Meet Jonathan King '87
My standards have always been high. My partner says I'm sort of like a cross between Martha Stewart and Miranda in 'The Devil Wears Prada.'"
When Pope John-Paul II visited Boston in the late '70s, Jonathan King '87 bought a 50-gallon container of popcorn, stuffed the snack in small brown bags, drew a papal hat on package, and nicknamed his treats "Pope Corn." He was 14.
Three decades later, King is the president and creative director of Stonewall Kitchen, a company with $45 million in annual sales.
While King's instinct for entrepreneurial ventures started early, the Stonewall Kitchen success story began a few years after King graduated from UNH with a degree in psychology. King and James Stott, now his personal and professional partner, were both waiters in the Seacoast area. They met at a Portsmouth coffee shop and soon discovered they shared traits like creative thinking and risk-taking.
Using fruit and produce from King's backyard garden, they began making concoctions like raspberry peach champagne jam and cranberry orange marmalade. Their friends liked their creations so much they encouraged them to sell them at the Portsmouth Farmers' Market. In 1991, they took the plunge.
Each weekend, after working at their respective waiter jobs, King and Stott would stay up past midnight to boil batches of fresh fruit, sugar and pectin on their four-burner kitchen stove. They rose early in the morning to finish packing jars, and handwrite labels.
Their attention to detail and quality paid off. Every Saturday, their line of customers grew and King and Stott began taking their jams to flower shows and farmers' markets throughout New England.
A few years later, a culinary mishap inadvertently helped seal their reputation. They were making a garlic onion barbecue relish for the farmers' market on their kitchen stove. The recipe called for a bit of sugar, which King added and walked away. Unaware his partner had already added sugar, Stott added more while talking to his mother on the phone. The result was interesting, so they packaged it as a jam. Later that year in July 1995, their "mistake"—Roasted Garlic Onion Jam—earned the "Best Jam" award at New York City's Fancy Food Show, which is the food equivalent of winning an "Oscar in the movie business," King says.
By this time their annual sales of $20,000 rocketed to more than $250,000; retail stores began buying their products, as well. The key, King says, was quality. "My standards have always been high," King says. "My partner says I'm sort of like a cross between Martha Stewart and Miranda in the 'The Devil Wears Prada.' Our jams, mustards and sauces have to be the best and as perfect as can be."
"We always looked for the very best fruit and ingredients for our products," he adds. "We used fresh herbs and vegetables from our garden. We never even thought of using any crazy chemicals or additives."
Figuring they had struck a niche in the growing gourmet food trend, King told his parents he was quitting his greenhouse and waiter jobs to make jam for a living. Their reaction was not positive. "They told me I was crazy and needed to see a shrink," he says.
Although they had great products, King and Stott both recognized that King's parents might be right—they were slightly nuts to start a business. They knew little about marketing, sales or large-scale manufacturing. So, just as they sought quality ingredients for their jams, they searched for skilled employees to help them build their company.
"I had no idea how to start a catalogue or balance a financial sheet," King admits. "So, we hired people who were good at doing what we had no clue about." They also wanted employees who believed in the Stonewall Kitchen product, people who would remain loyal to the company and its brand. "Not only did you have to have great credentials, you had to believe in the dream," King says. "If you weren't a foodie, if you weren't into our products, you wouldn't fit into the Stonewall culture."
Now 20 years after their first farmer's market sale, their company employs 300 people who make and ship some 50,000 jars of jams and 35,000 bottles of sauces daily at their manufacturing plant in York, Maine. Their products are sold in 45 different countries and shipped to 5,000 retailers. Stonewall Kitchen is one the most awarded food specialty companies in the country, and its glossy catalogue is now sent to 2.5 million homes.
Their unique brands—Coffee Caramel Sauce, White Nectarine Jam, Wild Maine Blueberry Jam, Red Hot Pepper Jam, Fresh Lemon Curd, Wasabi Horseradish Cream Sauce, Pink Grapefruit Marmalade—are sold in nine different Stonewall Kitchen stores around New England along with their newest store located in Maryland.
The York headquarters, or "The Mother Ship," as King calls it, has grown to include a flagship store, cafe, manufacturing plant and cooking school. Nearly 500,000 customers visit each year, making it one of Maine's biggest tourist attractions.
Phyllis Richard-Sloat was one of Stonewall Kitchen's first hires. The company accountant, she began working for King and Stott when the bills were kept in shoeboxes. Stonewall Kitchen, she explains, is like a large, close-knit family with top executives who are more like relatives than bosses. "We work hard, but we enjoy what we do," Sloat says. "We have a good time and we all have a real strong bond."
King admits there have been some stressful moments over the past 20 years. When they built their headquarters in York in 2000, they spent more than $8 million on the 60,000-square-foot building. "At the time, we were an $8 million dollar company. We felt like we didn't have a penny left," he says.
Forced to raise capital, King and Stott sold seven percent of the company to an investor for $1.5 million to subsidize their growth. Five years later, they bought the share back from the investor and they now own 100 percent of the company again.
Owning the company personally allows them to steward it carefully through recessions. "We have learned to play it safe and protect ourselves in economic downturns," King says. "You need to make sure a bump in the road is not going to bury you." While the company has periodically cut back on large expenditures like opening more stores, Stonewall Kitchen has never skimped on its quality jams, mustards or sauces. "We would never do anything that affects the customer experience," King says.
At home King admits he is a hardcore foodie. While his partner Stott prefers to grab "random stuff" in their Cape Neddick home fridge to make dinner, King revels in meals that take hours and use every pot in the cupboard. "I love stormy weekends spent in my sweats all day in the kitchen making some insanely complicated dish like Beef Bourgogne or Bolognese with homemade pasta."
Stonewall Kitchen accountant Sloat says King has boundless enthusiasm, which provides for a creative and stimulating environment. "When Jonathan starts sharing his ideas, he makes you believe that a project is already off the ground," Sloat says. "He is very quick to conceptualize and see the big picture."
But sometimes King's enthusiasm and his ideas need to be put on hold, Stott says. While Stott credits King's dreams for growing the company, the tumultuous economy has taught them both a few lessons about financial planning and cutting back on unnecessary expenses and expansions.
"We make a good balance," says Stott, Stonewall Kitchen's vice president. "I'm the realist and I'm always tugging on the checkbook pen as Jonathan is floating away on a balloon. As much as we may want to do something, I'm reminding him that it can't happen—at least in the time frame he wants."
Attracting more customers and making better jams consumes King's thoughts 24/7. "We will be at home watching "New York Housewives" or something and his eyes will be glazed over but you know he is still thinking," Stott says. "Before he'll go to bed, he'll tell me, 'You know our Raspberry Peach Jam? I think we need to change it.'"
King's passion and perfection attracts the attention of young entrepreneurs who are eager to build their own businesses. When they ask King for advice, he tells them: start small, think local, focus on the product, and the customers will come. King also advises them to dream big.
King himself has a dream for Stonewall Kitchen—by 2017, he wants to hit $100 million in sales and have created loyal customers in Dubai, Spain, Germany, Russia and China. "I want," the 47-year-old entrepreneur explains, "our products to be a global household name."
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