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UMaine Today Magazine

Savoring sophistication
Back to Pleasing Palates-]

Jeff Johnson of Pemberton's Gourmet Foods
Jeff Johnson of Pemberton's Gourmet Foods

The tangy, piquant aroma of fresh ginger and cashews electrifies the spacious commercial kitchen where a thick, golden sauce is cooking in a 70-gallon steam-jacketed kettle, nearly ready for bottling.

As he does with every batch of the all-natural products he makes, Jeff Johnson, owner of Pemberton's Gourmet Foods, does a taste test. It's just one of the many small steps that combine to create a "handcrafted" food product line made with pride.

"The most rewarding part of owning a business like this is getting a call from consumers who are taking the time to tell you yours is the best pasta sauce they've ever had," Johnson says. "The calls and e-mails come right to me. It's great to get a big order and have a big month, but I'm reminded why I'm in this business when people take time to reward us with compliments."

Two decades ago, Johnson and his wife, Sarah, were in Boston, working for a marketing agency with giant clients like Nabisco when they found themselves wishing for careers in which they could control the food process from beginning to end.

Plus, Sarah was a terrific, intuitive, natural cook.

"If we could create the product, that meant we could add so much more to the branding of it," Johnson says. "The idea was to create a brand from scratch and give it meaning."

In 2000, the Johnsons bought two companies from Stewart and Suzanne Blackburn, including the 'Stache Foods, maker of the Death by Chocolate specialty line. For a year and a half, the Johnsons operated out of the Blackburn's Bremen production facility, "soaking up a lot of learning" about brand equity and product performance. They also got a crash course in manufacturing in preparation for moving to their current facility in Gray, in what was once a sprawling bus depot.

Then it was time to rebrand the company.

They chose Pemberton's, a family name, to develop a sophisticated brand image that represents "quasi-English, internationally flaired foods."

"We had an idea of what we wanted to do in five years, and to do that, we needed a unified brand that could grow the company more successfully. It took us six years, but now all the products are packaged the way we like and all the products sell at an acceptable rate. Now the product development effort we used to do just after Christmas is happening year-round."

What started with upward of 80 recipes has been streamlined to a company offering up to 40 gourmet products. Under the Pemberton's brand, the Johnsons introduced pasta sauce and olive pesto, salsas that are not tomato-based, and cooking sauces, all the result of Sarah initially spending a lot of time in the kitchen.

The result is a taste sensation like Tuscan Olive Pesto, one of Pemberton's bestsellers. The chunky sauce is "truly different, with a lot of flavors happening at once" black and green olives, pine nuts and anchovies, and premium olive oil. It's also Johnson's favorite.

"The biggest challenge has been finding the balance between growth and management efforts," says Johnson. "A lot of it has to do with assessing the market to find out where there is room for growth, and where there are need and opportunities. We match the opportunity and need against the brand image.

For other challenges, like ingredient interaction in prototype products, the Johnsons tapped the expertise of University of Maine food scientist Al Bushway. Regardless of the food product, Bushway provided technical expertise.

"Al has helped us make our products the best they can be," Johnson says. "On a tactical level, he has been our outside guidance counselor on production. He's steered us in the right direction so we're not wasting time. Not only has he helped make our products with the highest quality and highest safety standards, he's helping us explore new opportunities with clients."

Bushway was familiar with the Death by Chocolate line of products, having worked with Blackburn for more than 15 years. Johnson first called Bushway as Pemberton's prepared to launch its dessert mixes, fillings and sauces.

"I have a reason to call or e-mail at least once every couple weeks," says Johnson, who to this day has not met Bushway in person. "There's always a question that comes up, something we want to confirm with him. It's a match made in heaven."

Because starting a business can be stressful and overwhelming, says Johnson, it's important to surround yourself with "an expertise at a high level." That's especially true of Pemberton's eight employees, whom Johnson touts for their initiative and dedication.

They also gave him "the confidence to continue on" after Sarah lost her two-and-a-half year battle with cancer this past May.

The crew split up Sarah's responsibilities as production manager to ensure Pemberton's continued success.

"All of us in the industry have a passion for food, to the point that we as consumers will try to seek out the more premium product, realizing it costs more but we'll get a better experience out of it and appreciate it more," Johnson says.

"We're out there for people who do appreciate a better meal, a more memorable experience with food. We feel we have a great from-the-heart story to tell. We don't have grandmother's recipe, but we have the know-how, creativity and skills necessary to be here."


UMaine Today Magazine
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