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Middletown Life

A sweet success

Dec 30, 2020 02:27PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By John Chambless
Contributing Writer

About 25 years ago, Krista Scudlark was faced with an overflowing garden in her backyard. Her solution – an initial foray into making jam – has taken over her life, making Backyard Jams and Jellies a favorite of customers throughout Delaware.

With a display at the Something Old, Something New shop in Middletown, the small company offers dozens of kinds of jams, jellies, mustards, chutneys and preserves across the region, all made one large pot at a time, on a stove, by hand.

In late February, Scudlark was busily stirring three pots on a commercial stove she rents from a friend in Lewes. The sweet, seductive smell of jam in the making filled the tidy kitchen.

My grandmother made beach plum jelly, and strawberry preserves,” Scudlark said. “I don’t remember my mother ever making jelly.”

So she didn’t have any experience in jam when she started making her first batches, after growing up near Baltimore and then working in several positions with the University of Delaware’s College of Marine Studies. The garden behind Scudlark’s home in Milton is still the source of what goes into the jars, but with ever-increasing demand, she now gets much of her fruit from Fifer Orchards in southern Delaware.

When I started out, everything was from my backyard,” she said.

Without any business knowledge early on, Scudlark worked with the Small Business Development Center through the University of Delaware to find out how to trademark the company name and keep track of all the details of her growing business. About 15 years ago, Backyard Jams and Jellies outgrew her home kitchen, and facing strict rules regarding food production for sales, Scudlark rented a series of commercial kitchens before finding the tucked-away Lewes location about five years ago. It’s nothing fancy, but has everything she needs.

One of the things customers have come to love about the company is the range of flavors – there are 33 varieties of pepper jellies alone – and the fact that everything is made in small batches, about 24 small jars at a time. Last year, she turned out an estimated 2,000 cases – that’s 24,000 jars.

I’m always producing. There’s not even a slowdown in January and February anymore,” Scudlark said, crediting her small group of paid part-time helpers, about four or five in the summer and three in the winter. She laughingly refers to them as her “jelly slaves.”

I’m at my limit right now,” she said of the workload, which offers no downtime. “In the winter, I make and make and make, and it piles up in my hallway and my basement. I sell throughout the year. I have it in stores and I ship and I have one winter farmer’s market. The summer is just ridiculous. People buy them as souvenirs to take home, and they love it. My phone number is on the label, and they call me to ship more. Fall is the time people buy for holiday gifts.”

Scudlark delivers the products to stores herself, one load at a time, in her van. That includes four or five trips each year to the Mandarin Hotel in Washington, D.C., which uses Backyard products in the restaurant, and for in-room service. “About five years ago, one of their chefs came to the Rehoboth Farmers Market and bought some of my jam and really liked it,” Scudlark said. “I was so flattered that I said OK, and now I have to keep delivering about 120 quart jars every time.”

The hallmark of the brand is its strong local connection. The most popular seller – Beach Plum Jelly – is made with the tiny fruits that grow in southern Delaware. This year’s crop was a bust, however, leaving Scudlark with just over a dozen small jars of the sales leader. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

She buys “huge amounts of fruit” from Fifer, located outside Dover, and what she can’t turn into jam immediately is frozen for later use.

Scudlark is constantly thinking of new combinations of flavors, and some have come from customer requests. Basically, if she has the ingredients, she can make it – Mango Pineapple, Persimmon, Chokeberry, along with the usual strawberry and blueberry blends.

There’s a new one, Passion Fire Pepper Jam, which is peaches, apricots and passion fruit juice, along with the peppers,” Scudlark said. “Most of the pepper jellies are a blend of jalapenos and chiles – more like warm, but not excruciating.”

The hottest is the aptly named Screamin’ Ghost. “It’s definitely got a kick, but I can enjoy it,” she said. “They’re all very flavorful – they aren’t just hot.”

Del Tech in Georgetown has begun growing peppers for Backyard Jams and Jellies for the past two years as well, bringing students into the business process.

Along the way, Scudlark has offered some rare varieties, such as Dandelion Jelly. “It’s very labor intensive,” she said, sighing. “You have to pick each dandelion apart, very carefully. One woman liked it, though, and bought everything I had.”

She admitted that Cranberry Mustard might have been a mistake. “I did not care for it at all,” she said, “and I haven’t made it since.”

The company’s second best seller is Drunken Monkey Jam, which used Dogfish Head rum in the recipe, along with bananas, sugar and vanilla. Scudlark’s daughter works for Dogfish, and the family’s home is about two blocks away from the Dogfish headquarters. “I wanted to make some boozy jams, and I guess it’s been about a year ago, we started with Mango Tango. Then we made the Drunken Monkey. It’s delicious. Everybody loves it,” she said.

Each jar sold has a circle of patterned cloth on the lid, a trademark that came about largely by chance. “It’s just to make it pretty,” Scudlark said. “When you make the jam or jelly, it cools for a day. Then when it’s sealed, you can take the outer lid off and put the fabric on. My husband suggested it one summer day when I was elbow-deep in jelly, and I just gave him a look. But it’s become popular. We use a holiday patterned cloth at Christmas, and people love it. We are getting fabric printed with blueberries and cranberries from a company in Maine. It makes the jars noticeable, and makes them better gifts.”

One thing that Scudlark has learned from her decades of jam making is that commercial varieties – the stuff in packets on diner tables, for instance – do not measure up. “My daughter had a sleepover one time and the mom served a commercial brand for breakfast,” Scudlark said. “She came home and said, ‘Mom, it was just awful!’ I guess she had never had store-bought jam before.”

As the face of the company seen frequently at farm markets in the spring and summer, Scudlark has made friendships with buyers, and maintains contact through her Facebook presence and through online sales, sending a bit of Delaware nationwide.

I still enjoy this,” Scudlark said, beaming as she stirred a new pot of jam. “There are times in August when I say, ‘What am I thinking?’, but for the most part, I do still enjoy it.”

While she has help with cutting the fruit and putting it into containers, Scudlark is still the cook who oversees – and stirs -- each jar of her product.

Asked to name her favorite flavor, she picked Peach Raspberry Jam, but added, “I’m not so much of a jelly eater. I’m more of a scrambled egg with Backyard Tomato Chutney kind of girl.”

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To contact John Chambless, email [email protected].

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