When you think of the Upper Midwest and preserves, you probably think of one of two traditions: aunts and grannies canning ancient recipes with hopes of State Fair ribbons dancing in their heads, or those little plastic packages of jelly that are regularly served at the less fancy diners and truckstops throughout the region.
Quince and Apple of Madison, Wisconsin takes a third, somewhat more glamorous, approach. Using their own labor, the husband and wife team of Clare and Matt Stoner Fehsenfeld put out about 1,000 jars of product a month, including flavors such as fig and black tea, pear with honey and ginger, and shallot confit with red wine. The first thing you’ll notice when you crank open a jar of their preserves is that they smell correct. Unlike the mass of pectin and sugar that defines many commercial fruit spreads, the offerings of Quince and Apple have wonderfully pure fragrances. The depth and astringency of black tea comes out immediately in the fig flavor. Red wine practically billows from the shallot variety, which finishes with the taste of shallots and a bit of caramelized sweetness. The orange and lemon marmalade is literally eye opening, bright as the sun, a bracing mix of sweet and sour. And the pear, honey, and ginger variety practically begs to be served inside of a crepe.
JAMES NORTON: What’s the original genesis of the company — what was the vision and the business model?
CLARE STONER FEHSENFELD: The idea started with Matt, really. At the time I was teaching piano so I wasn’t doing anything food-related, except tasting all of his crazy ideas! I’ve always been interested in food in the foodie sense — high quality, sustainable, interesting. I originally ended up in Madison because I came to the UW-Madison to study sustainable agriculture. It turns out I’m really bad at farming, gardening, any keeping-plants-alive endeavor. We both are! So I ended up with a degree in biology instead. Which was basically “the really hard degree.”
I learned a lot about numbers, which I’m actually employing quite a lot here at Q&A. And hard work. After college I did music and was self-employed in a band and as a teacher for several years, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. So when Matt hit on the Quince and Apple idea, I was really excited. I am passionate about organizational leadership and development — entrepreneurship runs in my family — and it was an opportunity to really get my hands around something big and awesome that I was fully into.
I always had said to Matt, “I want to run a business, and I don’t even care what it makes or sells, the details are boring. As long as I believe in it, I want to run the organization behind it well.” Now I’m actually getting pretty into jams and things, but Matt will always be the operations guy. If I had to say what our “split” is, I’m the CEO and he’s the COO, but on an equal level. And maybe we’ll really have those titles someday!
Right at the start, we sat down and thought about our core values — honesty, integrity and quality — and our core strategy, which is really founded in relationships. We want to have strong and meaningful relationships with our suppliers, customers, retailers, and eventually our employees, along with our community.
Specifically, we set out to create high-quality preserves with unique flavor combinations. We only make flavors we feel passionate about (and we’ve really thought this through, because I had a minor crisis about it after being accused of “snobbishness” by a potential distributor). Matt has a great and creative mind for food and I have a sensitive palate so it’s a good combo.
In general, that’s our dynamic: He has the ideas and I refine them! We also use all whole, natural ingredients. We always want our production process to be a human process, because only a chef can take varying ingredients (I mean, every time we get a shipment of oranges, they are totally different) and create a somewhat consistent product with them. And I don’t think we aim to be totally consistent, that’s not what small-batch is about, but we have a flavor concept in mind we’re aiming for. So it takes a commitment to a high amount of people-hours per batch to maintain that quality from varying fresh ingredients.
MATT STONER FEHSENFELD: For me, the desire to start my own business has always been there. Both of my parents started their own businesses and so I just always assumed that’s what I would do as well. It was just a matter of figuring out what kind of business I wanted to start! And I’ve always been very into eating interesting foods, even as a kid. I was the kid who put “octopus” for his favorite food on his second grade “All about me” poster.
