An interview with Stonewall Kitchen Product Developer Michele Cole
Michele Cole’s history with Stonewall Kitchen reaches back to the early days, when two young entrepreneurs named Jonathan King and Jim Stott had the bold idea to launch a specialty food business in Maine after creating their famous Wild Maine Blueberry Jam. It should be noted that Maine in 1991 was not exactly the epicenter of entrepreneurship: the local economy was struggling and the state was probably best known that year for ‘The Perfect Storm,” which ravaged the eastern seaboard and left thousands without power. But for King and Stott, it was the beginning of a love affair with gourmet food that has helped establish Maine’s reputation as a glowing constellation of innovative chefs and artisan foodmakers.
After more than twenty years of developing recipes for jams, chocolates, marinades, marmalades and buttered scones, Stonewall Kitchen’s resolve for the importance of flavor remains as strong as it did on day one. Product developer Michele Cole is unequivocal about the role that taste and ingredients have played in the success of the Stonewall Kitchen brand. She is as passionate as ever about her company’s founders and her role at Stonewall Kitchen today. Michele possesses a kind of lyrical reverence for food. When describing flavors, she often closes her eyes and seems to tap into a deep well of sensory experience. Her relationship with food transcends language and her tenure at Stonewall Kitchen could be summed up as a 20-year quest for the perfect gourmet creation.
As it turns out, Michele’s pursuit could also be viewed as the search to match or daresay rival the company’s very first product. Indeed, Stonewall Kitchen’s Wild Maine Blueberry Jam is not only the company’s very first creation, but remains their top selling product.
To put it all into perspective, Stonewall Kitchen’s production team churns up and simmers its famous wild blueberry jam recipe once a month, averaging upwards of 35,000 13-ounce jars per batch. By the end of 2015, they expect to fill 40,000 jars per month. This does not take into account the popular Mini Wild Blueberry Jam, which averages 20,000 jars every 6 weeks. In total, Stonewall Kitchen is producing over a half-million jars of Wild Blueberry Jam per year. In the process, they are helping to spread the passion and appetite for Maine’s 10,000-year-old berry.
It was a pure pleasure to learn the story behind this simple, unadulterated jam, not to mention how one very special recipe in a beautiful glass jar, could spearhead Stonewall Kitchen’s two-decade long success story.
What are the values that customers associate with your brand?
Our customers are coming to us looking for high quality and authenticity. That is what we’re all about and it’s what they expect from us.
What are the key considerations that go into making Stonewall Kitchen foods?
Well, one thing is for sure, we are always looking to get a hold of the very best ingredients and we taste all kinds of them. Flavor is always number one for Stonewall Kitchen. We don’t do “regular.” We’re a specialty food company and every ingredient that we use has to pass our palate.
What do people seem to love about the Wild Blueberry Jam?
As soon as people taste it, they know they are enjoying something really different and really extraordinary. When people try it for the very first time, you can see from their expression just how special it is.
As a chef, what do you love about Wild Blueberries?
The Wild Blueberry is one of those truly exceptional fruits. It’s sweet, it’s tart, its got mineral notes, it’s juicy, and it’s not ordinary. There’s simply nothing like it. It’s just one of the best things in the world, and on top of that, it’s loaded with antioxidants.
Does using a frozen berry make it harder or easier from your standpoint as a chef?
Frozen Wild Blueberries are so easy to work with and the IQF (individually quick frozen) process really ensures that the quality remains intact. Wild Blueberries are great in sauces, jams and in baked goods, partly because they are small, and also because they freeze really well and thaw really well. A frozen Wild Blueberry is the second best thing, short of standing in a field and picking them yourself.
So the Wild Maine Blueberry Jam has become a staple for Stonewall Kitchen?
Wild Maine Blueberry Jam is the heart of our company. It’s how people identify us. There’s even a company policy at Stonewall Kitchen that states we simply cannot run out of Wild Blueberry Jam. Running out of Wild Blueberry Jam is our version of a tragedy.
Tell us the story of how the jam recipe was developed.
The Wild Maine Blueberry Jam got its start when founders Jim and Jonathan were going to farmers’ markets and bringing home products to test over a tiny stove in their home. They were experimenting with Wild Blueberries and Jim was trying to replicate the filling for his Aunt Pearl’s blueberry pie. Eventually, they ended up with this perfect recipe that uses Wild Blueberries, just a little bit of sugar, and a splash of lemon juice. Basically that is the very same recipe we use today.
What does the Wild Maine Blueberry Jam mean to your company today?
The Wild Maine Blueberry Jam is how we got our start as a specialty food company. It was those little Wild Blueberries that kicked it off. The Wild Maine Blueberry Jam has become the gold standard – everything else that we make at Stonewall Kitchen has to meet that high standard.
Here is how Stonewall Kitchen describes their number one selling product:
“Sweet, intensely flavorful wild Maine blueberries, a dash of sugar and a splash of lemon is all you’ll find in our top selling Wild Maine Blueberry Jam. Carefully crafted using only tiny, low-bush blueberries that grow and spread naturally across Maine, this is a delicious jam to enjoy on pancakes, breakfast breads or in an extra special PB&J.”