Wednesday 23 May 2018

Wexford jam maker stays sweet on local ingredients and sustainability

Wexford Home Preserves is sticking to its roots, even as it continues to expand, writes John Cradden

Sweet success: Tom and Laura Sinnott who run the family business Wexford Home Preserves pictured with their children Robbie and Lila.
Sweet success: Tom and Laura Sinnott who run the family business Wexford Home Preserves pictured with their children Robbie and Lila.

John Cradden

A steady plume of steam is rising from two rows of gas stoves with several large open saucepans. Each saucepan is bubbling away with its own jam, marmalade or preserve - and stirred with hurley-like Exoglass spoons. This is all happening in the commercial kitchens of Wexford Home Preserves - a family business in New Ross, Co Wexford, which is fast becoming one of the biggest homemade jam makers in the country.

The business produces 2,500 large jars a day of its biggest selling range of preserves - not to mention its smaller jars of limited edition products or gift ranges. Yet it still manages to be one of the few jam makers in the country still using the traditional open pot method.

Wholesome taste

It might be hard to replicate the homemade taste on a large scale, but the firm, run by husband-and-wife team Tom and Laura Sinnott, found it to be fairly straightforward. While other firms might use 15 to 20 feet-tall vats to produce their product, the couple just upped everything they did in terms of size.

"We went from small cookers to big cookers, from small boxes to big boxes, so it's quite easy to do," says Tom. "We sped up our method of doing it as well, but still coming out with the same taste.

"The other difference is in the way they are cooked - when the pot is not concealed, it just burns off differently and gives a wholesome taste."

Wexford Home Preserves has its roots in the good old days when what seemed like nearly every farming family in the south-east grew and sold surplus strawberries and raspberries outside their homes and farms, or on roadsides - thanks to its relatively sunny climate and good soil.

Among them was Tom's aunt Ellen O'Leary and her husband Sean, who grew and sold strawberries, raspberries and blackberries at Our Lady's Island in the far south of Wexford. It went well, but Tom's aunt also found that they were dealing with a lot of waste and excess. "So she used them [the leftovers of fruit which couldn't be sold] to make jam, and the jam proved more popular than the strawberries," says Tom.

Ellen set up a company with the name Wexford Home Preserves in 1988. "It got so big she had to build a purpose-built unit at the back of her house. The business grew and grew. She was selling to stores and there was a huge demand [for the jam]," says Tom.

Tom and Laura took over the firm in 2008 when Ellen was in her sixties. "Her family had moved on, with just herself and her husband left, so she decided it was time to retire. She had built up a really strong business and by the time we took over, she had faded out of the stores so we kind of had to start again from scratch."

Tom and Laura rebranded the company but retained the name as it still resonated strongly in the local area. They also relocated the business to New Ross, where the couple are both from.

Ellen stayed working with the couple for a year, teaching Laura all her traditional recipes, while Tom focused on the sales side. "She worked really well with us, she was so good, so determined to make it work for us as well, and we were so committed too," says Tom.

Until 2008, Tom worked as a builder. However, he also previously served time in retail thanks to his family's ownership of a chain of supermarkets, so he knew the trade well. Laura had worked in hotel and catering, tourism and hospitality, including at Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan.

While Ellen's decision to retire created an unexpected opportunity, the couple had both wanted to go into business together. "We were so keen to do something together, so keen to start our own business, so this did fall in our lap - particularly the realisation that this was something that both of us could do," says Tom.

The business, which today employs 10 people, depends on a supply of waste by-products from six or seven local growers, making it a very 'green' and sustainable operation. "It's great business for them because while lots of their strawberries and apples are perfect, they can't sell them because they're the wrong shape or too big. What doesn't fit supermarkets is perfect for us," says Tom. "Their waste is down to a minimum."

It's a surprise then to hear that the company has a new sustainability plan that aims to reduce its own wastage even further.

Zero waste

"We had very little waste here anyway, as all of the fruit is used," says Laura. "The only things that are not used are the pips out of the oranges and lemons. We peel all the oranges and lemons by hand, and remove all the seeds by hand as well." But as part of the plan, they import their oranges from the Ava Maria Farm in Seville. "With their oranges, we keep the seeds and we use them as a pectin in our orange marmalade," says Laura. "So the waste was small when we started off, but with the sustainability plan, it's even smaller."

The plan also prompts them to think about other aspects of the business. For example, the company is putting in a new heating system to harness heat from the kitchen to heat the office.

The firm's main product range includes nine jams, four marmalades, and several relishes, but it also dabbles in many limited editions under the moniker 'Ellen's Choice', such as 'Irish Poitin Marmalade' and 'Wexford Blackcurrant and Rum Jam'. "The reason we do that is to keep the customers interested," says Tom. Sure enough, the demand for the limited editions has made the traditionally quiet months of January and February one of their busiest of the year.

"The sky's the limit with the marmalades." says Laura, who adds that developing the recipes is her favourite part of running the business. They've also spent the last two years developing a new 'No Added Sugar' range which is made with concentrated grape juice - a natural rather than a refined sugar. "We need to move with the times."

The firm's own brand products are currently on the shelves in 200 retailers ranging from small shops to big chains, and mainly in the Munster and Leinster regions. A big breakthrough to a nationwide market came in 2012 when Dunnes Stores asked them to produce preserves for the supermaket's own 'Simply Better' brand.

"That's something we're really happy to be tied to. They want quality Irish product with Irish ingredients, and that links into what we're trying to do," says Tom.

The couple are currently working with An Bord Bia to identify suitable export markets. However, their short-term priority at the moment is to expand the kitchens and prep areas in a way that will allow them to focus more on getting more retailers on board across the country.

"We're currently in about 60 SuperValus and hope to go nationwide with them but need to do some expansion here to allow us to do that," says Tom. "We have the space, so it's just a matter of finding the time and knuckling down to do it."

All the same, the couple aim to gradually scale without fundamentally altering the nature of the business. "The big focus for us is working with the local suppliers and fruit growers," says Tom. "That's our focus It would have been easy to go down the road of mass production but we haven't."

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