For a time I thought that I would open a restaurant, but the lifestyle just wasn’t for me. I left the restaurant kitchen and took a job with Potter’s Crackers, an artisan cracker maker here in Madison, as their sales manager and assistant kitchen manager. I worked a lot of farmers markets for Potter’s and so I would spend many hours a week staring at all the amazing fruit coming off of our local farms. Well, you can only look at a table full of freshly picked wild strawberries for so long before you buy some. And, if you’re me, you buy way more than you can reasonably eat fresh and, so, you’re forced to make preserves. I made a batch of Strawberry Jam with Black Pepper and Fresh Mint that afternoon and I was totally hooked. For the rest of the summer, I’d buy up fruits from the other vendors at the market and take them home to try my hand at preserve making. That Christmas, in 2008, I sold jars to friends and family out of our home kitchen and the response was so good that Clare had to help me, and that was the start of Quince and Apple. In April, I left Potter’s to work on the business full time and Clare joined me in May.
The vision and business model is fairly simple — to make high-quality, unique preserves by hand and to sell them to stores that we can develop a relationship with and that understand our product. So far that seems to be working!
CLARE: Right now it’s both of us full-time and that’s it. We just built ourselves a little budget-conscious production kitchen, which is beautiful, in a business incubator called the Madison Enterprise Center in Madison. We are so grateful to have this space because when we started we were subletting from Potter’s Crackers, also in this building, and working from 4 pm until ?! It wasn’t crazy for us to be here until 3 in the morning when we were busy or doing a big batch.
We actually pulled some 3 am nights over the holidays too, because we couldn’t move into our new space until November 15, so we essentially concurrently built our kitchen and had our first holiday season. Aah! We were very happy that we sold preserves, though; it was great to have that validation right after investing the money in our new space.
MATT: Our production volume was all over the map in 2009, since it was our first year in business. But, I’d say we averaged around 1,000 jars per month for the year including December, but did substantially more than that in December because of the holidays. And right now Clare and I are processing the fruit, stirring the pots, and hand-washing, filling, closing, and labeling the jars for each jar we sell. It’s a lot of work, but we think it’s worth it because it guarantees a superior, hand-crafted quality.
NORTON: How do you devise your new recipes — what’s the ideal balance / style that you’re looking for?
CLARE: My take on this is that our recipes should have a Midwestern feel. They should be innovative, but not bodacious for the purpose of being so. They should be unexpected but intuitive. And always something we love!
MATT: I devise most of the recipes with a lot of input and feedback from Clare. I love to think about flavor combinations and envision what they would taste like. I keep a journal of interesting flavor ideas I have and every once in a while one strikes me just right and I set out to make a preserve that tastes like it does in my head. That process can be a long and arduous one. For our Orange Marmalade with Lemons, I must have made 35 test batches,
taking notes on each one and thinking about what needed to be adjusted before moving on to the next, before we got the recipe right. As for the style, I think Clare’s got it just right. We like to push people’s expectations of preserves, but there’s no value in doing something really out there just for the sake of being provocative. The flavors have to make sense to people at a gut level, even if they never would’ve thought of them themselves.
NORTON: Describe your working relationship — how do you guys split the labor and work together? Is it ever stressful?
CLARE: Never stressful! Just kidding! It’s definitely a challenge to work with your hubby. The more we define our roles and give each other space to carry them out the way we each feel is appropriate, the better. Just the other day, Matt had been involved in a situation with some people who had sent us the wrong product, and they called while he was driving and I gave them an earful. I was like, you have to give us our money back!
They did, and I felt great, but Matt was like, “Hey, that’s my relationship with those people.” And I realized, that’s so true, I wouldn’t just do that to my non-husband business partner. So we are always defining those lines. Also, we were unprepared for Christmas, and by the time we realized it, we had no time to get help from anyone. So I think it’s mostly just a learning curve. But overall, I love working with Matt and it’s so great that we get to hang out together every day. Yesterday, we had a jarring session / dance party in the kitchen. Yeah!
MATT: I think we work very well together. There’s always fine tuning of roles and job descriptions, but I imagine that will always be the case and we just try to be flexible and communicative about it. Basically, I’m in charge of most of the operations of the business — ordering, productions, sales, deliveries, etc. Clare is in charge of the more administrative and organizational work — finances, strategic planning, etc. We’re lucky because the areas of the business that I’m really good at and love to do are the areas Clare doesn’t really enjoy and vice versa.
NORTON: How do you incorporate Wisconsin or Upper Midwestern produce in your products — why is it important for you to have a local connection? What percentage of what you make is locally sourced in terms of ingredients?
