Small favor turns into big business for homemade jelly maker
South Dakota resident Char Barrie initially started Char's Kitchen by making gifts for her daughter to give to grandparents.
TURTON, South Dakota — In a small, white house with blue trim, pots are simmering with a mixture of sugar and fruit, soon to be turned into homemade jelly sold under the brand "Char's Kitchen."
Thanks to a wide-reaching tri-state sales territory, chances are your local grocery or specialty goods store carries these delectable treats, which are neatly packaged with carefully cut fabric circles affixed with a simple bow. And chances are, Char herself cut that fabric and glued the bow on before packing it in a box to be shipped to a community near you .
Char Barrie is the queen of the jelly house, as it's affectionately called. She's 72 but is as driven as any 30-something entrepreneur. For more than 20 years, Char has been making jams, jellies, pickles, syrups, and more. She and her husband Rolland still work most of the vendor fairs where she sells her products; in fact, she's bringing her goods to Fargo for the Island Park Show Aug. 27-28 .
At home, she's a local celebrity who has landed on Sanford's Who's Who Registry for Executives, Professionals and Entrepreneurs twice and has been a member of the National Association of Professional Women since 2009. Earlier this year, she was featured in the Marquis Who's Who list , which has been published annually since 1899.
She'd like to slow down or even eventually sell the business, but demand is so great that she stays busy year round.
"Sometimes I get to take the rest of December off after I've sent out Christmas orders," Barrie shared as she prepared to make a batch of raspberry jalapeno jelly. "And maybe January."
A journey begins
More than 20 years ago, Barrie's daughter gave her some baby food jars and asked if she would make some homemade jelly to be given as gifts. Barrie did, and discovered people wanted more. She sold some at an all-school reunion, then offered more goods at a VFW craft fair in Doland, South Dakota, in 1996, according to a 1999 Aberdeen American News article.
"From there, I just started spreading my wings," she laughed.
Indeed. Barrie and her husband realized running a jelly business from her home kitchen wasn't feasible, so in 1999 they bought a small house, moved it onto their farm, repainted it to match and dubbed it the "jelly house."
"I thought this was just huge, it was just heaven," Barrie said, standing in the kitchen where eight burners were heating pots of sugar, which Barrie keeps in pre-measured, 2-cup containers on shelves lining the back of the kitchen.
Shortly after moving the jelly house in, they added on a storage room at the back to house all the other ingredients and jars. In 2003, they built a separate storage facility where Barrie also keeps the packaging items and surplus product.
The numbers associated with her business are staggering: Each season, Barrie goes through approximately 10,000 mason jars in varying sizes. She goes through 1,000 pounds of apples and at one point, she harvested from 50 rhubarb hills. Three huge deep freezers in the adjacent garage keep pounds and pounds of fruit frozen until Barrie makes it in to jelly or jam. (The difference, by the way, is that jelly is made with just the juice while jam is made with the whole fruit.)
But Barrie's repertoire of homemade goodies extends beyond jams and jellies ; she makes watermelon pickles using a century-old family recipe, syrups, apple and pumpkin butter, salsa, pickled beets, asparagus and beans, dill pickles, and more.
Even with the wide range of flavors she offers in jams and jellies, chokecherry and strawberry rhubarb are the most popular flavors. She's open to adding new products, such as pancake mixes when a patron thought she needed those to accompany her syrups. Barrie even makes 600 jars of special corn cob jelly to sell exclusively at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Growing the business, looking to the future
As Barrie's business grew, she continued to manage all aspects of it. She has hired local high school students or local women over the years to help with the many tasks and incredible process of making so many products, but there are no facets Barrie's hands haven't touched.
She creates the brochures and labels, manages her website , cuts the fabric circles that she also wraps on the top of her jars, and she affixes the bows that decorate each one (although she has taken a shortcut now by buying the bows rather than making them).
Now that Barrie is 26 years into her business, she's wondering what the future holds. At 72, Barrie laughs that she's "no spring chicken", so she's hopeful to find a successor or buyer for Char's Kitchen. Until that day comes, Barrie can be found in the jelly house, cooking up her latest delicious good.
And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"You know what's still my favorite part?" Barrie said as she dropped cups of diced peppers into a pot to become raspberry jalapeno jam. "This right here."