Getting her jam on: Local woman ramps up production
KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — What started as a pastime for Julie Lekwauwa has blossomed into a cottage industry business: Julie’s Jams and Jellies.
Lekwauwa, who was born and raised in Ketchikan as Julie Slanaker, said in an interview with the Ketchikan Daily News (http://bit.ly/2fWtZqc) that the roots of her side business — which for now hits its peak during the Blueberry Arts Festival and the Winter Arts Faire — stretch into childhood, when she would gather berries from around her North End neighborhood that ended up as jam on her mother’s stove top.
When Lekwauwa turned 14, she started making jam on her own after lessons at home and has kept it up for more than two decades, relying on the huge variety of plants and berries that Ketchikan has to offer.
“It’s kind of a stress-reliever for me,” she said.
In her spare time, she’s grown a collection of approximately 120 different recipes for jam and jelly using local ingredients — blueberry, huckleberry, salal berry, rhubarb, spruce tips, fireweed, dandelions and others — and Lower 48 fruits like mangoes, apples and plums, and even some unconventional combinations based on bacon or sodas.
Some recipes are better on crackers, others on cookies. Some — like her rhubarb orange ginger jam — make tasty glazes for salmon, venison and other meat, she said.
She’s cooked her jam and jelly for family and friends, but her brother, Clark Slanaker, encouraged her to enter a few of her recipes at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.
“I entered, I think, four (jams), and I got four ribbons,” Lekwauwa said. “It really didn’t kick off the business until a couple of years later, although people started hearing (about the jam).”
After refusing several requests from individuals hoping to buy her products, Lekwauwa said she got a request in 2012 from Michelle O’Brien to use her salal jelly as a secret ingredient on Ketchikan Public Utilities’ show, “Top Chef.”
Lekwauwa finally broke into small-scale commercial business at the Tongass Community Food Alliance farmers markets.
“I sold eight-and-a-half cases out of 10,” she said. “People went absolutely nuts.”
One of the organizers of the farmers markets, Bett Union-Jakubek, said Lekwauwa was one of the events’ biggest success stories.
“She was just one of our largest, our most successful vendors from the beginning, and our most consistent,” Union-Jakubek said. “She hung in there for three years.”
By the time the markets ceased, Lekwauwa had Ketchikan’s attention. She now often sells her most popular recipes — rhubarb orange ginger jam has been her frequent best seller — by the case instead of the jar.
The move to become a cottage industry business was one she initially resisted.
“I pick and grow almost everything myself, and it was only with the help of my dad (Dan Slanaker), who is 75 years old, that I can currently meet the demand,” Lekwauwa said. ” ... It’s a ton of work. Only with my dad’s help am I able to do it right now, and it’s something we love doing together. I wasn’t sure how long I could sustain it. That’s what I was worried about.”
With business license in hand, Lekwauwa and her father spend their summers collecting their local ingredients and freezing them packages that fit into batches. She said she can cook a double batch — four cases of jars — in an hour and a half.
“There are some weekends — like this last weekend, I made 12 cases of jam because I had three days off from work and I was getting ready for the Winter Arts Faire,” she said.
Her business is now centered on pop-up events — tables set up at Fish From Trish in town — and at Ketchikan’s largest public events. She said she still gets offers from people who want her to go fully commercial — including from high-dollar customers.
“I’ve had calls from one of the cruise lines wanting me to make jam for the cruise line,” she said. “I said I couldn’t meet that volume. I can’t make 800 cases for a season. I said I just can’t make that kind of volume.
“For right now, it’s just a small home-based business that I really enjoy,” she continued. “If at some point in the future I can afford to take it to the next level and I can sustain it, then I would move to the next level, but right now I’m a cottage-based industry.”
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com