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May 11, 2018

Stonewall Kitchen CEO leaves door ajar for more acquisitions

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Stonewall Kitchen CEO John Stiker said the York-based company is looking to do one or two selective acquisitions a year after last year's purchase of the Tillen Farms brand of pickled vegetables and Bada Bing cherries.

About Stonewall Kitchen

Stonewall Kitchen was founded in 1991 by Jonathan King and Jim Stott, who got their start selling jams and jellies at local farmers markets and fairs. Today, it has 10 company stores in New England, but does most of its selling (65%) through wholesale channels. Its flagship store, headquarters and production are in York, while distribution is handled from Dover, N.H.

As if Stonewall Kitchen's pantry were not full enough, the York-based maker of Wild Maine Blueberry Jam and other delicacies is hungry to add more premium brands through bolt-on acquisitions.

"We think we've gotten to the scale where we can take this infrastructure of people and distribution networks that we have and start to help a select few smaller brands take advantage of that," Stonewall Kitchen CEO John Stiker told Mainebiz in an interview on Wednesday.

Sitting in his office resembling a Stonewall Kitchen store stacked with jams, sauces and pancake mixes in pretty jars and packages, Stiker said the company is open to further acquisitions after last year's purchase of Tillen Farms, a maker of cocktail garnishes and condiments.

While financial terms of that deal were not disclosed, Stiker sees it as the "perfect acquisition," in part because it gives Stonewall Kitchen entry into a new market segment.

"We at Stonewall had almost no business in the liquor channel," he said. "We'll actually take that business and try to sell more Stonewall Kitchen through them, too. We can grow that brand, but that brand may also have some channels or customers that allow us to grow, too."

The Harvard-educated food-industry veteran was at Centre Partners from 2006 until 2014, when it bought Stonewall Kitchen and he took the reins as the company's CEO. Centre Partners is a middle market-focused private equity firm that invests in healthcare and consumer companies.

Stiker said that while most PE firms have a typical investment horizon of three to seven years, that's not the case with Stonewall Kitchen: "They just intend to have a successful investment."

He said that "business is very good," as reflected in double-digit growth rates in both wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales since he's been with the company. Stonewall Kitchen employs about 350 people and peaks at around 600 during the Christmas season.

"We would say that we have progressed from being a small company to a medium-sized company, which is a nice position to be in," he said. "We're certainly nowhere close to L.L. Bean, but we're a nice size."

As for future expansion, he said Stonewall Kitchen would look to follow the Tillen Farms deal with more acquisitions. Asked if there's anything on the radar right now, he said, "You bet!"

"We're not a big enough organization to be doing three or four of these a year," he added, "but if we can do one or two at a nice little pace, it's a greater way for us to expand into other categories to help grow other bands, and in some cases those brands can help us grow the Stonewall kitchen business."

Stiker is also keeping tabs on dealmaking in the industry, like Mondelez International Inc.'s purchase of Tate's Bake Shop, for about $500 million, unveiled earlier this week. The deal will give the buyer, an Illinois-based food conglomerate that makes Oreo and Chips Ahoy! mass-brand cookies, ownership of a Southampton, N.Y.-based maker of premium cookies with nationwide distribution.

Stiker said that while Stonewall Kitchen is not actively for sale, it wouldn't turn down an offer at the right price from an interested suitor.

"If they called me today and said, 'Hey, we'll buy you for $500 million, it would happen," he said.

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