MIDDLEBURY — They’re not jams because they’re savory, and they’re not quite chutneys because there is not much spice. So what exactly are the sauces that Suzanne Calhoun has been cooking up for the last eight months?
Calhoun, the Middlebury College student and Vermont native who last summer introduced the delicious, all-natural products as Suzanne’s Sweet Savories, is an avid gardener who began exploring sauce-making to preserve tomatoes from her family’s Jericho garden.
Now, using skills she developed in an entrepreneurship program at the college, she is trying to nurture her contribution to the local foods movement into a moneymaking business.
“I started experimenting with a mix between a salsa and a ketchup, because I wanted to preserve that really nice tomato flavor,” she said.
She started with tomatoes, but quickly expanded into apple, blueberry, carrot, cranberry, pear and rhubarb.
Calhoun’s sauces, as she describes them, are ones “that could go on a lot of different dishes, and add that really nice, garden-fresh flavor.”
Her versatile product can be used in many ways: as a glaze for meats (she recommends the apple variety for pork chops), on grilled cheese sandwiches (the blueberry is suggested), as veggie dips, or paired with local cheeses. Her website hosts a range of suggestions.
She spent her summer making the rounds at Vermont farmers’ markets to sell her wares, and currently has her product in nine stores.
“Vermont has been really helpful,” she said. “There already is a big local food movement and there is a lot of support for small business in the regulations and in people who are excited about them and trying to help you out.”
Calhoun, who was homeschooled along with her older sister and younger brother, had a strong background in self-directed learning and entrepreneurial pursuits. Homeschooling allowed her to follow her passions, and her parents led by example; Calhoun recalled them taking the family on a six-month road trip to the Grand Canyon and back in an RV in order to see the country. During the gap year she took before starting at Middlebury, she launched a website called “Art on a Hill” as a platform to sell her mother’s watercolor paintings and Suzanne’s own photography and jewelry designs.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Calhoun had considered using her sauce recipes to launch a business, but admitted she had not pursued it very seriously.
“I didn’t know how to proceed,” she said.
Then last winter Calhoun enrolled in the college’s entrepreneurship training program MiddCORE, at the time offered as a winter term course. It was an immersive, experiential class that has in recent years since expanded its programs to include summer workshops and academic internships.
Calhoun and the other students in the MiddCORE class took part in hands-on challenges developed by visiting mentors (including CEOs, successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists), as well as college professors. The challenges were designed to build students’ entrepreneurial skills. While many MiddCORE activities stress group building and collaboration, the students were also presented with an “Innovation Challenge” and asked to develop a new product or idea, a new way to deliver an existing product or idea, or an innovative solution to a social problem.
Calhoun was in her element, remembered MiddCORE director Jessica Holmes, who is also a professor of economics at the college.
“She’s very entrepreneurial,” said Holmes, recalling that just a few days after the Innovation Challenge was announced to the students, Calhoun approached Holmes in the parking lot after class to share a number of product ideas demonstrating her range of interests, including making clothing, designing jewelry and, of course, cooking up sauces.
Over the course of the program Calhoun fine-tuned her pitch and business plan, seeking feedback from MiddCORE mentors and refining her approach. She won first runner-up in the class contest, and continued to cultivate her idea throughout spring semester. She won a $3,000 “MiddChallenge” grant from the college to launch her business over the summer.
“I have a high busy tolerance,” Calhoun said, but she admitted that the process of getting certified and getting massive quantities of quality local produce (except the blueberries, which she prefers to source from Maine) kept her on the go during the summer months.
“There was a hole in the market,” Calhoun told an audience of more than 100 investors, entrepreneurs and state officials at the recent Financing the Working Landscape conference in Middlebury. In the presentation her MiddCORE-honed sales pitch and presentation skills were on full display.
Hosted by the Addison County Relocalization Network, the Addison County Economic Development Corp. and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, the conference featured more than a hundred budding young entrepreneurs and seasoned economic advisers and investors.
Calhoun’s question to the conference’s panel of financial experts was about communicating the versatility of the product without overwhelming the shopper. She explained that her product was versatile enough that stores were confused about where to place it —was it a condiment or a jam? Would it sell well in the meat or cheese section?
“There is nothing really like it,” she said.
Calhoun had attended the Financing the Working Landscape conference to seek more feedback and advice about marketing and branding, which had been her biggest challenge since getting the business off the ground. Though she custom-designed intricate, colorful labels, she was not sure that they were getting the message across.
Now that farmers’ market season is over — and Calhoun is a full-time college student again — she is working on expanding distribution into more stores. In the meantime, she is still soliciting feedback and making connections with the movers and shakers of Vermont’s local food industry, a fact that doesn’t surprise Holmes in the least.
“She was a pleasure to work with,” Holmes said. “She is driven, creative and resourceful. She’s taken advantage of all the entrepreneurial opportunities in the college, in Addison County and even around the state of Vermont.”