Bill Manning of High Desert Foods is the epitome of the organic apples-to-applesauce businessman. He's the sort of guy who cares about the broader societal and environmental impact of what he produces, yet he also appreciates that increasing the market value of a food product (heritage turkeys, bison, grass-fed beef and, sure, fruit-forward jams) is the quickest way to bring it back from near extinction.
Shortly after the Michigan-born ecologist bought a Durango, Colo., produce farm in 1999, he realized that simply selling his organic fruit the old-fashioned way wasn't going to make ends meet with the low profit margins. As he says on his website, “For small-scale farmers who are trying to compete in an economy that values food for how cheaply it can be produced, the principle of 'in diversity there is stability' translates into two strategies: first, having a diverse crop mix; and second, turning some portion of our harvest into 'shelf-stable' products.”
For that shelf-stable side, he launched High Desert Foods with the help of Deborah Madison (yes, that Deborah Madison). Technically, Manning makes jams, only legally he can't call them jams because the jars are packed so full of fresh fruit. Ah, the red-tape breakfast table fun. Still thinking about starting an artisan food business? Manning (and Madison) both have plenty of advice.
Manning calls his jams “confitures,” the French term for a sweet dessert sauce or jam. In part, sure, it's a clever marketing gimmick, and Manning also believes his products go beyond toast (drizzled on yogurt, a sauce for roast duck).
But it's also as a matter of necessity. Manning says the jam industry requires jams and jellies to have *at least* 50% added sugar to be labeled a jam or jelly. It's a longstanding categorization that corporate jam producers still support, he believes, because more sugar means inexpensive fruit with very little flavor, which works just fine for those grocery store shelves. Not if Manning has anything to do with it.
Squid Ink: That jam and jelly legislation you talk about on your website is pretty crazy.
Bill Manning: I know. It's counterintuitive. You'd think the food system would be designed to maximize our health, to support businesses that do that. It's even more of a peculiar anomaly in the times that we live in now. But there's still that corporate pressure to produce a product in a certain way.
SI: So in a nutshell, as you say on your website, you'd bought a farm and were looking for a secondary business from the crop, hence jam.
BM: Yes, well, as I began to try to think what we could do with our No. 2 fruit, jam is one of the first things that you think about. I was really strongly committed to doing it in a way that reflected the passion to quality that I brought to running the farm. That meant, in my mind, trying to develop products that were tasty and looked good. As it turns out, even though I didn't have the background to develop the recipes, I thought, “How hard can this be? It might take me six months.”
SI: Ha. It never works that way when you start an artisan food business, though, does it?
BM: It took me two years. It's always much more complex when you are committed to quality.
SI: So how did Deborah Madison get involved?
BM: Well, that's an interesting story. I went down to a farm conference down in Albuquerque, and someone at the conference suggested giving her a call. [Laughs] Being just naive enough, I thought, sure, I'll just call Deborah Madison. And so I did. She invited me to stop by — she was being very nice. She's extremely busy and needed another project like mine like she needed another hole in the head. But she's the kind of person who does things simply out of her passion for small-scale farmers. So she said she'd think about it. Every few months she would call me, usually from an airport somewhere, and she'd say she hadn't forgotten about me.
SI: That's nice.
BM: Yes, she's that way. Then eventually she came up to the farm. It was a tremendous value to have long conversations with her. I went down to Santa Fe, stayed with her and her husband, and we started working together.
SI: But simply developing a few great recipes does not necessitate success in the jam business.
BM: Absolutely. Deborah was really key, she's very good at what she does. For her, [helping me start this business] was a process that started not with the recipes but with going to the store and actually looking at the qualities of fruit in different jars, the labeling, the shapes of jars that she found appealing. Could you see what was inside, could you see the fruit? Could you really get a feel as to the presentation of the product? Things like that come naturally to someone like Deborah, but they were things that I hadn't thought through clearly.
SI: Somewhat ironic, as Deborah is often thought of more for her recipes and cookbooks, and you were the business guy here.
BM: Yes. And then we moved from those issues to how would we come at jam, flavorwise, from a more interesting and unique way. Immediately, the conversation was about making them low-sugar. To not just overwhelm someone with a tidal wave of sweet but to focus on the fruit, to really blend textures and think about what were complementary flavors. At that juncture, the whole direction of low-sugar jams was not a slam-dunk, it wasn't a clear road map.
