Sheryl McKeown Harper never really had a plan to make jam. In fact, her career was in a completely different field. What began as a curiosity has turned into a full-fledged business.
Nowadays, the Wilseyville resident is known for her various fruit spreads, which she markets through the brand name of Harper’s Harvest. The sought-after spreads are gaining popularity not only in Calaveras County, but throughout Northern California.
The company was started in 2013, shortly after McKeown Harper moved to Wilseyville from the Elk Grove area. One look at her large kitchen, and she knew she had to do something with it.
“I always wanted to learn how to make jam, and I finally decided to try,” McKeown Harper said. “I started make it to make gifts for bookkeeping clients and family because I was broke.”
She gave the jams away as gifts, and was told by the recipients how awesome they were. McKeown Harper was a little skeptical at first.
“But people who love you will smile as you hand them a macaroni ashtray,” she said with a laugh. “So I entered them in the California State Fair, and I immediately won blue ribbons.”
McKeown Harper knew she had something. From there, she had a logo created with a brand already in mind. She said that the branding is working, as customers recognize the “HH” products, which include chutneys and fruit spreads. Although most would consider the spreads jams, McKeown Harper said the Food and Drug Administration requires the product be called a “fruit spread” if it contains less than 55% sugar.
“The company was started here, in my home – in this huge kitchen. I started under a cottage food permit,” McKeown Harper said. “About three years in I sent the Environmental Health Department a new recipe, and they said you have to list sugar as the first ingredient. I said, ‘No, sugar isn’t the largest ingredient in my product, fruit is.’”
She wasn’t willing to compromise the way she made her product – with locally grown produce and minimal sugar – in order to keep producing it under her cottage food license. Now Harper’s Harvest is created in a commercial facility, allowing its owner to stay true to her quality standards. A commercial packer was also considered for the packaging of the product, but again, the end result didn’t meet McKeown Harper’s requirements.
“It started out as love in a jar, and I’m not willing to compromise that quality,” McKeown Harper said.
McKeown Harper’s production each month depends upon which produce is in harvest. One month she could be ramping up pear-based spreads or apricots, the most and second-most popular fruit spreads, respectively.
The products are sold through wineries, select farmers markets and used in a bevy of restaurant recipes throughout the region. And if one thinks these jams are strictly for toast, think again.
“People are crazy for it. It’s great with white wine. It pairs with chicken, salmon, pancakes, waffles, pork chops, ice cream, shrimp,” McKeown Harper said. “The foodies got ahold of my product and really taught me what I have here.”
At first the company, owned by McKeown Harper and her husband Wiley Harper, offered several different flavors. McKeown Harper admitted that patrons were a little overwhelmed with the amount of choice, so they scaled back the number of flavors available.
Fans of the jams can purchase the product in any number of wineries throughout the region, at Cheese Central in Lodi or through the website at harpersharvest.net. The spreads come in flavors such as Apple Mandarin, Black & Straw, Pine-Gerine (pineapple and tangerine), Strawberry Mojito, Strawberry Citrus Basil, Vanilla Pear, Caramel Spice Pear and a lot more.
The recipes are all McKeown Harper’s concoctions, even though she doesn’t come from a cooking background.
“This is completely new, and I have no idea where it came from,” she said. “No one taught me how to make jam. I’m self-taught. … It’s jam magic.”