While most new college graduates find themselves struggling to find their first jobs and get their careers off the ground, a Mountain Brook resident who graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham earlier this month has already used the skills she learned as an undergraduate to launch a business that has deep roots.
As a UAB graduate with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, Amy Clark can whip up a mean brochure. And as the co-owner of a new farm-to-table canning business, the 38-year-old can also whip out some sweet strawberry preserves.
Clark and her sister have started a canning business called Genevines, which means “coming from or off the vine” in French. The company’s products, complete with chic logos and labels designed by Clark, will soon be stocked on the shelves of Birmingham’s Freshfully Market in Avondale and at both the Homewood and Tuscaloosa locations of Alabama Goods.
Genevines’ artisanal canned goods and screen-printed T-shirts, aprons and baby onesies will also be on sale at Pepper Place Saturday Market beginning in June.
“To be able to combine what I learned in the fine arts program at UAB with trying to revive canning, which I think is a dying art, is something I feel so blessed to be able to do,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky.”
But it wasn’t just luck that led Clark to heading up her own business with a brand-new degree under her belt.
The daughter of Tim Clark, the pastor at Brookwood Baptist Church, Clark graduated from high school and went to a community college in Kentucky for about a year. She didn’t finish because at that point, she said, she still hadn’t figured out what she wanted to do as a career.
“I just didn’t know what I wanted to study or what career I wanted to pursue, so after about a year, I decided to quit because I felt like I was wasting time and money,” she said.
After that, Clark tried beauty school and then worked in restaurant management for a while.
“I’m literally a beauty school dropout. After about a year of that, I knew it wasn’t for me, so I spent a good while managing restaurants. I was still trying to figure out what my passion was,” she said.
When her father was working as a pastor in Knoxville, Tenn., Clark worked as an administrative assistant at his church.
That’s where she first got the idea for a career in graphic design.
“I wanted to make all these great flyers and programs for the church and for our programs there, but I just didn’t know how. I had zero skills that would let me do what I wanted, so I wanted to learn. That sparked my interest in graphic design,” she said.
Around that time, Clark’s father got a job offer as pastor at Brookwood Baptist and said he’d accept the position if his whole family could come with him.
So the Clarks packed up and moved to Alabama, arriving at their new home on Jan. 1, 2009.
“When we moved here, I finished my prerequisite classes at Jefferson State (Community College) and then enrolled at UAB,” she said.
While studying at UAB, Clark and her sister, Abby Sellers, helped their mother and father in a garden they started on property they own near Forestdale.
The family has always grown vegetables and had farm animals no matter where they lived, Clark said.
During the 11 years the family lived in rural Kentucky, they also kept sheep, Clark said.
“My mother and father have always grown vegetables, and we always helped them. It was just part of our family life,” she said. “I remember one time in Kentucky, my dad came home with a herd of sheep. Neither of my parents knew a thing about raising sheep, but my father ended up producing and selling sheep’s milk cheese. They just dove into it and loved it.”
Her father even went to Scotland to serve as an apprentice to a master cheese maker who gave him his treasured recipes and blessings to produce and sell sheep’s milk cheese in the United States, Clark said.
Clark said she also has fond memories of working on her grandparents’ farm and learning canning from her parents and grandparents.
“My granny and pawpaw spent many hours putting up garden goodness each year,” she said. “Every time I make and can a batch of half-runner green beans or some apple butter, it brings me closer to the practices of my ancestors.”
Clark said she is deeply interested in the traditional practices that surround Southern families and rural cultures and wanted to use those influences to establish a personal connection to her art.
That desire to connect with the domestic arts perfected by her family was something Clark first explored using the graphic design skills she was learning at UAB.
For one of her school projects, Clark started a ‘zine, or small self-published magazine, on canning. The publication talked about the process of canning and offered helpful hints for beginners, along with recipes.
“Everybody kind of went crazy over it, and that made me start thinking about how I could combine those two things–canning and my design degree–to do something when I finished my degree,” she said.
So in her sophomore year at UAB, Clark started brainstorming with her sister on how to blend those two talents into a tasty small business rich with family heritage.
“We came up with the name of Genevines pretty early on,” Clark said. “It was my grandfather’s pet name for my grandmother, and then we found out that it means ‘coming from or off the vine’ in French, and it just all fit. The company’s name has several layers of deep meaning to me. It reminds me of my grandparents, where I come from and gives the connotation of passing something down from generation to generation.”
While they had decided on a name, Clark and her sister still hadn’t come up with a plan on exactly how the business they wanted to start would work.