SI: You launched in 2004? Not that long ago. With what seems like everyone making an “artisan” product and a slew of new organic/all-fruit jams on the market every week, that's hard to believe.
BM: Yes, back then, it took some time to ferret that information out. There weren't all of these people doing it. But when I was figuring all this out, the nice thing about working with Deborah was that she'd say, “Well, why don't you call so-and-so, a famous food nutritionist.” And so I did. What I learned after contacting people was that all I had to say was I was working with Deborah Madison, and most people said they had one or two of her books and how much they loved her. She's just one of those people who opens doors.
SI: Did she help develop the recipes? You've got quite an array of interesting jam flavors, things like apricot-lavender and strawberry rhubarb with candied ginger.
BM: Yes, she helped on the recipes. Some recipes specifically she developed in the beginning, but what she really did was help us frame the recipe concept so we could develop other recipes. There was a chef in Durango who had done some work with her in California, so I also had that person to work with for recipe testing.
SI: Recipe testing is a lot more work than some people imagine.
BM: Yes, it was fascinating. Some of those jam recipes, we must have done over 20 different versions to get it to a place that we thought it was the best example. Twenty! So those are the contents. Once we had those down, we designed our own jars, drawing inspiration from Italian glass. For the label we wanted something see-through, so people could see what was inside, since we work with chunky types of fruit.
SI: A reminder that it's an incredibly involved process to start a small food business if you're committed to selling high-quality products. One thing we see over and over is many new food-business owners think the incredible flavor of their small-batch product will negate everyday economics.
BM: That is so true. If you stay committed to the quality of the product, at least in the world of jam, and you follow the traditional marketing model of attempting to bring the product into a variety of different specialty stores like Whole Foods, that can be a train wreck in itself. What I learned from going to trade shows is that people really like our presentation in the jar. They respond first to the packaging, then they taste, and if they like it, then we get into the price point of the product.
SI: It's not just about great flavor, much as we hate to admit it. Just ask any organic farmer who has to deal with customers asking why there are blemishes on the apples.
BM: Exactly. For us, to sell at any volume, we found our wholesale price point was more than most buyers were comfortable with. The pressure is on you to find ways to lower your cost. At a certain point, your whole strategy has to change. You have to make a choice: You have to give up and go with a cheaper product or ingredients, or you have to redirect your marketing strategy. For us, we didn't want to change the quality of our product, so we had to move away from specialty stores and more into direct consumer sales. We sold some jam to Williams-Sonoma for their catalog, and gosh, I really worked hard to get that price as cost-effective as possible because they wouldn't take it otherwise. It was crazy, I got it down to like $3 a jar. I opened the magazine and they listed the jam for $12!
SI: That must have been terribly frustrating. That's also a misconception — the idea that landing a “prime” spot in Whole Foods or wherever is always the best business decision. That if they want you, you'd be crazy not to say yes to sort of thing.
BM: Oh, that is so true. So many small producers think they've died and gone to heaven when they get into a place like Whole Foods. And really, it's rare to get to the point of sustainable sales in that model. Usually you get lost in the ocean of salsas, jams and similar products on the shelf. If your product doesn't turn over, it's returned to you, and you're out of luck.
SI: Right, and today there is also the direct-sales possibility that you were talking about via the Internet, the expansion possibilities there.
BM: Yes, with the Internet, you can build direct sales through a narrow lane of products. It's rare to reach that next level of economic viability. It's been especially important for us. When you're in a place like the Rocky Mountains, it's not the Bay Area where you walk downstairs and there are literally thousands of people walking around to buy your product. You have to think about these things.
SI: Your expansion has been pretty remarkable and rapid considering you launched in 2004. Not that long ago.
BM: Yes, not that long ago. I think that's an example of the explosion in the small-scale world of farming, the proliferation of artisan producers and of using farm products to make specialty foods. There's been an incredible growth in that industry recently.
SI: And hopefully there will be more growth, thanks to people like you — and Deborah Madison — sharing their business insight.
BM: It's one thing that's terrific about this industry. There are so many great folks, we all learn from each other. There's a tremendous amount of information sharing. We don't need to see each other as competitors, and we shouldn't. These are folks we share the boat with. We should enjoy the passion of being grounded in a food system we have created that isn't just a sterile corporate environment. It's alive and vibrant.
SI: Yes, it is terrific.
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