MILTON, Del. — A quarter century ago, Krista Scudlark made a few jars of hot pepper jelly for friends.
Today, she makes nearly 1,000 jars of jam, jelly and mustard a week. Those first few jars were the beginning of a bustling business called Backyard Jams and Jellies.
Her husband, Joe, a professor at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment, makes labels for the jars. Her children help when they can and a staff of eight cut, cook, label and preserve everything from seasonal blueberries to mangoes and quince. All of them are friends. All but one are considered part-time employees.
When she made those hot pepper jellies more than 25 years ago, after asking for the recipe she had tried at a friend’s house, she was hooked, according to her website. Her neighbors owned Franklin Hardware Store in Lewes, Delaware. “One afternoon, while picking grapes, my neighbor suggested that I put a few jars in the hardware store,” she writes on her homepage. “They flew off of the shelves, especially the Beach Plum Jelly, a local favorite. I guess that is when my hobby started to turn into a business.”
Backyard Jams and Jellies now makes 86 varieties of jams, jellies, chutneys and mustards, including Scudlark’s newest creation, a quince jelly made from the once popular Colonial-era fruit.
Her personal favorite is a peach-raspberry jam, although the autumn chutney made with pears, apples, dried cranberries and spices is also a family favorite. During her busy summer season, she estimates that she sells 80 cases a week, a total of some 960 jars.
She sells at local farmers markets and bakeries, restaurants, produce stands and other retail outlets in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She takes numerous orders by telephone.
The busy summer fades into a bustling fall and Scudlark remains busy until Christmas because of holiday shopping.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” she said. “In the summer, it’s 70 or 80 hours a week.”
Everything is handmade and she uses as many local fruits as possible.
A walk through her backyard garden reveals numerous pepper varieties, beach plums, strawberries, grapes, raspberries and even a tiny fig tree. Joe loves to garden and he’s in charge of the numerous peppers and other plants.
“He’s the grower,” she said.
But the business quickly outgrew their small backyard and forced her to look elsewhere. So, she finds local fruits and vegetables where she can.
She browses the same farmers markets where she sells jams.
A local judge has crabapple trees, so Scudlark trades some jars of jam for the crabapples. That’s typical for the business, which uses a blend of hard work and more than a pinch of creativity to find recipes and ideas.
Inspiration can come from almost anywhere.
The mango jelly was born after her daughter’s college roommate said, “Your mom should make mango jelly because I love mangoes.”
The idea for a blueberry-peach jelly came from a blueberry and peach pie that someone brought to the house.
The strawberry and key lime jelly was a happy accident while she worked with her son, Zach, one day. “My son was capping strawberries and we just started dipping them in the key lime jelly and it was really, really good,” she said.
One neighbor, Bill Wilson, is a chef. So, he became her mustard taster as she worked on recipes for her three mustard varieties.
A friend, Wendy Carey, let her use her champagne mustard recipe.
Her lone pickle variety, bread and butter pickles, is her father’s family recipe.
She makes 17 varieties of pepper jellies and just tried her hand at her first wine jelly. Many of the pepper jellies come from the jalapeno, poblano, Anaheim chilies and mariachi peppers grown in the backyard by Joe.
Her husband likes to ask, “Do we have any jam ... or do we have any fruit?” Scudlark jokes. “Smart alec!”
While her kitchen seems dominated by jam production, she learned early on that she needed to have a commercial kitchen in order to run a business. So, she uses the kitchen at a local restaurant, Po’ Boys, on days when the restaurant is closed.
She also learned an early business lesson — that she needed an accountant and that she needed to pay herself.
She has five freezers stocked full of strawberries, peaches and other fruits to last until the next growing season. Her first ribbons from the Delaware State Fair are framed on the kitchen wall.
“I was like the soft spreads queen,” she smiled.
Each jar is capped with a piece of decorative cloth as well as the traditional lid, another of her husband’s ideas. The autumn chutney jar comes with black cloth decorated with candy corn.
She encourages customers to sample her wares at the local markets and she offers a number of different seasonal products in seasonal packaging, all of them homemade and all of them well known in southern Delaware.
Scudlark didn’t really have a business plan for Backyard Jams and Jellies.
“I just asked bakeries and produce stands if they would sell my jellies ... A lot of it was just word of mouth. Now, they are asking me.”
But she still seems a little perplexed by her success.
“It’s crazy,” she laughs. “I didn’t think it would go quite as well as it has ... Every year we’ve sold more and more.”
Backyard Jams and Jellies can be found online at www.backyardjamsandjellies.com or by calling 302-684-0435.