It is late morning and the offices at Stonewall Kitchen in York are buzzing. In one cubicle, a woman is taking orders on the phone, her computer screen a maze of colors and numbers. In another cubicle, a woman is quietly looking over paperwork. A third is answering the company phone.
Jim Stott, co-owner of the company, emerges from a back office. He is tall with a boyish smile, a full head of steel-gray hair, and casual, loose clothes. One hand comfortably rests in a pants pocket. The administrative staff is learning to use a new computer system, he says, so the office is hectic. But there’s time to talk. Come in, come in, he motions with his free hand.
Jonathan King, Stott’s partner, darts in from another room. He’s compact, snappy, with wide, fiery eyes.
“We love Maine,” King says pertly.
“Yeah, we love Maine,” Stott adds warmly.
Maine, apparently, loves them, too. Except for California, Maine is Stonewall Kitchen’s No. 1 market for sales of jellies, jams and packaged gourmet food items.
And what’s not to love? Stott and King are nice guys. They love food, they love success, and Maine has everything to do with the image of their company as a small, family business. Ten years ago, the two men — who are also partners outside the office — met in a coffee shop in New Hampshire, where they were both working as waiters at other restaurants.
On the side, they held day jobs — King worked in a greenhouse, Stott as a house painter — but got a kick out of preparing pickled foods for a weekend flea market. Eventually, the demands for their homemade goods became greater than they could handle. They quit their jobs and devoted themselves entirely to developing, preparing and peddling specialty foods.
When they outgrew the home in New Hampshire, King and Stott began looking at real estate throughout New England. King had summered in Maine as a child. But both knew Maine had a unique down-home cachet. They bought a house with a large barn in Kittery, and moved the business there. At the next overspilling juncture, they moved to the current location on Route 1 in York.
Two weeks ago, Stonewall Kitchen broke ground for a new $7 million complex for production, administration and storage. With 50,000 square feet and 8 acres, the sprawling building will be a testament to tony-food eminence. Or, as King puts it: your typical “waiter-made-it-big” story.
“Maine is a very big part of our home marketing concept,” says Stott.
“We’ve set an example that way,” says King. “We’re so close to the border of New Hampshire where we would save hundreds of thousands in taxes. But everything can’t be about taxes and finances. It has to be about community.”
Today at a luncheon at Colby College, Stonewall Kitchen — along with five other Maine companies — will receive the Governor’s Business Excellence Award. Not bad for a jam business that netted $10 million last year and, in four years, has won six awards from the International Fancy Food Show (the Oscars of specialty foods). Stonewall Kitchen is the only company to win the Outstanding Product line two years — 1995 and 1996 — in a row.
“Everyone in this company is passionate about food,” says King. “It’s osmosis. You work here. You love food.”
Behind the corporate offices and store on Route 1, the production of Wild Maine Bluberry Jam is taking place in a 150-gallon steam kettle. At the same time, square jars are unloaded onto a conveyor belt, heated, spurted full of hot jam, sealed and cooled. The Stonewall Kitchen label goes on, and the jar could end up in any of the 6,000 accounts nationwide — including Saks Fifth Avenue, Crate and Barrel, Lord and Taylor, and L.L. Bean. Besides the Stonewall Kitchen store in York, there are four others — in Camden, Portland, Kittery (summer only) and Portsmouth, N.H. In the next three years, Stott and King hope to open 20 stores nationwide.
“This started as just a hobby,” says Stott, his eyebrows raised. “Can you believe that?”
Back in the spotlessly clean production room, the workers — men and women of all ages — are chummy. Lead technician Phil McGuire oversees the process, fixes the machines when they run amok. As with all the employees in the diminutive factory, he is dressed neatly in a pink-and-white outfit that resembles doctor’s scrubs.
McGuire, who is also a chef, knows King and Stott from their restaurant days. He has watched their ascent in the business world and has long-term perspective on their practices.
“One of the things we get from them is that quality and consistency are more important than anything,” says McGuire. “There’s not a push to make more and more. But there’s always a push for quality.”
And for pizzazz. Having worked in the food industry for many years and as self-proclaimed foodies, Stott and King love a perfect meal and take time to prepare dinner each night. At their home in Kittery, they have a large herb garden — the birthing spot for many flavor combinations that later end up in jars bearing the sleek Stonewall Kitchen insignia.
Back in the early 1990s, Stott and King developed all their products in their own kitchen. Now they consult a staff team of tasters and creators for new products.
“I don’t think that ever in my life I thought I would be making jelly for a living,” says King, who is 34.
Stott, who is 44, could have easily made the same comment. Before Stonewall Kitchen, he studied theology and philosophy at Gordon College in his home state of Massachusetts, and King, also from Massachusetts, studied psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and later earned another degree in fine arts.
Their educational backgrounds, jokes King, gave them a greater appreciation for the finer things in life.
Such as garlic. The most popular product sold at Stonewall Kitchen is the award-winning Roasted Garlic and Onion Jam, a sweet and savory medley that works just as well with peanut butter or plain on a cracker as it does as a complement to meat. Accolades also have fallen on Ginger Peach Tea Jam, Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce, and Roasted Garlic and Peanut Sauce — to name a few. There is also a Stonewall Kitchen children’s line of food, such as the Peanut Butter and Jam Kit, winner of the Fancy Food Show Outstanding Food Gift Pack Award in 1997. “Kids like good food, too,” says King with an impish smile.
Although the Stonewall label can be found on many goods, only 40 to 50 products are made by the company at any given time. The rest of the products are made by Stonewall Kitchen-approved and -branded companies.
In June, Stonewall Kitchen — named not for the Stonewall Riots of 1969 but for a stone wall outside of King and Stott’s home — will launch several new products including an apricot jam, a savory jam and a sauce.
“Work is my passion,” says King. “If I stay here late, it’s because I am caught up in some timeless project.”
“People say, `When are you going to sell?”‘ says Stott. “And I say, “What would I do?”‘
To which King quickly answers: “Garden!”
Barbecued Steak Wrap-Ups with Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup olive or canola oil 2 pounds flank steak, trimmed of fat 1/3 cup Stonewall Kitchen Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce
Flat bread or thick tortilla, warmed in foil over the grill or in a preheated oven Cilantro leaves Grilled onions
In a small bowl, combine marinade ingredients. Place the flank steak in a shallow, nonreactive baking dish and pour marinade over the steak. Turn the steak to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours or up to overnight.
Prepare a charcoal or gas fire. Remove the steak from the marinade, pat dry and discard marinade. Grill the steak to desired doneness, approximately 5-6 minutes per side for medium-rare, brushing each side with Maple Chipotle Grill sauce. Allow the steak to rest for 5 minutes before slicing. This helps keep the meat tender and succulent.
Cut thin slices of steak against the grain and at an angle. Serve flank steak rolled up in flat bread or tortilla, with a spoonful of grilled onions, sprinkling of cilantro leaves and a final drizzle of Maple Chipotle Grille Sauce. Serves 4.
Corn Pepper Chili Relish
4 Tablespoons Stonewall Kitchen Roasted Garlic Oil or olive oil 1 medium onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice 1 1/2 teaspoons ground chili powder 2 tablespoons Stonewall Kitchen Roasted Garlic & Onion Jam 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels, defrosted 1 small red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 seeded jalapeno, minced Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Heat Roasted Garlic Oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in onion and cook until wilted and lightly colored, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in chili powder, then Roasted Garlic Onion Jam and vinegar. Cook until jam is melted. Add corn, pepper, jalapeno, salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Before serving, stir in cilantro. Makes 1 1/2 cups.