as two guys without any formal training or experience, it was the option we had and we loved the adventure every step of the way.

Jonathan King is the co-founder of Stonewall Kitchen, a specialty foods company.

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