The Femme Stories is a blog series celebrating the makers who inspire and empower their community, and continue to gift us with their creativity, these are their stories.

Sara | Top Shelf Preserves

Like so many people interviewed for the blog, I met Sara from Top Shelf Preserves at a show. I instantly fell in love with her product, everything she makes is infused with nostalgia for me, growing up watching and eating what my grandma pickled and preserved, but she always adds a twist to make her products special. My personal favourite is the Jalapeno Garlic Jelly, it literally is heaven in a jar. Talking with her was a thrill and in our current times it was completely needed for both us to feel connect to another maker.
sara owner and maker of top shelf preserves,  
How did you get started, are you professionally trained or did you teach yourself?

I did go to culinary school after I graduated, I started by doing a co-op at a restaurant in high school and then went on to the Culinary Program at Algonquin. I also worked in the industry for 10 years before starting my company in 2013. I started out doing recipe development and selling at farmers markets, then made the jump to my own space and selling wholesale in 2014.

Do you have any culinary heroes who you have modelled yourself after?

I really like Jacques Pepin, he is a French chef who came to America. He did some batch cooking which I thought was interesting. For me, I’m not sure I would consider myself a chef, my brand is adjacent to the restaurant industry. I try and keep my products simple, because people can always add to what I make. I also try to focus on technique, my skills have increased each year, and when you are doing the same thing over and over again, you notice things; like how you can improve and be more efficient. It creates a natural learning environment, which is conducive to having a good work place, it keeps people engaged in work that would otherwise be tedious.

One of the problems is when we have to produce a lot at one time. The products we are working with are so seasonal, we have times where we are working a lot just to use the products that are available now, that can get little demoralizing. It can be hard to stay focused when we are always doing the same things, so it is a fine balance of repetition for efficiency and having different tasks on the go so we aren’t getting “bean brain.” That’s what we call our tasks that are mindless.

On Instagram you have talked about your grandparents making sauerkraut and pickled beets, reading your caption I could feel how special that moment from your childhood is to you. Was making and preparing good food at a young age an influence on you in starting your business?

Yeah definitely, food was very meaningful to me as a kid and as I became an adult it was how we connected as a family. It is a way that people care for each other, so I have always had warm feelings about food. Although I wasn’t super satisfied working in a restaurant, I wanted to do something different. Especially right now I am lucky to have company in the food industry that is able to work the same way, as well as having a company that is established. I feel fortunate that we had a set-up, a website, packaging, all I really had to do was keep making product and people have been supportive.

I know you work with a lot of local farmers/vendors, does a lot of inspiration for recipes come from what they are producing?

I usually have a plan for each year, of course this year has been so different, more fly by the seat of our pants. We definitely didn’t hit the levels that I usually would want, I know a lot of people are disappointed we are sold out of certain things. I could never have predicted the shortages that we incurred this year, but all told I feel really good about what we were able to pull off.

We don’t set up contracts with farmers, we usually just see what we can get, the downside to that, is this year there were labour shortages which caused prices to be higher for berries and farmers were selling smaller quantities at larger prices to the public at markets, which is great for them, but it meant they didn’t want to wholesale as much. Overall it was harder and more expensive to acquire produce this year.

Do you grow and harvest any of your own fruits and veggies?

 No, I don’t think I would do that. It is really hard to make a living growing food, I honestly don’t how they do it. You can put so much time and money into a crop and then there is a frost and you lose everything. I am a pretty risk adverse person so I don’t think that’s the job for me.

 It would be amazing to have an Upper Canada Village situation one day, where a farmer and I partner up, they grow stuff and I can preserve, we can get all old-timey with it, not sure how business savvy that is, but would be very aesthetically pleasing. 

During the height of lock down, it seemed like you pivoted to have a lot of local pick up options, how has that been going?

We are out in the east end, so not super accessible if you don’t have a car, we do offer local pick up, but in the past it was always more seasonal, like around the holidays we would get a lot of pick orders coming in. When this all started I started giving the option for being to pick up in centre town and it seemed really informal at first because it wasn’t our actual kitchen they were picking up at, but everyone was so happy that they were able to pick up more centrally. It surprised me how many sales we got because of that, so it was lovely to give people a way to support without the added cost of shipping.

 2020 has been like no other year for businesses, what have you learned or been thankful for.

I feel really fortunate to do business in Ottawa, a lot of people transitioned to working at home, which meant money was still flowing and they were able to still support local, which was huge for everyone. I also am lucky to be established in this small business community, I was able to ask questions to these incredible makers and we all just helped each other get through it.

I work in a shared kitchen space, and once we realized we could go back to work, those were some of the only people I had contact with, so I feel we have deepened our connection even more and that has been great to have that bond, that outlet with people. It has been a quiet, stay at home kind of year, so I appreciate that human contact even more.

A lot of people picked up things they had always wanted to do like: art, knitting and gardening. I saw you did a virtual pickling course through Algonquin: how did that go? Is it something you would do more of in the future? 

It was really cool, I hate being filmed, but I really want to try it and give it a go. It has been a goal of mine to teach in person classes and we did do one last year and then our second one got cut off because of social distancing.

 The online aspect was cool, and I have definitely been turning it over in my mind how to integrate it more. I do feel like I can’t add more to my workload right now, but I am trying to figure out a way to make it work for me and my brand. I am thinking of doing smaller clips, preserving tips to help people who are doing this at home. 

Last question I ask everything one this, what are you currently reading?

I am currently listening to David Chang’s Eat a Peach audiobook and on my book shelf I have Burn the Place by Iliana Regan that I am excited to get into.

 Top Shelf Preserves creates delicious jellies, jams and pickles, each one is steeped with traditional techniques, while Sara adds her own twist to each recipe. These make great items to give as gifts, or treat yourself. Each of her items are great to use for your holiday charcuterie boards!


Written by Carissa McCaig

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