By Keysha Drexel
When she decided to leave behind the long hours of her job in advertising to become a stay-at-home mom, Jennifer Lee of Homewood approached the change the way she approaches most things in life–by going all out.
In the 12 years since the 42-year-old mother of three traded in her corporate wardrobe for an apron and an oven mitt, she’s transformed a hobby into a national business.
“When I see the shipping labels to send my products to Las Vegas or Minnesota, I still can’t believe that this is something that started in my kitchen,” Lee said.
Lee is the owner of From Jennifer’s Kitchen, a line of all-natural pepper jellies she developed from her own recipes. The line is sold locally at A Little Something in Cahaba Heights and is also available online.
While Lee said she’s developed loyal customers in the Over the Mountain and Birmingham metro areas, she’s still amazed at the regions of the country that can’t get enough of her pepper jellies.
“They love the pepper jellies in Texas,” Lee said. “I don’t know why, but I probably have more customers there than in all the other states combined.”
The path to national success for Lee’s pepper jelly line began with the young mother’s desire to conquer the domestic realm.
“Back then, the only thing that was on television during the day was Martha Stewart and Christopher Lowell,” she said. “I would watch those shows and think that I could do those things, and so I decided I wanted to master them and be the best stay-at-home mom I could possibly be.”
As she expanded her culinary repertoire, Lee decided to try her hand at making one of her father’s favorite recipes for the holidays.
“My father loves this cranberry sauce, a cranberry conserve that his mother used to make for him, so one Christmas I thought it would be nice to try and make some for him by developing a similar recipe,” Lee said.
Lee’s cranberry conserve was a hit with the family that Christmas and won the approval of the one person she most wanted to impress—her dad.
“He loved it and I was thrilled,” Lee said. “The next year, my mom wanted me to try to make some pepper jelly for her, and it was also a big hit with my family and friends.”
The pepper jelly went over so well, Lee said, that before too long, she was making enough to feed a small army–or a lot of customers.
“Before I knew it, I was making 1,000 jars each Christmas to give to family and friends,” she said. “It was around that time that my husband said it was time to get out of our kitchen and think bigger.”
Lee said she was both excited and scared about launching her own company.
“This was a hobby, and now it was going to become work. That was scary,” she said.
Lee started taking her pepper jellies to local markets and having shows at her house to demonstrate how to use the pepper jellies in recipes.
As the demand for her products grew, Lee said she knew it was time to start producing on a larger scale.
“It took about two years to convert to the setup we have now where the jellies are made and packaged in Oklahoma,” she said. “We chose Oklahoma because it was centrally located and gave us great access to fresh fruits to make the jellies and great access for shipping them all over the country.”
The jellies are still all-natural and do not include preservatives or food coloring, Lee said.
“My youngest son is allergic to food coloring, and so I understand personally why it’s so important to keep those high quality standards in my products,” she said.
Lee said she will be glad to have some time at home this Christmas to spend with her husband of 18 years, Douglas, and their children, 15-year-old Parker, 13-year-old Anna Corinne and 7-year-old Ethan.
“I travel a lot now with the company. I go to a lot of trade shows and markets all over the country,” she said. “I am looking forward to spending the holidays at home.”
But Lee said that even in her downtime, she’s sure to be thinking, at least a little bit, about her company and her customers.
“It’s just the way I do things. I like to stay busy, to be productive. I’m not good at being idle,” she said, laughing.
Lee said she was recently reminded why she loves her job so much while selling her products at a holiday market in Gardendale.
“A woman comes running across the room, screaming my name. She said she didn’t see me at the Junior League’s holiday market this year and that she had to have her pepper jelly for her holiday parties,” Lee said. “She said she was so thankful she found me, and that made me feel really good.”
To help make your holiday gatherings deliciously festive, Lee shared this recipe using her pepper jelly:
Pepper Jelly Cheesecake
1 block of cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 jar of jelly, divided in half
1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
6 slices of cooked and crumbled bacon, optional
Mix cheeses, egg, garlic and one half of the jar of jelly. Place in greased 8×8 dish or small springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes. Watch for brown edges and remove when firm. Spread remaining jelly over the top of the cheesecake and sprinkle with crumbled bacon. Serve with crackers.
For more recipes and more information, visit www.fromjenniferskitchen.com.