US Small Business Administration
VT Small Business Persons of the YEAR!
Honored by the US Small Business Administration
Blake Hill is Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year 2022!
Vicky and Joe were nominated for the award by Marie Dussault, Vermont Economic Development Authority, and Patricia Putnam, Mascoma Bank. In a joint statement the two said, “the past six years the company has experienced tremendous growth and have placed their products and the State of Vermont on the national stage with all their awards and accolades. We strongly believe they embody the spirit and commitment a small business should have in Vermont.”
Where it All Started...
Vicky uniquely combines three generations of preserve making heritage with her and husband Joe’s professional accounting and business risk consulting backgrounds working throughout Europe, South America and Asia, thriving amongst diverse cultures and developing a broad culinary palette. While based in New York City, they discovered the natural beauty of Vermont, converted an old farm to their new home, and Vicky started weekend jam making with wild berries growing on the hillsides surrounding their farmhouse. A friend introduced her homemade creations to a local store, they quickly sold out, and Blake Hill Preserves was born.
Vicky and Joe initially continued their New York City based jobs during the week, returning every weekend to their Vermont farm, harvesting seasonal fruits, making jam, and selling their creations at Farmers Markets. Blake Hill's reputation for quality and innovation spread fast so Vicky and Joe moved to Vermont full-time to dedicate themselves to their flourishing new venture. They built their first commercial kitchen in the meadow next to their farmhouse and - within 12 months – won the US Good Food Awards, became the first US producer to take Gold at The World Marmalade Awards, and won their first account for a national group of stores.
Blake Hill’s Rapid Growth
Constantly innovating to offer market leading products, Blake Hill is now one of the most awarded jam makers in the US today and have developed the skills and capacity to offer over 60 unique sweet, savory and spicy jams, marmalades, condiments and cocktail shrubs, in options from 1.5 oz mini jars, 10 oz retail jars, one to five gallon food service containers, and unique in-house designed gift box collections.
Blake Hill has a diverse, nationwide customer base including over 2,000 grocery and specialty food stores; dining establishments and craft cocktail bars; meal service delivery kit companies; and other specialty manufacturers who use their jams in baked goods, cheeses, and ice cream. Blake Hill also has its own unique Specialty Preserves Shop in Windsor Vermont and website.
Early Business Decisions
Quality, Capacity and Pricing
Decisions related to quality, capacity and pricing can be defining in shaping a company’s growth, culture, brand and, ultimately, success. Early rapid growth can lead companies to spend all their time trying to keep up with demand, sometimes sacrificing quality to simply manufacture like a factory and meet output demands.
Says Vicky, “we had three possible choices as we grew - evolve to become another ubiquitous jam business similar to all the other large companies; maintain our artisan quality by staying small batch and likely significantly increasing pricing simply to cover overheads; or be a differentiator by achieving the same award-winning, artisan quality whether making 100 or 10,000 jars of jam or more a day.
While the most challenging as it requires one to simultaneously be an artisan and logistical specialist, we chose the latter approach as it embodies our commitment to meet our customer’s seemingly insatiable demand for our jams as we are so thankful of their appreciation for our creations, while ensuring that every single jar remains the same quality that launched our business and has driven our success.
We were also advised that, to be successful, we had to compete with the big players on price and offer significant discounts to gain store shelf space and sales traction. Instead, we chose to be competitive through our quality, and fair in our price, and this has been extremely successful for us. This pricing approach is also consistent with our philosophy to enable good, delicious food be accessible to as many people as possible while maintaining brand integrity by using only the finest ingredients. This has enabled us and our team to maintain personal pride in the quality of our jams, and let our fastidious approach to production, and the ability to do this at scale, enable the business to naturally thrive and grow."
Key creative decisions in a business’ growth can also impact the ability to achieve a strong and consistent brand image. “There were moments when market experts suggested a change to our packaging to reflect a market design trend; reduce our product line to a small set of jam and focus exclusively on manufacture rather than product development; or add new products simply to be a part of a market trend. While the weight of expertise and market behind these suggestions could have made them persuasive, we nevertheless decided to maintain our own unique path because that was what made us special, what our customers were enjoying, and to solely follow market trends is not a sustainable way to do business, destroys brand consistency, and curtails creativity” says Vicky.
Blake Hill also decided early on to focus exclusively on internal creativity and not get distracted by what other companies were producing or posting on social media. “By staying pure to our brand and continuously following our own unique creative path, we became more and more distinctive, and this has enabled us to be at the forefront of market developments.” An example of this is Blake Hill’s unique collection of botanical jams inspired by Vicky’s English heritage which was already garnering major awards when botanicals were reported as a new trend in the specialty food world.
“We also believe in creativity and art being an intrinsic part of Blake Hill, communicating our passion to create something artisan, something special. Early on, we took the unusual decision to bring our package design in-house and instead invested our design budget in commissioning a local artist to create unique botanical fruit art for our labels. Inspired simply by the joy of sharing how our customers and local businesses were using our jam to make simple dishes special, we also created our Cooking with Jam series, now with over 160 unique recipes, and another representation of our artisan, personal approach in everything at Blake Hill and, as a result, helps us continue to be distinctive.”
The Team at Blake Hill
While the essence of Blake Hill’s mission is to produce the finest artisan quality jams, the same scrupulous approach to quality is extended to every aspect of the business, with the same investment made in talent for every team from warehouse receiving to kitchen, packaging, outbound shipping and sales.
“We believe every team and each team member contributes to the quality of our product and customer service experience and so we always look to hire the very best talent for every position. To ensure everyone appreciates they are valued, we also provide the same benefit opportunities to every team and at every level of seniority because everyone contributes to our culture of quality and positivity” says Vicky.
While many companies may hit operational challenges as a result of rapid growth, Blake Hill’s focus on proactive investment has meant their growth is actually supporting greater and greater success. “Our customers love for our jam means we are operationally very busy however we have always appreciated the importance of continuous proactive investment to ensure we stay ahead of our business’ needs and continue to provide our customers with the very best products and customer service irrespective of the increasing size of their collective orders. With continuing investment in talent at all levels of our business up to our most senior Executive Director - Lindsay Obar, we believe we offer our very best products and customer experience right now, even though we continue to enjoy significant levels of growth” says Vicky.
Accompanying Blake Hill’s business focus is their philosophy that a responsible business should make a notable, positive difference within its community. “We believe in sharing Blake Hill’s success with our community by continuously increasing local sourcing of products and services; supporting nonprofit community organizations through donations of product and resources; providing valuable, remunerated, work experience to members of our community for whom it may provide helpful social or career development support; and enhancing our net zero waste philosophy so to be a sustainable member of our business community”.
Growing a business in a very competitive market with tight margins; inexpensively priced, highly commercialized national brands; and resource intensive production with continuous capital investment needs takes boldness and resilience to succeed. Vicky and Joe’s professional background in banking and risk management, tackling tough new assignments such as Vicky’s investigation of triad-linked fraud in Asia, or Joe’s oil industry work in Caracas that required the accompaniment of an armed bodyguard, certainly provides plenty of life experience as to how to succeed in highly challenging environments. Combining these unique experiences with their passion for great food, belief in integrity and doing the right thing, and investing in the very best talent to support the quality and capacity needs of the rapidly growing Blake Hill, has created a very unique business that continues to grow and thrive even during these unusual times, and contributes to the well-being and success of their team, their customers, suppliers, and their community.