A woman-owned food processor really grows.
In 2003, I walked into Jeri Woodhouse’s Orient home to write a story. New to the area and just beginning to write about the East End, I had started a weekly column focusing on food and wine in a now nearly defunct paper. Someone had told me that Jeri had a “real cottage” business going making jams and jellies and oils and vinegar. Perfect.
But not nearly as perfect as Jeri’s home and the commercial kitchen she had set up there. The rooms were light and airy, and you could see the expanse of the bay across the street. There was a garden out back. Her goods, under the name of “A Taste of the North Fork,” made using only local ingredients, were on the shelves of a few local stores, and a storefront of her own was in the works.
Cut to 2010 and the huge (relatively speaking) space she now occupies on Cox Lane in Cutchogue. Industrial shelving filled with boxes, empty and full jars, labels, lids and cans nearly reaches the ceiling. In the back, in the full, fully commercial kitchen, someone, three shifts per day, is cutting up produce or boiling fruit. An order board is on the wall. She has a full-time chef. Her goods now are on the shelves in New York City and the tristate area; she makes lines for restaurants and farm stands, and a light airy retail space on Peconic Lane in Peconic is open for business next to a tasting room.The business has clearly moved beyond the cottage.
The spring day I visit is asparagus day. They are taking in 90 pounds at a time to make pickled asparagus spears, asparagus pesto and asparagus leek soup. Along with the asparagus, spinach is being made into pesto. In the meantime, orders are coming in for gift baskets, and farmers are scheduling time to use the kitchen to make their own products: Jeri Woodhouse is busy.
But to watch her, it’s hard to tell. She maintains the same cool she displays in Southold Town politics where she has run for office and served on the planning board. Yes, there are Internet orders. Yes, she’s going through the ordeal of being certified organic and, yes, there are piles of paperwork for New York State Agriculture and Markets, which licenses her operation, but Jeri is the picture of a woman in charge.
But not hard charging. As Jeri shows me around the kitchen, she and her chef, Ruth Schultz, finish each other’s sentences; Jeri often demurs to let Ruth answer the question and then lists the things Ruth does for her: production manager, new product development, purchasing and cooking. Ruth may be the only chef on the East End who does not have to work weekends or until midnight, which makes her one of the happy women in the business run entirely by women. (Except for Jeri’s husband, John, who serves as a jack-of-all-trades and driver.)
To keep things fresh, or because of the desire to keep things fresh, the kitchen at a Taste of the North Fork doesn’t have a walkin refrigerator. The idea is to turn things around in a day. Straight from the farm and into a jar.
Last fall, the women produced one of their most successful products, pickled pumpkins. After a mention in the New York Times food section as a substitute for cranberry sauce, orders poured in. John was quickly sent out to Krupski’s farm in Southold, Terry Farm in Orient and Harbes Farm in Mattituck. By the end of the day, he came home with 1,000 pounds of cheese pumpkins. The dicing started. The pumpkins cubes were soaked in vinegar and spices and then jarred. In short order they sold out.
And now the pumpkin addicted—and Schultz can attest they exist—will have to wait until fall for their next fix. “Part of me likes the tedious work of cutting pumpkin,” she says.
“But like now, just when you’ve had it with asparagus,” adds Jeri, “something else comes along.”
Schultz will get to enjoy plenty of pumpkin-cutting soon enough. The advance orders for pumpkin pickles have already come in. The women expect to make at least 3,000 jars come fall.
This contrasts with the work they do with local farmers or restaurants.Sometimes someone just wants one case of something. For a fund-raiser in New Suffolk, a Taste of the North Fork created six different oyster sauces. The attendees then chose their favorites.
Jeri has been making salad dressings, pestos and dips for Sang Lee Farms in Cutchogue for eight years. Town Line BBQ and La Fondita restaurants in Sagaponack and Amagansett have sauce bottled at the Cox Lane kitchen. Bedell Cellars and Peconic Bay Winery have their wine turned into jelly, and new clients are coming in by word of mouth. A recent order was to manufacture 5,000 jars of a ham glaze using the recipe supplied by the customer. Jeri sees this as a component of branding the whole East End as a specialty food region.
Next on the list is certifying the kitchen as organic. This requires reserving a separate space in the facility for organic ingredients, which are tagged and followed throughout their processing. Jeri likens it to keeping a kosher kitchen with extensive records.
Customers are waiting for the certification to turn their produce into varied organic products, like baby food.
“That’s what’s new for us this year,” says Schultz.
“It’s a whole new market for us,” says Jeri.
In back, at the stove, employee Lat Ammapha is cooking jalepeños; the aroma burns the eyes and gets stuck in my throat.
Salsa is in the works.
Eileen M. Duffy holds a diploma in wine and spirit from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.