CLARE: Part of my vision for our business is that as we grow, we can develop a network of supplier relationships and plan our production schedule to take advantage of local and peak-quality produce when it’s available. Like, we might make enough pear preserves in October to last us until they come around again the next year, and then we can
always be local for some of our flavors. I’ve always thought Madison needed a local cannery. I always was like, “Why is that not here?” So that’s us now!
It’s really a matter of developing our business. When we got started, we picked three preserves that specifically do not contain local ingredients — orange, fig, and shallot — so that they would be available year-round! Now we’ve added a fourth year-round preserve, the pear, but we made all the fall version of this from local produce. We’re going to run out of that local stuff pretty soon, unfortunately. Or fortunately, in terms of sales! Then we’ve also done some limited-run seasonal preserves, like we made a Red Currant Jam with some currants we got from a farm near Milwaukee.
Local is important to me because, first, I love Wisconsin and I just want to be involved in the food economy here and bring benefits to fruit growers and the community. Also, it’s just neat to be able to know your suppliers. But at the same time, we always will want to make orange marmalade, so I want to get to the point where we can find the perfect orchard or two that shares our values and build a relationship with them directly. Right now, we’re not necessarily big enough to do that, from a distance.
NORTON: What flavor is your biggest seller — what do people seem to enjoy about it? What was the flavor “theory” behind it…?
MATT: Our biggest seller is Figs and Black Tea. I think people enjoy the fact that it’s not so sweet as other fig jams out there. One of the things I love about figs is their earthy muskiness. It’s such a unique fruit in that way and didn’t want to lose that. I drink a lot of tea and so when I started to think about how to build on and accent that earthiness of the figs, it was one of the first things I thought of.
NORTON: How do your preserves fit into the gastronomic scene around here?
MATT: One of our major focuses is to create preserves that pair well with Wisconsin cheeses. There is such an awesome community of artisan cheesemakers in this state and we draw great inspiration from their work. For example, our Shallot Confit with Red Wine is a great compliment to pungent blue cheeses like the ones from Seymour Dairy and we’ve found that our Orange Marmalade with Lemons accents the sharpness of Sartori’s Asiago really well. We also just love to be in a town as food- and farm-centric as Madison. It makes starting a business like ours just so much easier.
NORTON: Are there any other local companies that are an inspiration for you guys?
CLARE: Definitely. We’ve learned a lot from Potter’s Crackers, where Matt used to work, in terms of what market is available and people’s interests in food. I can’t believe Nancy does it by herself — I respect that. They have really helped create the market niche we’re part of. Fromagination, which was the first store we sold in, has offered us tons of support, advice, and inspiration. Larry’s in Milwaukee has done the same for us.
MATT: Everyone that Clare mentioned is a great inspiration for us, but also all the amazing cheesemakers in this state. I am constantly amazed at the innovation, passion, and commitment to excellence that one finds across the board in Wisconsin cheesemakers, from tiny farmstead operations to much larger cheese companies who stay true to their artisan roots and traditions.
NORTON: What’s the long-term plan / hope for the company?
CLARE: We want to expand our line to include more flavors, develop a relationship-based supplier network, and expand to sell our preserves all over the country in cheese shops and boutiques. I want to be a sustainable national business that brings money back to Wisconsin and does lots of business in the local food economy.
NORTON: Are you available anywhere in Minneapolis-St. Paul, or should our readers just check out your website?
CLARE: We recently started selling at a couple of stores in Chicago, and now that we’re there, I would say the Cities are our next area of interest for expansion! The closest we get is at the Foster Cheese Haus in Osseo, WI, which I saw was featured on your blog. For now, our website sells all our preserves and gift boxes and you can also find us on Foodzie.
NORTON: Anything else you guys wanted to add that I didn’t ask?
CLARE: We put together some gift boxes this Christmas through Foodzie, featuring all Wisconsin products — Potter’s, us, and Otter Creek Cheese in handmade wooden gift boxes from a Wisconsin manufacturer. It was a cool opportunity to collaborate and support our local food scene. We’re going to be doing more for Valentine’s Day, featuring local chocolate probably!