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20 Years of Stonewall Kitchen

Date: 07/01/11 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Susan Segrest
Categories: Industry Operations; Suppliers | Tags: Condiment; Member; Profile; Supplier
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20 Years of Stonewall Kitchen

While celebrating a big anniversary in the food business, Jonathan King and Jim Stott talk about early successes, challenging growing pains and the products they love best.

by Susan Segrest

How did you get started in the specialty food business?

Jonathan King: It was by chance. I discovered a new passion, horticulture, soon after graduating college with a psychology degree. I took a part-time job at a greenhouse to feed my interest in plants and I planted my first vegetable and herb garden at our small house. Soon, Jim and I had more than we could eat so we started making herbal vinegars, pesto, salsa, sauces and jams with our fresh vegetables. We shared these first items with our close friends and family and every day I would bring our newest creation to the staff at the greenhouse. One day, one of my co-workers said to me, “You should sell this at the farmers market.” That was the single suggestion that changed our lives.

What were your first products?

JK: We had no “product line,” we just made whatever we could with whatever was fresh. Most of what we made was fresh and cold, like pestos, marinated cheeses, salsas and baked goods. We slowly taught ourselves how to “preserve.” Today we have well over 350 SKUs (I lose track). Our best sellers have always been our jams and any other breakfast-related items. We have also developed a strong following with our savory categories, especially grill sauces.

You are celebrating your 20th anniversary at the Summer Fancy Food Show this year. When did you first exhibit?

JK: It was the Summer Fancy Food Show in 1995. It was also my first time ever in New York City and we came down with our farmers market set up in a U-Haul. We were completely overwhelmed (in a good way) with the experience and the positive reaction from retailers. At that first show we were awarded the Outstanding Product Line. That was the event that launched us into the retail world. We were so naive, we didn’t know any of the retailers, we didn’t know what a broker or distributor was, but we knew we loved what we were doing. It’s really funny looking back.

So many specialty food businesses are family affairsóand that comes with its own set of challenges. Why do you think you two work together well?

JK: Since day one we have had defined responsibilities in order to not kill one another. Jim was involved in buying the ingredients and running the kitchen, while I worked on the sales and creative side of the business. We would work all day in the same building and often not see one another. Later, he became involved in photography and did all our images from packaging to cookbooks and catalogs. Today with nearly 300 employees to manage the nuts and bolts of the business we primarily spend time on business and product development.

Were there any major decisions that you wish you could do over?

JK: Funding our extreme growth in the beginning was a huge challenge and we were determined to remain private. In 1999, we began building our spectacular 55,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility in York, Maine. We were determined to build the most beautiful building for not only our staff but also for the community. We went way over budget, ran out of bank financing and were forced to sell a small percentage of the business to complete our project. Today we have close to 500,000 visitors to our headquarters annually, enjoying our cafÈ, store, cooking school, manufacturing tour and gardens. Ten years after the completion of the headquarters we were able to buy back what we had sold and we remain 100 percent privately owned today.

Have you always had a brand strategy? Did you bring in consultants along the way?

JK: No, we never have used a consultant. Our brand was created from our personalities that first day at the farmers market and we have never strayed from it. In a way, our products have created our brand and we have just nurtured it as it’s grown.

Do you have any favorites in your product line?

Jim Stott: That’s an easy question. Wild Maine Blueberry Jam, I could eat an entire jar in one sitting.

JK: I’m not a super sweets person so our more savory sauces have always been my favorite, number one being the Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce; I love it on baby-back ribs.

Have either of you had any particularly interesting culinary experiences or meals lately?

J&J Farmers MarketJK: Everyone imagines we must love all this crazy exotic food, but we really love simple comfort foods, the kind of recipes you find in our cookbooks. We love to take classic dishes we grew up on, such as meatloaf, and re-create them using the best possible ingredients. For us it’s about the setting and people we are sharing a meal with more than the food itself. Sitting on the porch of the local lobster pound, overlooking the rocky coast here makes everything taste amazing.

You mentioned your division of labor earlier. What are your titles and job responsibilities?

JK: I’m the president and creative director and, with my executive team- consisting of Natalie King, executive vice president, and Lori King, chief operation officer- oversee all aspects of our business channels. We meet weekly with our seven company directors for strategy and business updates. Jim is principal and ambassador. He has stepped away from the daily operations, but can be found promoting the brand on TV, radio and at cooking events while still having a strong voice on our executive team.

How has the specialty food business changed in the past 20 years?

JK: So much has changed for the better, mostly customers’ demands for high-quality foods. Today, the Food Network is what MTV was for us as young adults. Our fastest growing customers are those in their 20s. People are conscious of what they buy, and expect to be able to trust the brands they are loyal to. Retailers have embraced specialty foods, and many of the larger companies make a huge effort to nurture young companies. I love walking the Fancy Food Show and seeing all these fantastic new companies, so passionate, so creative. It always takes me back to those early days.

What are you doing to celebrate your 20th anniversary?

JK: Our marketing team has created an amazing calendar of events and promotions nationally and locally. At our home office in York, Maine, I worked with our landscape architect and a local museum curator to create an art exhibit, “From the Garden to the Kitchen,” reflecting on our company’s roots. More than 25 local artists were commissioned to paint in their own style what that means to them. The paintings were reproduced on weather-proof canvases and will be positioned throughout our gardens. The original paintings will be on display at a local gallery. It’s going to be an amazing installation.

If you knew you were having your last meal, what would you eat?

JS: I would have done all this in vain if our product wasn’t in my last meal. I am one of those people who could easily eat my dessert first so I would have to say my last meal would be an ice-cream sundae with our Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Sauce. After that I can rest in peace.

JK: I’m an Irish kid, so I would have to have a nice steak as my last meal, served with our Roadhouse Steak Sauce. I just hope I get hired in the creative department in Heaven. |SFM

This article was featured in the July 2011 issue of Specialty Food Magazine. See other articles in this issue at: July 2011 Specialty Food Magazine.

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20 Years of Stonewall Kitchen

While celebrating a big anniversary in the food business, Jonathan King and Jim Stott talk about early successes, challenging growing pains and the products they love best.

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