‘Get Pickled’ - Sharon McNabb talks to Diana Noonan about her home-based preserving business
In her 8th year of business, Sharon McNabb of Get Pickled still loves her job. A Wellsford landscaper, she turned to preserving pickles and jams as a relief from endless days at home as she recovered from an injury – and has never looked back.
The secret ingredients
Much of the produce Sharon uses in her cooking comes from her own garden which offers grapefruit and lemons for marmalade, and Golden Queen and Paragon peaches and feijoas for jams and chutneys. The vege garden is the source of chilies and tomatoes as well as essential herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary, and oregano (the rosemary is especially important for Sharon’s onion Marmolada while the oregano is an essential ingredient in her Simmering and Sizzling Salsas). Produce that Sharon can’t grow enough of herself (such as berries, beetroot, and onions) is bought from local orchardists and farmers’ markets.
Processing the product until it is required for preservation is an ongoing activity and the results fill 3 large freezers. Even citrus is frozen. The one thing that doesn’t go in the freezer is tomatoes which Sharon says ‘simply turn to water’ when defrosted. Consequently, they are her most expensive buy as they are required throughout the year, even in the middle of winter when they retail at the supermarket for $11 a kilo. Vigilant about choosing produce that is well ripened, Sharon will often bring supermarket vine tomatoes home and ripen them in the sun until they are ready to use.
Hired help – no thanks!
Cooking during the winter months is a once-a-week activity but as the landscaping drops off in the warmer weather when it’s too dry to plant trees, Sharon finds herself preserving 2-3 days a week. Turning out around 50 jars of preserves a day, she can still barely keep up with demand. Interestingly, she’s adamant she doesn’t want to take on staff.
“I don’t want to get into a factory situation where I’m having to rely on workers. And I don’t enjoy paperwork so employment contracts and the like would be a nightmare for me. At the moment I can handle the marketing myself. I don’t enjoy it, but I get by.”
Sharon says she would also find it difficult if others had to be taught how to do the cooking.
“I do everything myself because the recipes are very much mine and a lot of the cooking is based on intuition. Fruit and produce vary so much and sometimes you need to adjust other ingredients to compensate for sugar content or acidity.
However, Sharon does enjoy the assistance of two special volunteer ‘workers’; her mum and dad, who live with Sharon, are in their late eighties and enjoy helping pop the labels onto the jars!
Just as she doesn’t want to hire help, Sharon is sure she doesn’t want to grow her business by selling in shops.
“Big companies are run by a central office and that office will decide exactly what produce goes into each product. There’s no room for personal innovation.”
Big businesses also constantly want to beat down the price paid to suppliers. Although Sharon makes only a small profit on each jar of preserves, she’s happy with it.
“If I was to sell wholesale, I’d never get to meet the people who enjoy what I make. My preserves would be just another product sitting on a shelf. They wouldn’t have any personality behind them. I don’t want my products to become anonymous. When I make them, part of the enjoyment is in giving away a little of my personality with each jar.”
Behind the scenes
While Sharon enjoys the simple pleasure of seeing first-hand how much others enjoy her preserves, the setting up of her business is far from simple, especially as she was determined from the outset to do everything by the book.
“I first applied to my local council to have my kitchen at home accepted for registration, and then worked through an independent verifier called AsureQuality to achieve my compliance certificate. The process cost around $2,500 for my current licence which will last 3 years. If I had worked only through the Council, the cost would have been $900 for the first year and $700 a year thereafter.”
Complying wasn’t as difficult for Sharon as it would be for some food handlers because she is dealing only with fruit and vegetables, produce which is relatively low risk and cooked, which makes it sterile.
Jars are another cost of the business and Sharon is pleased that, unlike the lids which must be new for each preserve, they can be recycled. In fact, her many repeat customers regularly return the jars to her in person.
The labels on the preserves were designed by Sharon and brought to life with the help of a graphic designer. The labels are heavy-duty and are designed to last in a fridge or freezer for up to a year without deteriorating. Sharon considers the extra cost of quality labels worthwhile as the jars still look good, months after the product has been opened.
Sharon’s tools of the trade are as no-nonsense as her approach to business.
“I use a regular kitchen processor for the fruit and vegetables and a small Ninja-style processor for chopping up herbs (it saves hours of work).”
Sharon sells her preserves at two-weekend markets (Mangawhai on Saturday and Orewa on Sunday) where they are sought-after for their low sugar content and the option for gluten-free ingredients.
“People’s tastes have changed over the years. Nowadays, customers want to taste the fruit in jams and the spices in pickles. Because I use less sugar than is usually called for in a recipe, I rely on lemon and lemon rind to help with setting, and I boil the fruit for a long time. I don’t pretend my preserves are like a store-bought variety. They are a bit runnier but I say to people they last longer because you spread them more thinly on your toast. And they taste so much better because the fresh produce isn’t masked by sugar.”
This point of difference may be why Sharon is unafraid of growing competition at markets where, once, she was the only seller of preserves. Interestingly, however, it is the old Kiwi favourites such as beetroot relish and mustard pickles that are most popular.
“If your product is good, then it will sell. I don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or feel they’re taking a piece of my pie. I concentrate on making a good product and seeing it sell. And I’m still doing fine.”
Although customers can purchase online at Sharon’s website http://www.getpickled.co.nz, only 15% of products sell in this way, with the rest being sold at markets. However, shipping is a simple affair with up to 5kgs of produce able to be sent anywhere on the North Island for just $8.50, and in the South Island for $11.50.
Sharon has thought about selling at the likes of trade fairs but says the cost is prohibitive and the stress of making enough product to last for three days of sales would take all the fun out of cooking
Sharon is philosophical about the future of her business.
“As I grow older and am less physically able, I may not want to continue with landscaping but I should still be able to keep cooking. I’m proud to produce food that is healthy, and which tastes and looks good. I know that if I didn’t have other commitments, and cooked full time, I would be able to sell all the produce I could make.”
Top tips from Sharon for starting a small home preserving business
- Invest in an EFTPOST machine to use at market days (they cost around $100 a month). People don’t carry cash and many don’t want to take the time to walk to an EFTPOST machine to take out money.
- If you don’t have a necessary skill, employ someone who does. My graphic designer and web designer are worth their weight in gold.
- It’s not really possible to start your business without first jumping through all the legal hoops of registering a kitchen. If you want to test the market, cook for friends and family and note their reactions.
- If you find you’re doing something that you really enjoy, and you’re happy to share it with others, then that’s the clue you should take the next step.
On a personal note
As someone who loves what she does, and who is also a cancer survivor, Sharon can’t help but reflect on how fortunate she is to have the health to continue with her business. That’s why she has a message for everyone out there who enjoys what they do.
“Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for a bowel-screening test, a CEA (further bowel testing), prostate check or mammogram. Prevention is always better than cure and if I hadn’t been proactive, I would be here today to enjoy cooking for you!”