Simply Jam Co-Founders Julia and Mike Stewart spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford about their experience as entrepreneurs bringing a local, handmade product to market.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: Let’s talk about your entrepreneurial journey. When and why did you start the Simply Jam?
JULIA STEWART: It started with growing jalapeños in our garden. One year I had a huge crop and didn’t know what to do with them. A friend of mine introduced me to jalapeño jam. I tried it and it blew me away. I did a few innovations to the recipe and have been making it ever since. What started as one recipe has now expanded to our current six varieties.
We were handing the jam out to friends and I started selling it at some local craft fairs. Everybody who tried it said we needed to market it.
MIKE STEWART: Julia’s middle daughter suggested we should sell the jam at the Harvest Moon Farm & Orchard in North Salem, NY. It’s a well-known eight-week festival.
We could not make enough to supply the demand. People loved it—and that let us know we had something. That was about five years ago.
MIKE: We’ve always had the desire to have our own business.
JULIA: I don’t know that I ever planned it this way!
MIKE: Over the years, trying to become an entrepreneur while working full-time was an arduous task. We’ve tried a few different things and ended up smacking our heads against a wall. We were trying to make it happen.
JULIA: Whereas with this, we fell into this.
MIKE: Right. It’s been a lot of work but it wasn’t us trying to make something happen. We started something and people enjoyed it. I remember telling Julia: Let’s just walk through the door. If the doors open, we’ll walk through. The doors kept opening and we kept walking through them—sometimes it was pretty terrifying.
IDH: Let’s talk about that. How did you transition from selling at craft fairs to a full-on business?
MIKE: We made the jam and people liked it. Using jalapeños in all kinds of recipes is really popular. Also, our jam tastes great! It’s a very simple recipe with no artificial ingredients and vinegar as the only preservative. So knowing the demand was there, we went for it.
JULIA: We were perfectly fine selling it under the umbrella of a craft fair and making the jam at home but the demand was growing and we couldn’t keep up. From the demand from the Harvest Moon event, we recognized that the more we put out there, the more we would sell. We had to do something because it was huge.
So we contacted the state and The Department of Consumer Protection gave us a list of guidelines we had to go through—all the stages to get the product licensed and approved. So Simply Jam is licensed, insured, and registered.
MIKE: It was a long process, but we should give a shout out to the state of Connecticut. They really want to be business-friendly. There are a lot of requirements, rules, and regulations—all for the safety of the consumer. But the state works to help small businesses grow.
JULIA: I want to note that we support local farms and small businesses as much as possible. We’re working with Gresczyk Farms, which is in New Hartford.
IDH: Do you make the jam at home?
MIKE: Not anymore. We rent a commercial kitchen one day a week, which is adequate for our current needs. We can expand. We could make 4,000 jars a month in our current location, which meets our needs right now. We’re definitely looking to grow.
IDH: In terms of marketing, you’re getting your name out there by selling at different events.
MIKE: Yes. The Harvest Moon event was great. It gave us our initial push. Since then, we’ve been at all kinds of local festivals.
IDH: Usually with food and beverages, the first step with marketing is getting people to taste the product.
JULIA: Exactly. The ratio to people tasting and buying is really high. The more we put ourselves out there, the more likely people are going to buy. That’s why we have all the information on the label to direct everybody to the website.
We get a lot of online orders. And whichever event we’ve been to at the time, we get re-orders from that particular area.
IDH: Are you mostly just selling from your website and events?
IDH: Is it just the two of you running the company?
JULIA: Our son-in-law, Russ Clay, used to have his own online business. He came into the company and does all the graphics. He designed our logo and our website. The three of us have become a great team. We work well together because we all have unique strengths.
MIKE:There’s a lot of forgiveness involved because none of us are perfect; we’re going to make mistakes.
IDH: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a startup?
MIKE: The state paperwork can be very daunting. But it’s worth it when you recognize you have a product you know people like and want. You’re willing to figure out: What do I have to do to meet the criteria to make it legal, make it safe, and get it out there?
JULIA: Mike does mountains of paperwork to get us licensed and everything else. With every event we go to there are all kinds of applications and insurance forms.
IDH: Where do you see the company going as far as growth? Do you want this to eventually be a full-time business?
IDH: It’s good that you both said “yes” in unison!
MIKE: We’re expanding into more markets. We’re hoping to get into more. And we’re not just after generic supermarkets. Simply Jam is always going to be a local product that’s handmade.
JS: And we want to have it as a family business. One of our big selling points is that the jam is made the old-fashioned way. I make no more than 12 jars at a time. We handle every single one of these jars.
MIKE: I think a dream for us would be to purchase our own farm, grow our own jalapeños, and have our commercial kitchen on site. In terms of the future, a goal would be to have Simply Jam be nationwide. But it would probably involve some type of franchising so the jam would be made by local people using local products. That’s definitely a long-time dream.
IDH: Any advice for other entrepreneurs or people launching startups?
JULIA: I love making the jam and I love selling it. I love seeing people taste and enjoy it. You have to believe in your product. Because I have done things in the past, and haven’t really believed in what I’m doing. You have to believe in it, like 100%. Actually 110%!
MIKE: To echo what Julia said, believe in your product. Know that people enjoy it. You can make the greatest widget in the world, but if people walk right by it, your widget may not go anywhere.
Once you believe in your product and find there’s a demand for it, follow through until your dream starts to become a reality. And then the last step is the marketing. You’ve got to create the demand. If you don’t market, nothing happens.