Pepper jam-makin – Minnesotan Pam Hoepner has made a hobby of it for years, using her homegrown jalapenos – has turned into a career. Not without challenges, she pointed out. Her scaled-up jam production operation called Pam’s Jams, headquartered in Minneapolis, now sells in retail stores and online.

The jam hobby got serious when Hoepner was laid off several years ago.

“In 2010, I decided to research the possibility of turning this hobby into a business,” she said. “I began by determining how much it cost to produce my jam: ingredients, jars and labels.”

She also researched jams to establish that her price was competitive – and if she could make a profit.

“Since I knew absolutely nothing about the food industry,” Hoepner said, “I visited the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website. I was overwhelmed by the volume of regulations, procedures and laws. And nothing was “across-the-board.” The requirements were different depending on whether I sold my product at farmers markets, community events, on-line or to retail stores.”

She started with farmers markets and community events.

“I’m very glad I did,” she said. “I learned to listen to my customers, what they liked and didn’t like and to be open to making changes.” As a result, she discontinued some flavors, created new ones and made changes to the label.

Her total line of products now stands at four flavors: medium, hot, blueberry and raspberry. One of the limitations, Hoepner has found, is simply retail shelf space.

She spent three months gathering information before officially launching her business in January 2011, speaking with other food vendors. She was pleasantly surprised to discover that most were willing to share resources. “It takes hours to research the state requirements, finding who can meet those requirements,” Hoepner said.

She also called the food inspector assigned to her county. “[The food inspector] was very helpful,” Hoepner said, “explaining the required licenses, the proper insurance, labeling requirements (see sidebar) as well as resources for finding a commercial kitchen, product testing, and other steps.”

Navigate all the hurdles

As Hoepner experienced, there were still obtacles ahead (see sidebar).

“I acquired the applicable state licenses such as Retail Mobile Food Handler for markets and community events, and then a Wholesale/Manufacturing/Processing License, before finding a co-packer,” she said. “After getting a co-packer, I only needed a Wholesale Food Handler license.”

The jams still had to be tested for water activity and pH, and each flavor had to have a nutrition analysis performed, Hoepner said. “Beyond those requirements, I had to purchase UPC codes and design a label that included all that required information – then find a commercial kitchen that met my needs,” she noted.

While the product line stands at four flavors, a major limitation is simply retail shelf space.ALL JAM IMAGES COURTESY OF PAM’S JAMS

She was almost ready to produce her initial inventory at that point, while working under the watchful eye of a food inspector who ensures that all state health procedures are followed.

With the bureaucracy satisfied, she began contacting potential clients for markets and community events. Positive response from the public has been a big support for her.

“My customers have gone out of their way to call or email me, expressing how much they enjoy my jams,” she added.

Growth created need for co-packer

With the many aspects of the business, Hoepner soon realized one person couldn’t keep up this pace, or expand, without major changes. “It was time to find a co-packer,” Hoepner said. That turned out to be a big challenge, but she finally found Minnestalgia. The company brought 25 years of experience making jam to the agreement. They are located nearby in McGregor, Minnesota.

Her recipes had to be scaled up for larger batches and Hoepner uses the time to also upgrade her packaging and labeling.

Her co-packer is inspected twice a year by the Health Department, follows FDA, OSHA, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations, carries product liability insurance, and is licensed through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture with a Wholesale Food Processing/Manufacturing license.

HACCP is a management system that all aspiring produce producers must be familiar with and respect. With HACCP, food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.

Don’t forget liability insurance

Another important aspect of her food business, Hoepner said, is product liability insurance.

Product liability insurance is important, “because it covers medical expenses should a customer come down with a foodborne illness. “Product liability insurance is intended to protect vendors from personal loss due to claims related to their products,” she said.

Lori Erckenbrack, co-owner of Minnestalgia, pointed out that her company, which is also a winery, is “tested every which way. First, we are licensed with Minnesota as a wholesale processor/manufacturer, and are tested twice a year or more.”

Minnestalgia is federally licensed and inspected under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the Bioterrorism Act.

Pam’s Jams can now be found in 39 retail locations, and local community special events. She has currently identified some 230 potential new retail outlets in Minnesota and throughout the United States. And of course, there’s her online presence at http://www.pamspepperjam.com.

COVER PHOTO BY PIOTR KRZESLAK, MELTONMEDIA, & MARILYNA/ISTOCK