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Updated: July 30, 2018 Fact Book 2018

National brand with R&D culture

Photo / Jim Neuger
John Stiker, a Harvard-educated food-industry veteran, took the reins as CEO of Stonewall Kitchen in 2014.

Wild Maine Blueberry Jam may still be the most popular item in Stonewall Kitchen’s pantry, but changing consumer tastes — especially among millennials — mean there’s constant pressure to innovate.

“When you’re in the food world, everybody wants something new and exciting,” notes culinary product developer Michele Cole, the most senior member of the company’s five-person research and development team that tests and tastes all products before they get the green light to go to market. Cole describes their work as half art, half science.

After several rounds of company-wide brainstorming, the R&D team jumps into action in its culinary laboratory at the company’s York corporate headquarters. They start by cooking jams, jellies and other food items in small batches on a stove, adjusting flavors, ingredients and seasoning, recording their impressions along the way and comparing notes with each other.

The process continues until they find a recipe that meets tough in-house scoring criteria. Sometimes it can take numerous tries to get the right formula — 32 in the case of Dulce de Leche Sauce.

Strawberry Lemonade Jelly, among new releases in July 2018, also took several attempts — so many that Cole says she lost track — partly because of varying lemonade tartness-to-sweetness preferences among R&D team members. They also spent a lot of time testing pectins, which are used as setting agents in jellies and jams, to get the texture perfect.

“Trying to get all the stars to align was a long process, probably a couple of months,” says Cole. “We had a lot of tries, but we finally broke through and were able to do it.”

On average, the company introduces 50 new products a year, half in January and half in July. Besides the Strawberry Lemonade Jelly, July 2018 releases include Chipotle Ranch Dressing, Country French Dressing, a Maple Shallot Teriyaki Sauce, Buffalo Sauce and Gochujang Sauce. Its top-selling new item is Ghost Pepper Queso that comes with a “wicked hot” warning, about as different from Wild Maine Blueberry Jam as you can get.

From farmstand to PE-backed global business

Stonewall Kitchen started in 1991 when Jonathan King and Jim Stout sold homemade preserves at a farmers market in Portsmouth, N.H., naming their company for the stone wall outside Stout’s mother’s cottage in Hampton, N.H.

Four years later was a turning point when it won two awards for its roasted garlic and onion jam, prompting hundreds of orders from wholesale customers nationwide. It opened its first company store that same year.

Today, Stonewall Kitchen owns nine stores in the eastern United States (in addition to its flagship in York), produces 15 million jars a year — not just jams and jellies but also mustards, relishes, dips, salsas, spreads and rubs — and ships to more than 50 countries. About 65% of sales are to wholesale clients, which range from small independent retailers to big chains and club wholesalers like Costco, and the rest is split between company stores and direct-to-consumer catalog and online sales.

The company changed hands in 2014 when it was sold to Centre Partners, a middle market-focused private equity firm whose portfolio also includes Florida’s Sun Orchard Juicery and Golding Farms Foods Inc., a maker of private-label, branded and co-manufactured sauces and condiments.

John Stiker, a Harvard-educated food-industry veteran who spent eight years at Centre Partners, took the reins as CEO of Stonewall Kitchen in 2014.

His office at the York HQ resembles a Stonewall Kitchen store, stacked with jams, sauces and pancake mixes in pretty jars and packages. “Business is very good,” Stiker says, reflecting on double-digit sales growth in both wholesale and direct-to-consumer channels since he joined the company. It has grown to about 350 employees, and peaks at around 600 over the holidays.

“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 says. “We’re certainly nowhere close to L.L. Bean, but we’re a nice size.”

He also signaled the possibility for further targeted acquisitions to expand into new premium categories in the same vein as its purchase of Tillen Farms, a maker of cocktail garnishes and condiments, completed in January 2018.

Stiker describes that deal as “perfect,” in part because it gives the buyer entry into a new market segment.

“We at Stonewall had almost no business in the liquor channel,” he says. “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.”

Ideally, he says the aim would be for one or two smaller acquisitions a year.

“We’re not a big enough organization to be doing three or four of these a year,” he adds, “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.”

Multi-generational appeal

Stonewall Kitchen brand users are split evenly across age groups — 25% each for millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers and seniors, according to company data. While most long-time users are consumers over 60, most new users are millennials — 65% of whom have tried the brand in the last 12 months.

Those who try the brand go for variety, with 70% of millennials trying six or more products and 10% sampling more than 25 in the last 12 months, according to company data shared with Mainebiz.

“That’s phenomenal and super-encouraging,” says Stiker. “This brand is a great fit for millennials because it’s interesting flavors and unique recipes you can’t find anyone else. Yes, seniors like jam and crackers — good for them. But if you’re looking at who’s buying Siracha Aoili and who’s buying Sesame Ginger Teriyaki Sauce, that’s where this brand really speaks to this young group looking for more interesting products.”

Despite the never-ending innovation drive, Striker insists that Stonewall Kitchen’s made-in-Maine cachet remains “super-important.”

There’s something about the way this state promotes itself, and I think it’s perceived by people as pure and pristine and natural.

“I always hesitate to compare it to L.L.Bean, but it’s a similar concept. It’s authenticity,” he says. “There’s something about the way this state promotes itself, and I think it’s perceived by people as pure and pristine and natural.” For that reason the company touts its York, Maine, pedigree on every label, even for products made with ingredients from elsewhere.

“It’s why we keep manufacturing here,” Stiker says. “Maine is not necessarily the lowest-cost state to operate in, but it’s an important part of who we are.”

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