When it came time for her senior project where Clark’s work would be displayed at the UAB art gallery, she struggled at first on how to take all that she had learned in graphic design and make something tangible to exhibit.
“For painters, they display all the paintings they’ve worked on for the last four years, but I was having a hard time coming up with a way to showcase my work until I started thinking about how I needed to brand the company,” she said.
So Clark came up with the idea of creating a portable farmers’ market booth for her senior art exhibit, complete with a painted tent, screen-printed tablecloths, shelves for displaying the canned goods and labels that she hand-cut for all of the canning jars.
“I knew I wanted to make my BFA show work for me as much as possible, so I decided to use the resources that I had at my disposal at school,” she said. “I used my fellow students as a focus group for branding my budding company. My professor, Doug Barrett, gave me the perfect platform to execute my design.”
Clark’s exhibit won rave reviews from her professors and classmates, and she knew once she graduated, she and her sister were ready to forge ahead with their plans for the company.
“Initially, we thought about just having a facility where people could come and learn how to can and take home what they had canned. We envisioned it as a social thing, too, where you come in with your friends, do some canning, have a glass of wine and take home a valuable new skill,” she said.
But after telling a few people about the company, including Sam Brasseale of Freshfully Market whom she met during her graphic design portfolio review, Genevines took on a life of its own, she said.
“All of this has really started moving in the last month. It’s really taken off quickly. First, Sam wanted our products in Freshfully Markets, and I just got word that Genevines will be in both locations of Alabama Goods. It’s incredible,” she said.
Now, Clark and her sister, who is finishing up culinary school and works as a chef at Birmingham’s Todd English P.U.B., are working on setting up a commercial-sized kitchen at their family’s property in Forestdale.
“It’s this gorgeous, tree-covered property on Haven Drive, which is appropriate because it’s always been my family’s little haven, and now it will be where we begin to grow our company,” Clark said.
Clark said her family’s support has been phenomenal, and she knows she can continue to count on them as she moves forward with plans for the company.
“It’s a true family effort, from growing the produce to canning it to getting it ready for the store shelves,” she said. “I feel really blessed to be able to do this with the people I love.”
For now, Clark said Genevines will specialize in small-batch artisanal foods and will begin teaching canning classes and catering small events as well.
“I think a lot of people are really interested in where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. The farm-to-table movement is growing, and people are thinking about sustainability and preserving these kind of traditions like canning that are passed down as part of the culture,” she said.
Eventually, Clark said, she would like to expand the “growing” side of Genevines into a you-pick-it farm and community-supported agriculture program with a network of people who have pledged to support a local farm.
“It took me a long time to get here, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where God wants me to be and this is what he wants me to do,” she said. “It’s all coming together, and it’s incredibly exciting.”
For more information on Genevines, visit www.genevines.com.
Amy Clark shared these canning recipes that have been passed down through the generations in her family:
Picked Brussels Sprouts
3-4 pounds of Brussels sprouts
18 garlic cloves
9 fresh jalapeño peppers
9 sprigs of fresh dill
4 cups of white vinegar
4 cups of water
½ cup of pickling salt
¼ cup of sugar
2 tablespoons of hot pepper flakes
Pack sprouts in tight, cutting the large ones in half. Add two cloves and one pepper to each jar.
Bring vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour vinegar mixture over sprouts, filling to about a 1/2-inch of headspace in the jar. Remove air bubbles with the end of a plastic utensil. Wipe jar rims and cover with new lids and bands.
Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Yield: 9 pint jars.
Meyer Lemon Blueberry Basil Marmalade
1 pound of Meyer lemons
2 pounds of blueberries
3 tablespoons of fresh Meyer lemon juice
4 cups of sugar
Sterilize jars in dishwasher and lids in boiling water on the stovetop.
Cut the lemons into segments, reserving the peel. Make sure to cut off as much of the white membrane as possible; otherwise, it will make the marmalade bitter.
Finely slice the peel of the lemon rind in a Julienne style until you have about 1 cup.
Put the juice, blueberries and sugar in a pan and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. As the mixture begins to boil, add the lemon segments and the rinds.
Boil mixture until the syrup is thick and registers about 220 degrees on a candy thermometer. This will take about 20 minutes or longer.
When the marmalade is “sheeting” on a metal spoon and there are ripples of the syrup moving slowly down the spoon, it is ready to be jarred.
Ladle the hot marmalade into the jars, leaving about 1/4-inch headspace at the top. Wipe the rims and put a lid and ring on securely.
Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Remove jars and let cool on a wire baking rack for 12 hours.
Yield: 5-6 half-pint jars.