From her family’s northwest Ohio farm, Vicki Miller says the simplicity of her gourmet jams leaves no room for secrets.
“This isn’t rocket science,” she laughed. “I’m sure there are 10,000 wonderful jam makers all over the United States.”
Make no mistake. Miller’s jams, which she sells under the label Messmakerbaker, are highly refined. But it’s a craft she has seemingly mastered in the few years since the longtime home cook first asked a friend to teach her canning.
“It’s the freshest ingredients available with no artificial flavors or colors. It’s cooked slow and low until it is the perfect consistency,” she said. “I always am surprised by people’s reaction when they say ‘There’s actual fruit in there!’”
The real secret, Miller said, is figuring out how to take products born out of high demand from family and friends and build them into her vision for a national brand.
As she looked to expand beyond local farmers markets and specialty shops, she struggled to find answers to her questions. The contacts she made in the food industry were focused on producing at a scale beyond her reach. And at times, regulations could feel overwhelming.
“The further I get into this I can see how people get discouraged,” she said.
But her determination to expand her business led her to enter the Ohio Signature Food Contest, which was sponsored by the Center for Innovative Food Technology (CIFT) in Toledo and Ohio Farm Bureau. The contest rewards startup Ohio food businesses with technical and business development assistance.
“This was a way for me to get answers and help,” Miller said.
Her Raspberry Habanero Jam was one of the competition’s two winners. She now hopes to leverage CIFT’s expertise to take her products to more people.
In doing so, she recognizes she’s outgrown her home kitchen’s capacity but said her brand will always be rooted in Ohio. And while she is committed to closely guarding the quality of the jams, she sees new opportunities that can come from growth.
“Maybe I can employ five people,” she said. “Maybe I can employ 55 people.”
Building a business was not top of mind for Ohio Signature Food Contest co-winner Cheryl Holsapfel when she turned a bumper crop of jalapenos from the family garden into a product she now calls Hot Mama’s Pepper Jam.
“One of my taglines is ‘The sweet heat you’ll love to eat,’” she said.
For Holsapfel, it was the offer of assistance to somebody who was starting out at the ground level that got her attention.
“It was very inspiring to think that you didn’t have to have a fully developed product to enter the contest,” she said.
The seventh-grade digital arts teacher had a head start when it came to developing her branding but now looks forward to making use of CIFT’s resources to make her creation even better.
“I really want to start out simple, and I want to refine the jam itself to have an outstanding product,” she said.
She acknowledged that taking her product from small, homemade batches to full production will be something of a “science experiment,” and she is carefully evaluating all the advice she’s receiving.
“I’m like a sponge right now,” she said. “There’s always more refinement.”
With CIFT’s support she hopes to start by capitalizing on the interest in local foods and sell at farmers markets and local stores.
“I’m glad I have the support of this group to get me in the right direction,” she said.
Ultimately, it was her passion for developing her product that led the contest’s judges to select her.
As she fittingly described her product: “It’s so amazing to see something start out as a seed, to watch it evolve. It’s the whole entire journey, watching the garden grow from nothing to something wonderful.”
UPDATE: Miller decided to suspend production of Messmakerbaker Jams & Jellies at the end of 2016.
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