It started a few years back when I tried a “tomato jam” at a Manhattan restaurant and was left with the thought that I could do better. I bought a bunch of heirloom tomatoes from a nearby farmers’ market, which my friend Brian and I dissected, reformulated, repurposed, boiled, and extracted to make three pint mason jars worth of jam. To this day, making that jam and sharing it with my friends remains one of my fondest memories. While most of them were unsure of exactly what it was, they knew that it was unlike anything else they had tried before. This, above all else, gave me immense happiness and vindication for my new craft.
I was in my final year at Tufts. Brian and I, along with a bit of help from other friends, crafted other varieties, such as a blackberry-lime, with a special ingredient, that brings out the tang of blackberries, not attempting to make them sweeter than their natural means, like people so often do. After graduating, we worked on an organic farm in rural Maine, where we learned new skills about farming and small business.
After leaving the farm, I moved to Brooklyn where everyone and everything was oozing with a perfunctory culinary DIY coolness. I continued making new preserves and jams as a hobby, and, on a whim, I applied as a preserves vendor at the Brooklyn Flea Market, a huge outdoor market with local producers and vendors of all sorts—anything from macrame hats and vintage clothing to artisan foods and, well, jams. I thought to myself, there is no way some Brooklyn hipster is not already doing this, but I brought the committee three samples and they loved them. I was to be a vendor, and This & That Jam was born.
In the beginning I enlisted help from my friends. “Labels,” at first, meant cutting out circles from brown paper bags, and stamping them with the hand-carved linoleum stamp my girlfriend Ali made for me. The first time, she carved it backwards. To be honest, I might have even grabbed the brown paper bags from a supply closet at work.
I had no concept of how many jars to bring to the market, which flavors would be successful, or even how much change to bring. It was nerve-wracking, not knowing anything, and because I had no capital, I was forced to try and guess as accurately as possible, without overproducing. In my mind, I was spending $100 to rent a space and another $100+ for production with no foreseeable return. Did I price the product fairly? Would people even enjoy them? What was I doing?
The first weekend, I made 36 jars, completely unsure of what would happen. I sold out by 1 p.m., with the market still open for another four hours. After doubling production for the next weekend, I still managed to sell out. This was the major stepping stone. I realized I would have to put major hours into production to meet the demand. By the time I left New York, I was leaving the market right before close with under twelve jars. The one saving grace about selling preserves was, well, that they’re preserves—no food spoilage.
It’s been a learning process. I started out with nothing but a little of my own cash. My friend Ben decided to join me in my pursuits with his father investing in the enterprise. We formed an LLC, got the business accounts, and soon after the initial funds were in the bank, he decided that he didn’t have the time and energy needed to be a partner. He backed out, leaving me back at square one. I was angry, furious in fact, but at the end of the day, it taught me that not everyone is cut out for the dedication a startup demands. Choosing a business partner takes a great amount of care, if it’s a direction to pursue at all. If it were not for my girlfriend’s morale boosting and emotional support, I would have given up all hope for the enterprise.
Where am I now? I am now down in the far more inviting, far more passionate and agrarian triangle area of North Carolina, with my partner in crime, Ali, with whom I am expecting my first child. We are making local connections and reworking the structure of the business with hope of creating a non-profit element, where we would travel the country with educational workshops for kids and adults, teaching them about the importance of preserving seasonal produce. The idea is to bring people together by connecting communities with their small farmers, and producing a batch of preserves to be auctioned off, with the proceeds returning to the farms and gardens we visit. Hopefully, with some funding, this will become a full-time pursuit.
I have lost sleep, I have been on the verge of tears, and I recently even found some gray hair. But I have a vision, and I will be sure to see it through. I truly believe that with hard work, you can craft your future yourself; you can make anything your own. Even in this depressed job market, embracing your passion can lead to success. You just might want to invest in some good beer, a partner, and a whole mess of patience. Tai chi, perhaps.