to Pleasing Palates-]
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
"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
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."